"Gods of Egypt": A Deeply Problematic Film About the Ancient World

Whitewashing, Racism, and Discrimination Run Rampant in New Mythological Film

"Gods of Egypt" star Gerard Butler at the film's premiere
"Gods of Egypt" star Gerard Butler at the film's premiere. Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

As soon as the trailer for the film Gods of Egypt dropped last fall, the Internet was abuzz with controversy. Centered on a very loose interpretation of Egyptian mythology, the majority of the primary cast members are white. Amidst a spate of justifiably scathing reviews and backlash, Lionsgate, and director Alex Proyas have since admitted fault and apologized, but that doesn't change the fact that Gods of Egypt is yet another example of whitewashing characters of color, as well as cultural erasure.

For example, Scottish actor Gerard Butler portrays Set, brother-destroyer of Osiris and lord of deserts and destruction, while Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known as blond-haired, blue-eyed, incestuous knight Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones, plays Horus, the falcon god closely tied to the image of the pharaoh. Geoffrey Rush (also a white man) plays Ra, perhaps the most important god of the entire pantheon.

Many actors of color have been relegated to minor or uncredited roles. Not one of the primary cast members is of Middle Eastern or, more specifically, Egyptian descent. African-American actor Chadwick Boseman plays the secondary character of Thoth. French-Cambodian actress Élodie Yung, a.k.a. Hathor is relegated to a beta position on the movie poster. Courtney Eaton— an actress of Chinese, Pacific Islander, and Maori descent—was cast as a slave.

Dr. Zahi Hawass, former secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, wasn’t surprised by this latest use of “artistic license” with regards to Egyptian myth. “I have to tell you, drama is drama,” he said. “I always ask people who make drama about pharaonic Egypt, just to write in the top of the movie that ‘this movie is created by the writer. It has nothing to do with the history of ancient Egypt.’” With the help of archaeologists, historians, media experts, and more, through a series interviews conducted by e-mail and phone, About.com takes a deeper look at the twin Hollywood traditions of whitewashing and racism through the lens of films about antiquity.

The Two Lands: Awesome in Antiquity

To start with, Lionsgate ignored the rich lore of Egypt and its many talented actors, as well as the wealth of literature by and about modern Egyptians. There's no shortage of topics: Dr. Hawass’s life story alone would make a compelling biopic. Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz wrote Khufu’s Wisdom, a fantastically introspective look into the mind of one of the great early pharaohs. He also penned Thebes at War, based on the true story of Egyptians ousting the Hyksos invaders to kick off the New Kingdom. Wouldn't that make a great epic film?

Moreover, there are so many historical episodes from Egypt’s own past worth bringing to the big screen. Why not a biopic of Hatshepsut, one of the most powerful and intriguing women in antiquity—who became one of the greatest pharaohs of the epic Eighteenth Dynasty—starring an Egyptian actress? 

This writer would love to see a thriller retelling the story of the Harem Conspiracy, in which a wife and son of Ramesses III—one of the last great kings of Egypt—plotted against him and may have engineered his death. Ancient Egypt is rich with history and myth, many episodes of which would make wonderful films.

Egypt Suffered From This Problem for a While

There's a long history of Europeans portraying Egyptians as the "Other." Michael Le, media liaison for Racebending.com, an online community advocating for underrepresented groups in the media, observed, "Europeans claiming the wonders of other civilizations for themselves is a long and problematic tradition." As post-colonial theorist Edward Said so aptly expressed in his monumental work, Orientalism, Europeans have often sought to claim the wonders of ancient Egypt and other non-Caucasian civilizations as their own, depriving those peoples of their own history in the process.

Stephane Dunn, associate professor of English and Director of the Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program (CTEMS) at Morehouse College, observed, “Exoticism and Egypt has long been an established construct in cinema. In the Western consciousness and in particular in Hollywood cinema, Egypt has been represented as this sexualized, mysterious site of exotic difference and pathology and of course long before the advent of cinema, European explorers and writers, historians, etc., characterized ancient Egypt along these lines, and not a lot has changed with that.”

Arthur Pomeroy, a classicist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, concurred, saying, "Egyptians tend to be portrayed as different or exotic since their culture is not directly reflected in modern Western societies. Greece (especially Athenian democracy) and Rome (with its classical architecture and large-scale government) are more familiar. Even the anthropomorphic gods of Greece and Rome are much less strange than the Egyptian gods with their part-animal depictions."

“Then in the nineteenth century,” Professor Pomeroy added, “Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt started a craze for collecting Egyptian material (much now in the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Egyptian Museum in Turin). The monuments and art are striking, the hieroglyphs mysterious (to those whose cannot read them), and the funerary practices so different as to inspire Western fantasy (e.g., The Mummy).” 

Egyptologist Chris Naunton agreed, stating Europeans created an image of Egypt as "exotic" and "foreign." “Ancient Egypt was very much considered to be ‘exotic,’ i.e. ‘different’ or ‘foreign’…by, e.g., the people responsible for compiling the collections in the British Museum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for whom the classical civilizations seemed much more familiar…” he said.

This attitude carried over into major films. Professor Dunn added, “I think contemporary cinema magnifies Western culture's fantasizing about antiquity, about primitivism, about ancient and modern Africa and the Middle East, as well as Asia - all sites that have been imagined in very unique, distorted, hyper-idiot[ic] ways persistently over time.”

A Troublesome Tradition

Given this history of cultural misrepresentation and appropriation, why have movie studios exacerbated a long-standing problem? Le added, "Studios are massive institutions with a long history of institutional racism." Journalist Michael Arceneaux noted that movie execs often choose to take the prejudiced way out, saying, "More often than not, studio executives and casting directors argue that casting non-white leads – even in films about non-white historical characters – are not commercially viable, particularly globally. It’s a damn lie that speaks more towards their own bias and overall laziness with respect to marketing non-white actors, but that’s the argument they cling to for dear life."

Monica White Ndounou, associate professor at the Tufts University Department of Drama and Dance, noted, "Ridley Scott’s excuse for [casting white actors in the Biblical film] Exodus is the standard excuse: money ... Scott claimed he could not raise the money he needed for the film if he used an actor from the region or a descendant from the region. The film could have been a real opportunity to attract an international audience by doing the film as a co-production with Egypt, for example, which also has a thriving film industry and stars. The casting of Gods of Egypt is another missed opportunity to include people of Middle Eastern descent to more accurately reflect the cultures represented in the film."

As a result, Le added, "Hollywood controls who gets seen as 'American' and who is allowed to be prominent in heroic and romantic roles versus villainous ones. This has a dramatic impact on Americans and American pop culture. Studies have demonstrated that watching television lowers self-esteem in all children, except white males."

Noha Mellor, deputy director of the Research Institute for Media, Arts and Performance at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom and a professor who focuses on Pan-Arab media, recalled that Hollywood has long whitewashed people of color, especially individuals of Middle Eastern descent. She cited Jack Shaheen's Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People as an apt study on the topic, noting that its associated documentary showed "how Hollywood distorts the image of Arab men, depicting them as evil bandits and women as belly dancers." Professor Ndounou concurred with regard to modern depictions of Africa: "Most often representations of Africa in mainstream films are shown as 'exotic' or barbaric on screen in Hollywood films. Ironically, Egypt is often divorced from Africa in the ways it is represented, particularly when the casting only shows darker people in subservient roles." 

A Profit Problem?

Professor Mellor suggested that the decision to cast Caucasian actors in Gods of Egypt may have been a financial one, recalling the example of Exodus.  She said, "Well, Hollywood is an industry and film financiers seek to make profit, and it is a question of supply and demand like any other industry." But she also stated that "there are not particularly many actors of Middle Eastern background like Omar Sharif, and so producers and directors will have to invest in new talents from the region, which may also be time-consuming, and it is still a very risky affair to introduce new names in big-investment films like Exodus."

But the studio's responsibilities aren't just to historicity, but to promote new ideas and, with them, diversity. Michael Arceneaux observed, "Hollywood is cyclical, but especially the film industry, which is now more than ever unwilling to take on new ideas. These sorts of stories have been proven successes, so it’s more just churning out product they know they can quickly profit from." 

Studios are attempting to recast history and write people of color out of their own narratives. Professor Ndounou explained that "it's more than cultural appropriation. It’s erasure. It erases the fact that people of color have populated and sustained major civilizations outside of white or Western influence. It misleads people into thinking such civilizations are not possible outside of the influence of white people."

Arceneaux stated, “Casting execs do not care about maintaining accuracy when it comes to stories involving racial minorities. They center [around] white people, and that’s just how it is and has long been.” Le agreed. “Casting executives, in general, are not concerned with the original media. They want to cast someone who they believe will sell tickets, and it's the prejudiced assumptions underlying those decisions (that non-white or female leads cannot carry a movie) that are problematic.”

Professor Dunn concurred, stating that “stories and faces and bodies in heroic tales and other narratives are viewed as more palatable and relatable if they are white-centric, even when it renders the representation and story inauthentic.” She added, “This then speaks to the tired lie that it's just business, about what they perceive will sell, but their perceptions are embedded in white privilege—not any real truth that these movies can't make money if they are cast in ways that make historical sense.”

Arceneaux cited his own education as a valuable counterpoint to Hollywood's revisionist history. "I’m grateful to have known through schooling, that many of the ancient civilizations that were non-white were just as advanced, if not more than the Romans or Greeks," he said. "It is not lost on me, though, that when these civilizations are depicted through a Western lens, they have [a] white face. The agenda is clear: to promote the erasure of people of color and to continue to center whiteness as both the default of society and the superior group." Indeed, educators have a prime role to play in rectifying historical misrepresentations they may have consumed in the popular media.

Ancient Egypt: An Ancient Melting Pot!

Whether now or four thousand years ago, Egypt has always been a society with a very diverse population. As a result, Professor Ndounou observed, "such casting fails to acknowledge the range of hues of the population in the region or the fact that there were Black pharaohs. The problem is more modern than ancient in regards to race. Race was invented much later to justify slavery and the European slave trade in the Trans-Atlantic." 

Dr. Naunton agreed that “the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians is undoubtedly a more complex question than some would believe.” The Egyptians depicted themselves as having red skin, but during the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, “numerous individuals with dark brown skin, from the area to the south of Egypt (modern day Sudan), occupied positions of authority from Pharaoh downwards.”

Though these individuals hailed from Nubia, their pharaohs represented themselves as culturally Egyptian, “worshipped Egyptian gods, were buried in Egyptian style with their names, titles, and other inscriptions all written in hieroglyph[s].” Adding to the country’s ethnic complexity, numerous peoples invaded Egypt during the Late Period and onwards. But one thing’s for certain: the people who resided in Egypt weren’t white.

Some quotes have been edited for clarity and grammar. Special thanks to second readers Diana Pho, Nena Boling-Smith, Lily Philpott, and Liz Young.