Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Does “Gods and Kings” illustrate ethnocentrism within the American film industry?

The film Gods and Kings has effectively marginalized people of color out of the Exodus story. It is a shining example of a film that, due to Cultural imperialism alters the perception of the Biblical narratives. Best put by American media critic Herbert Schiller, Cultural imperialism “describes the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system. The public media is the foremost example of operating enterprise that is used in the penetrative process. For penetration on a significant scale, the media themselves must be captured by the dominating/penetrating power. This occurs largely through the commercialization of broadcasting.” Simply put: Hollywood has damaged worldwide perceptions of the Exodus story, to include only one racial group to represent Jews and most Egyptians, “Whites.”

The past few months have been rife with turbulent racial relations. The death of Michael Brown, and even earlier with Treyvon Martin, ensuing protest have brought to mainstream attention the endemic societal problems of racial discrimination.

In the backdrop of escalating protests, the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Brown, and the race riots in Ferguson, public attention has seemingly turned against a system of institutional and societal discrimination and inequality. Meanwhile, cultural imperialism has continued to wage a war on minority America. Diversity may be finding its way into public forum and debate due to the unfortunate deaths of Darren Wilson and Treyvon Martin; the protests have won national attention; however diversity is still noticeably absent in broadcast media.

The fight for civil rights in America didn’t die with major battles won against institutional discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the earlier battles of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, or the Sit-Ins of the 1958–1960, or even the March on Washington in 1963. The battle still wages in America for equal rights, as evident in the persistent social and judicial discrimination.

The next greatest battle to be won for civil rights may be against cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism has perpetuated some racial inequalities that have persisted in the American film industry, despite the civil rights developments of the past 60 years.

In critically acclaimed performances minorities have been discriminated against within the film institutions. As late as the 1990’s, Black women and men were being ignored for Oscar performances. Denzel Washinton was “Nominated in 1992 for his towering performance in Malcolm X, he should have brought home the gold.”

It is  aside for being African American, and because of the racy theme of the film. He finally received his Oscar via another performance only in 2001, with his performance in Training Day. Only in 2002, with Halle Berry becoming the first black woman to win an Oscar for Best Leading Actress for her performance in Monster’s Ball, did an African American women achieve the recognition of the Academy of Motion Pictures.

There has long been documented throughout the history of film a legacy of marginalizing minorities. “Across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8 percent of speaking characters are Black, 4.2 percent are Hispanic, 5 percent are Asian, and 3.6 percent are from other (or mixed race) ethnicities.”

Most recently the movie Noah did this also. Noah marginalized Blacks, Asians, Middle Easterns, etc, to the point of non-existence in the director’s rendition of biblical times. 

A disturbing trend has emerged in television and movies; actors are frequently “whitewashed.” “White, Straight Anglo-Saxons are frequently casted rolls of Jews, Africans, Asians, Gays, even “little people.” Recently “little people” fell into an uproar when they had found out other actors were being casted in roles for little people in the movie Snow White and the Huntsmen. Special effect artists rendered the bodies of the actors smaller to play the roles of “little people.”

The Chappelle Show put it best in the airing of “Mooney on Movies.” “First, they have The Mexican with Brad Pitt, now they have The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. Well, I’ve written a film, maybe they’ll produce my film, The Last Black Man on Earth, starring Tom Hanks. How about that?”

Which brings me to the movie, Gods and Kings. Racial disparity prevail in the entire spectacle. The cast, all the leading roles, are “white.”   “It would never have gotten off the ground financially [if they had casted actors] called Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” Ridley Scott remarked.

Today, American cinema is dominated by “whites” and it continues to marginalize minority groups. Cultural imperialism has lead to misperceptions of both historical and biblical accounts. We must open a forum on marginalization of minorities in American cinema. As public attention has seemingly turned against a system of institutional and societal discrimination, as well as inequality, American cinema must embrace change also. It is time that the film, television, photography, and fashion industry begin a dramatic change ensuring diversity in industries, that continues to marginalize minorities. Freeing a group of people from bondage, a system of inequality and injustice, and “Let my people go” should have been an active theme in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is an imminent rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel.
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