The Motley News

There Were No Black People in the Bible*


*The above title seems to be a prevailing theme in Biblical themed entertainment in Hollywood, but I refuse to buy it. 

Director, Darren Aronofsky, brought us an epic recreation of Noah and his ark, earlier this spring. It starred some huge names like Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins and Jennifer Connelly. Even Nick Nolte made an appearance! Check out the casting list and you’ll see plenty more white actors from England or Australia. In fact, there were only white actors in this re-imagining. When this was brought to the attention of the co-screenwriter, Ari Handel, he explained:

“From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Bennetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise.”

So that’s one way to deal with the sudden disappearance of all people of color; create a false dilemma that can only be remedied by mythology. . .  This sounded lazy back then and it sounds lazy now. This explanation is only helpful because it illustrates how little filmmakers want to think about race. We should know this before purchasing movie tickets. But if only serious directors are focused on conveying the mythology of a story, how do you explain this??

That’s right, Idiris Elba was in Thor! Norse mythology might be the whitest mythology in the world, but it didn’t stop director, Kenneth Branagh, from thinking outside of the box. That didn’t mean people didn’t flip out, though. Some people were very bothered that a black man would upset the authenticity of the Norse story, but no one said much about the Japanese actor, Tadanobu Asano, cast as Hogun.

I don’t think filmmakers are going out of their way to be racist. But if you’re a filmmaker in 2014, who still thinks: “I’m being totally color-blind by not even broaching the issue,” then you’re still creating films on a Default Setting. This is the same setting that dictates only British actors should play ancient Greeks and Romans. It seems assumed and it feels normal that the classically trained Richard Burton took on the role of Mark Antony. Why, he was a well-spoken White Welsh Man!

Unfortunately, some directors and writers chose to create historical dramas based on the unmarked subject (white male), in order to do a quick side-step around race in entertainment. They must avoid the subject of race because to do otherwise, would detract from the story. In this country, we’re still convinced that if you put black people in a mainstream films, people won’t pay attention to the story. The movie must suddenly become a teachable moment to mend racial divides. But believe me, there were no teachable moments in Thor. No one can say they learned anything by watching Thor.

In the case of “historically accurate” films based on The Bible or other ancient civilizations, it’s just plain lazy writing if directors still choose to go this route:

The latest outcry concerning the absence of race in The Bible, involves director, Ridley Scott. Exodus: Gods and Kings, will be an epic retelling of Moses freeing his people from the oppression of The Pharoah. It promises to be as visually spectacular as other Scott films like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven.

But people have already asked the obvious: “Where the black folks at?”

Oh they’re there:

Did you see them? They’re background props, but they are definitely there.

Here’s a better illustration of representation in this film:

// When I saw the trailer for this film, I was really excited. I was blown away by the visual effects and only mildly let down that Sigourney Weaver was Moses’ “mom.” But I thought, “Whatever, Weaver and Ridley Scott go way back. Maybe she’s going to play a strong female role in this movie!”

And then I made the mistake of letting myself get too excited. “Ooh! I wonder who’s going to play Zipporah?” I asked my husband.

“Who?” asked Noah.

“You know! Moses’ black wife, Zipporah! Who’s going to play her?” I replayed the trailer again, just to make sure I didn’t miss her, but I didn’t see any other women besides Sigourney Weaver. I went to the IMDB website to find out what I couldn’t see in the trailer. I scrolled and scrolled. “Sefora” would be played by a Spanish actress named Maria Valverde and I wasn’t too familiar with her work.

I should have known better than to get my hopes up. I had it played out, in my mind, that Ridley Scott would make an attempt at going the extra mile. I’m not sure if it would have been a controversial move, since I thought it was common knowledge that the wife of Moses was a darker Northeast African woman, called a “Cushite” by his siblings, Miriam and Aaron.

But historically that hasn’t been the case for Zipporah. The 1956 Ten Commandments, staring Charlton Heston, would have been a very risky time to cast an interracial biblical couple. The Zipporah for that film was a young and beautiful Yvonne De Carlo (best known as the mom from The Munsters). Since her role, all Zipporah’s have been white looking, except for the animated Zipporah in The Prince of Egypt. . . voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer.

Yvonne De Carlo

They tried! They tried their damnedest!

You know who would have been a brilliant choice for a modern-updated-2014 Zipporah? You already know what I’m going to say, don’t you? She’s currently Hollywood’s “It-Girl,” she’s universally adored and has the acting chops to pull this this role off. She could easily play a strong and resilient woman who stands against all forms of oppression. . .Lupita Nyong’o! I know she’s busy with Star Wars stuff. There’s no word on what kind of role she’ll have in the fantasy film, but I’m sure she’ll be wonderful. I just wanted to see her in a movie where she plays someone’s love interest. The racial issues surrounding their relationship could be addressed, sure, but it doesn’t have to be huge deal. She’s black, so what. It would have been nice for a filmmaker to switch the Default Setting to it’s OFF position.

If this kind of thing doesn’t really bother you, I suggest you go on and see Exodus: Gods and Kings. It looks like it’s going to be a great retelling, with plenty of special effects, battling and freeing people. If this does bother you, then it might mean that you’re affected by POC representation (or lack of it) in American cinema. If you’re a black woman, who goes to the movies and you don’t see yourself in them, it’s going to affect you. If you’re a black man, who goes to the movies and you only see yourself as “Egyptian Thief” or “Egyptian Civilian Lower Class,” that’s also going to affect you.

“Where the black folks at??” might seem like a petty complaint to many. But to those people I say: You’re probably apart of the unmarked subject, the default choice, who will always be the Roman general, the Egyptian Pharoah and the Greek philosopher. You’ll never have a difficult time not seeing yourself on screen. If you’re not careful, you could go your whole life unaware of other people who look different from you. If you try not to think it at all, you might be under the misconception that there were no black people in the Bible. And that’s just lazy.

Author: charishreid

Writer and Educator.

2 thoughts on “There Were No Black People in the Bible*

  1. Greetings all your blog!!I l appreciate your blog. These are a percentage of the challenges of attempting to figure out whether people in the Bible are what today we consider black. It is thus unreliable to make shallow inferences either for or against a black vicinity in the Scriptures. Anyhow this did not stop researchers and scholars (who most likely ought to have realized a better way) from recommending that all people in the Bible were white, and that the Bible record prohibits the Asian and “Negro” races, a conclusion that is not genuine. Good Day!!!
    Living Happy Online


  2. Thank you for reading, but I'm not entirely sure of what your point is. . .


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