Love, it has been said, means never having to say you’re sorry. The same cannot be said of show business.
As consumers of pop culture grow more discerning with every passing year, gaffes from studios that may have passed with nothing but grumbles in a pre-Twitter world are instead strung up for all to see. In an era when everyone’s got a combination camcorder-bullhorn that fits in their pocket, nobody’s allowed to fail in secret. The routine has become so commonplace in the entertainment news cycle that anyone who follows such things closely can practically recite it in their sleep: studio does something racist/sexist/homophobic/generally reprehensible, a small sector of the public causes an outcry, mainstream media picks up the story, and the original offenders dribble out a mealy-mouthed half-apology in a prepared statement. Fume, repent, repeat.
Among Hollywood’s worst habits is a phenomenon known as whitewashing, in which casting directors tap Caucasian actors to play non-white roles and pass over actors of color in perpetual need of good work. It’s an unsavory move as old as the pictures themselves; it started with blackface and minstrel shows, and though the underlying racism would become less virulent and accepted as national tastes slowly shifted, it’s never gone away. Man’s man John Wayne donned a thin mustache to portray Genghis Khan in the disastrous 1958 film The Conqueror, and Charlton Heston darkened his skin a few tones for his role as Miguel Vargas in the otherwise-perfect Touch of Evil. Even in our current age of heightened cultural sensitivity, films such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Exodus: Gods and Kings have attempted to pass off confirmed white people Jake Gyllenhaal, Christian Bale, and Joel Edgerton as Middle Eastern.
And so when the upcoming film Gods of Egypt materialized out of nowhere earlier this month, with Danish-bred Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Scottish actor Gerard Butler in the roles of Egyptian gods Horus and Set, it felt all too familiar. Frustrated consumers of pop culture took to social media channels to denounce presiding studio Lionsgate’s thoughtless casting choices, yet again ignoring the option of casting actual Middle Easterners in the roles. And it’s not as if the studio could fall back on the old standard of “Well, we had to cast somebody who could drive ticket sales,” either; it’s hard to believe that Coster-Waldau is bringing that much earning power to the table, and for Pete’s sake, actual Egyptian and wonderfully talented actor Rami Malek is right over there.
But instead of trotting out the same non-resolutions and hitting the talking points of meritocracy and casting whichever actor is “best” for the job, Lionsgate took a novel approach to the situation and owned up to their poor choices. In a pair of statements from Forbes, both Lionsgate and director Alex Proyas admitted that they acted imprudently. Said Proyas:
“The process of casting a movie has many complicated variables, but it is clear that our casting choices should have been more diverse. I sincerely apologize to those who are offended by the decisions we made.”
And Lionsgate backed him:
“We recognize that it is our responsibility to help ensure that casting decisions reflect the diversity and culture of the time periods portrayed. In this instance we failed to live up to our own standards of sensitivity and diversity, for which we sincerely apologize. Lionsgate is deeply committed to making films that reflect the diversity of our audiences. We have, can and will continue to do better.”
Even though it shouldn’t, an apology this direct and free of caviling comes as a surprise. Ridley Scott’s refusal to back down on the kerfuffle surrounding his Exodus casting choices typifies the sort of response creatives give for situations such as these, sloughing responsibility for the choice onto either the immovable machinery of Hollywood finance, or excessively sensitive opponents in need of a reality check. But Lionsgate and Proyas lie in the heavily green-screened bed they’ve made for themselves, admitting what the powers that be have repeatedly denied — that it’s a studio’s job to reflect the truth of history.
And the people have taken notice. Though some have brushed off this mea culpa as yet another load of corporate hot air, others have changed their tune in response to the comments. Most notable among them was Selma director/real-life superhero Ava DuVernay, who took to Twitter to remark on the controversy.
The vocalizing of approval for this meaningful gesture poses the question as to why studios have been so afraid to do this up until now. Los Angeles has always been painted as a town with big bank accounts and bigger egos, but surely there must be a cause beyond garden-variety vanity that makes most studios so afraid to concede any wrongdoing. So, it goes back to ticket sales; perhaps executives fear that the market share of people who’d be outraged by whitewashing enough to not buy a ticket (though, in all fairness, it’s hard to imagine anyone buying a ticket to Gods of Egypt) is not nearly as large as the populace who’d be outraged by backtracking enough to not buy a ticket. Or, more troublingly, making a resolution to do and be better moving forward means that a studio has no plausible excuse should they make these same mistakes again. An official statement promising a commitment to sensitivity and diversity should effectively remove that option for the foreseeable future.
If Lionsgate turns around later this year and brings us a heavily made-up Nicole Kidman in Nefertiti: The Musical!, then this will have all been for naught, just the latest helping of poppycock in a neverending poppycock buffet. But for the moment, it appears that Proyas and Lionsgate have effectively proved a point that could send ripples out through the industry. The sky doesn’t crash from the heavens at the slightest recognition of guilt; if anything, it helps. The apology created a fresh round of headlines for a movie that would’ve otherwise died a silent, late-winter death at the cineplex and earned the respect of a major voice at the intersection between cinema and social justice. For now, let’s be heartened by this conclusive proof that there’s no harm in being sorry, and continue to work towards a status quo where there’s nothing to be sorry for.