Gods of Egypt: Whitewashing antiquity goes beyond Hollywood

Gods of Egypt

By Kassie Bradshaw Kmitch

The first box-office bomb of 2016 was declared in the twilight days of February. Surprising no one it seems, except the Hollywood executives, Lionsgate’s Gods of Egypt performed well below expectations. According to Hollywood Reporter, Gods of Egypt earned a paltry $14.1 million its opening weekend, roughly ten percent of its reported $140 million production budget.

Professional film critics and casual bloggers alike are raking Gods of Egypt across the coals in what is being condemned as a gross “misappropriation of Egyptian culture” (Schwartz, 2016). The film holds a 12 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience approval score of under 50 percent. Gods of Egypt made international headlines when the first trailer dropped in 2015. Many took to social media to protest the film’s lack of ethnic and racial diversity for a movie set in Ancient Egypt, with prominent white actors portraying Egyptian Gods. The backlash to the trailer prompted both Lionsgate and Gods of Egypt Director Alex Proyas, to make official apologies. According to Forbes, Lionsgate released this official statement in November 2015:

”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. ​​” (Mendelson, 2015)

Not only does the film Gods of Egypt contribute to a legacy of whitewashing, it also contributes negatively to the public’s schema of Ancient Egypt. Media influences public perception, and as a scholar of ancient antiquity, I can see how Hollywood’s consistent whitewashing and continued re-imagining of an ancient North African civilization has impacted and biased academia.

Archaeology is in a technology renaissance. The last decade has given scientists new tools and methodologies to study the physical remains of ancient populations with greater accuracy, greater depth. Yet, the faces of Ancient Egypt presented to the public remain light-skinned.

Facial reconstruction of King Tut by Elisabeth Daynes © National Geographic

Facial reconstruction of King Tut by Elisabeth Daynes © National Geographic

 

Facial reconstruction of an adolescent boy named Minidris by Elisabeth Daynes © The Field Museum

Facial reconstruction of an adolescent boy named Minidris by Elisabeth Daynes © The Field Museum

Egypt is and always was a diverse place, but there is a disparity between the ancient art (sarcophagi, paintings, carvings, statues, etc.) created in Ancient Egypt depicting Ancient Egyptians and the modern interpretations and recreations presented to the public.

Shabti of Lady Humero, 1550-1320 BC © RISD Museum

Shabti of Lady Humero, 1550-1320 BC © RISD Museum

 

King Tut depicted with his wife, Ankhesenamun.

King Tut depicted with his wife, Ankhesenamun.

 

Outer Coffin of Padihershef, Late Period, 664-526 BC. On display at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum.

Outer Coffin of Padihershef, Late Period, 664-526 BC. On display at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum.

 

There is science and measurement that goes into facial reconstruction, but also artistic liberty,which can be subject to contemporary bias.

 

Artist Victoria Lywood’s facial reconstruction of an Egyptian Mummy on display at McGill University’s Redpath Museum.

Artist Victoria Lywood’s facial reconstruction of an Egyptian Mummy on display at McGill University’s Redpath Museum.

 

Bias that is shaped by the media. Especially considering many facial reconstructions are done on historic celebrity persons, this is troubling.

Facial reconstruction of Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s half-sister, by researchers at Dundee University

Facial reconstruction of Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s half-sister, by researchers at Dundee University

This is why Gods of Egypt is important to me beyond the scope of Hollywood entertainment, and why this box office bomb gives me hope. The harsh public outcry and social media protests directly predicted Gods of Egypt’s failure at the box office. If Hollywood casting grows more diverse and changes, so too can society’s perceptions of antiquity.

Addendum: Funerary art was not meant to literally represent the deceased in Ancient Egyptian culture. The imagery was stylized and often depicted idealized representations of the departed. Still, there is a large discrepancy in the features and outward appearance of ancient art and contemporary reconstructions of ancient persons, with the latter often under-representing darker skinned individuals.

Sources:

Hollywood Reporter: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/box-office-deadpool-entombs-big-870611?utm_source=twitter

Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/gods_of_egypt/

Gods of Egypt IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2404233/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

The Guardian (Article capturing some of the online outcry Nov 2015): http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/nov/13/gods-of-egypt-posters-anger-whitewashed-cast-twitter-exodus

Forbes.com (Article with Lionsgate official statement addressing the public outcry in lack of diversity in 2015): http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2015/11/27/exclusive-lionsgate-responds-to-gods-of-egypt-whitewashing-controversy/#359654031f4e

IGN.com, Schwartz official movie review of Gods of Egypt: http://www.ign.com/articles/2016/02/25/gods-of-egypt-review

The Guardian (Gods of Egypt director calls critics diseased vultures in response to scathing reviews):
http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/01/gods-of-egypt-director-alex-proyas-calls-film-critics-diseased-vultures

Alex Proyas (Director of Gods of Egypt) personal Facebook post slamming “the critics”:
https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=195699647463502&id=100010704046009

National Geographic (King Tut’s New Face): http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/05/photogalleries/tut_mummy/photo8.html

CBC Montreal (2013):
http://www.cbc.ca/allinaweekend/history/2013/01/27/egyptian-mummies-brought-to-life/

RISD Museum
http://risdmuseum.org/manual/142_abstracting_ancient_egypt

George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum
https://springfieldmuseums.org/about/smith-art-museum/

BBC News (2009) Arsinoe Cleopatra’s Sister Facial Reconstruction
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/tayside_and_central/7958819.stm

Elisabeth Daynes official website:
http://www.daynes.com/en/exhibitions-hyper-realistic-reconstructions-paleoanthropology/chicago-usa-12/mummies-images-of-the-afterlife-46.html

Kassie Bradshaw Kmitch

About the Author:

Kassie Bradshaw Kmitch is a bioarchaeologist, museum worker, and freelance artist based out of St. Paul, Minnesota.
See more posts by Kassie Bradshaw Kmitch
2016-11-29T16:59:57+00:00April 14th, 2016|Stories|Comments Off on Gods of Egypt: Whitewashing antiquity goes beyond Hollywood