Did Hollywood Let Ridley Scott Get Away With Racism?

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In 2015, all 20 acting nominees for the Academy Awards were Caucasian actors and actresses. The response to the lack of diversity of the 87th Oscars led to the creation of the trend #OscarsSoWhite which brought the subject of racism into the spotlight. The issue wasn’t limited to the acting nominees; four out of the five directors nominated for Best Director were also white (and men). Black female director Ava DuVernay’s Selma was nominated for Best Picture but the Academy decided not to nominate her for best director and none of the actors of the film got nominated for acting awards. Selma was the only film nominated for Best Picture that had no nominations in the acting or the directing category. This not only feels like an issue regarding the lack of diversity but also targeted omission. As if this wasn’t scandalous enough, the same thing happened in 2016 Oscars.

For two years in a row, the Oscars nominated white people for the acting categories and yes, once again four out of the five directors nominated for Best Director were all white and all men. The #OscarsSoWhite was revived and this time it also led to some of Hollywood’s biggest names to call for a boycott of the ceremony. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith was one of the biggest voices in expressing the lack of diversity and bringing up the boycotting. Director Spike Lee also talked about the problem and decided not to attend the ceremony. So what is the problem? Unfortunately, the lack of diversity is only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem here is the abundance amount of racism and discrimination in the industry. For years and years Hollywood has turned a blind eye to the true problem.

No one raised their voice when characters were stereotyped or whitewashed. Maybe that’s why one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, Ridley Scott, escaped from his racist and Islamaphobic remarks in 2014 unscathed. Scott made his directorial debut in 1977 with The Duellists, which won the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. He went on to direct the critically acclaimed Alien (1979), creating the legendary Alien franchise.

He continued to work in the science fiction genre with Blade Runner (1982), which was a commercial failure in it’s initial release but is now considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. Scott’s achievements continued with Thelma and Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000) and Hannibal (2001). He has been nominated for three Academy Awards for Directing, two BAFTAs and two Golden Globes. Many of his films are box office successes, with his latest film Alien: Covenant grossing more than $160 million worldwide with a budget of $97 million.

In 2014, Scott directed Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver. The film is based on the story of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt led by Moses. The film’s cast drew a lot of attention, mainly by the audience who felt that casting white actors to play Egyptians, especially ancient Egyptians, was wrong. Before the release of the film, Scott defended the cast of his film by saying: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

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According to Scott, he can be financed $130 million for Prometheus (2012), which he cast Swedish actress Noomi Rapace as the main character, but he would have trouble finding financing for a film, if he wanted to cast an Egyptian actor. If Scott had done his research, he would’ve found out that there are many successful and popular Egyptian and African actors, for example Amr Waked, Khaled Abol Naga, Edi Gathegi and Chiwetel Ejiofor, all of whom are internationally acclaimed. This also contradicts with his casting the unknown Sigourney Weaver back in 1979 for Alien. It looks like he has no problem casting white actors, regardless of their popularity for his films, but when it comes to POC, he has to stop and think twice. He also had no trouble casting black actors for very minor roles, and sometimes even slave characters.

The fact that Scott has white actors cast as lead characters but casts black actors when it comes to slaves, servants, assassins, etc. is extremely disturbing. As if this weren’t bad enough, they decided it was would be a good idea to give the white actors fake tans so as to make them look more “Egyptian”. It might also be a good idea to remind Scott that Egypt is in Africa, which he may have missed. Unfortunately, Scott’s ignorance doesn’t stop there either, summarizing a whole country to one name: Mohammad, is just unbelievable. The underlying Islamaphobia is offensive and rude.

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Scott’s main argument about financing his film is clearly preposterous. He is considered an auteur, who has inspired many other directors with several box office smashes under his name, yet he claims he can’t get a film financed if he casts ethnically correct actors for a film set in Ancient Egypt based on real people. M.Night Shyamalan was given a budget of $130 million dollars to direct a film with Will and Jaden Smith after nearly a decade of failures AND he still has a job.

That is not the only instance either. 12 Years A Slave (2013) made $187 million with a budget of $22 million, all the while having cast unknown Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o as one of the main characters, who went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The film was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, winning 3 of them. Oscar Isaac is a Guatemalan-born American actor who starred as the main character in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by the Coen Brothers. The film got nominated for 2 Academy Awards, 3 BAFTAs and 3 Golden Globe Awards. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim (2013) starred Charlie Hunnam and Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi as main characters Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori respectively. The film had a budget of $190 million and made $411 million worldwide. Captain Phillips (2013) starred Tom Hanks and Somalian actor Barkhad Abdi in the leads. It had a budget of $55 million and made $218 million internationally. The film got nominated for 9 BAFTAs and 6 Academy Awards. Abdi was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role BAFTA, which he won. He was also nominated over 30 times for his role in the film including Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The list goes on.

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Scott went on to direct 3 more films after Exodus and he currently has 2 films he will go on to direct. Although the casting and Scott’s quotes caused a stir and even a new trend, #BoycottExodus, nothing came out of either. The director hasn’t apologized or even mentioned his racist remarks since, and apart from his interview with Variety, the whitewashed casting wasn’t mentioned for more than a couple of sentences if lucky.

So why weren’t there any consequences for Scott’s racism? Because the majority of Hollywood have the same mindset as him. Instead of discussing the whitewashing, the cast went on to defend it. When asked about the whitewashing Bale said “I don’t think fingers should be pointed, but we should all look at ourselves and say, ‘Are we supporting wonderful actors in films by north African and Middle Eastern film-makers and actors, because there are some fantastic actors out there.

If people start supporting those films more and more, then financiers in the market will follow.” Bale is not only avoiding the whitewashing he expertly avoids Scott’s racist remarks too. Edgerton also had his thoughts the controversy: “It’s not my job to make those decisions…I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job.” Somehow his is worse than Bale’s. This easily proves that Hollywood caters for people like Scott, Bale and Edgerton.

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Even though Hollywood doesn’t seem bothered with the racism and discrimination in films, luckily the audience is becoming more aware and more importantly, speaking out on the issue. A recent whitewashing scandal included Ghost in the Shell film, based on the Japanese manga of the same name. The original manga is set in Japan with Japanese characters, yet they cast white actress Scarlett Johansson as the lead.

Once again whitewashing POC. During the filming, there were also reports that CGI would be used to make Johansson more “Asian”. Paramount even made an official statement that the tests were not successful and did not include Johansson. In 2017, a film studio tried to change the ethnicity of an “actor not Johansson”. This sentence is haunting and unacceptable. Luckily, the audience shared the same thoughts and the film only made $169 million with a budget of $110 million. Reviews of the movie were harsh, regarding the plot as well as the whitewashing. Many people in the film industry also found it unacceptable. Although this isn’t enough, it is a start to make Hollywood accountable for representing and casting non-white people and actors.

Author: Busra Multu

Editor: Trianna Nguyen

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.

From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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