by Dion Beary

I’m throwing a temper tantrum over this one. Christian Bale cannot play Moses. No. I know arguing against the whitewashing of a Biblical character is a lost cause, and wandering into any mainstream Christian church decked out with portraits of a blue-eyed Jesus Christ should indicate that the tide isn’t changing anytime soon, but I still find myself just a little more perturbed than average to see Batman play the savior of the Hebrews.

Maybe it’s because in recent years we’ve seen a new wave of white outrage against racebending traditionally white characters. Racebending refers to altering the canonical race of a character. Whitewashing is a type of racebending wherein non-white characters become white or are not included whatsoever. For simplicity’s sake, this piece will use the term whitewashing to refer to that absence of colored folks, while racebending will be used to refer to white characters becoming non-white. Those aren’t exact definitions, but hey, if Christian Bale can play Moses, then I can bend a couple of rules too.

The memory of nerd anger from when Marvel announced that the new Spider-Man would be the half-Black, half-Latino Miles Morales is still fresh in my mind, and when Disney viewers, an increasingly adult fandom, criticized Brave for its lack of people of color, those in the opposition rushed to remind everyone that a movie that takes place in medieval Scotland shouldn’t have people of color anyway. Of course, Spider-Man is fictional and can be whatever race he’s drawn as, and the fact that according to the British National Archive, there were most certainly black people in medieval Scotland, did nothing to calm the nerves of white audiences faced with the outlandish suggestion that gasp perhaps there could be a character who wasn’t white.

Just a few weeks ago, Marvel announced that Captain America would become the next superhero to piss off white fans and become a black person. Commenters on the website threatened to burn their Captain America shirts and ragequit the Marvel fandom. One even said that Marvel was ruining his favorite superhero. Another said that Captain America should always be white because he’s an ICON (sic). White audiences have grown increasingly critical of what they view as “politically correct” culture, in which people of color are being thrown into roles that are historically white simply to please some unspoken rule of diversity.

These commenters, wherever they may pop up on the internet, typically try to phrase their racism in an objective way. They claim that their outrage isn’t because the new character is black, but because the change alters canon, or is historically inaccurate, or is done only for financial reasons. “What if Black Panther became white?” fans often ask, suggesting that the same kind of backlash would be warranted for if the inverse example ever occurred.

And here we have Exodus: Gods and Kings, a movie starring a white guy playing Moses. Moses is a Hebrew born in Africa to an Israeli mother but raised by an Egyptian family. Christian Bale playing Moses is a change of canon. It is historically inaccurate. It is done for financial reasons, because Christian Bale is a box office draw. It certainly looks like Exodus fulfills all the checkboxes white fans find so offensive when a black character happens to wander into their line of sight. Yet, there’s so far been nothing but silence from white audiences about the upcoming Christmas blockbuster. Why isn’t anyone threatening to burn their Moses shirts and convert to Buddhism?

What white audiences don’t seem to understand is that there is a difference between whitewashing and racebending. Captain America vs. Moses serves as a clear cut microcosm of that difference, and as a fantastic movie someone should consider writing.

When traditionally white characters are racebent, it provides increased visibility for people of color to audiences who clearly are not used to seeing characters who aren’t white. If one were to give these fans the benefit of the doubt, it could be said that if non-white characters weren’t so absent in the first place, fans wouldn’t be so flabbergasted to see their favorites switch race. Racebending in this direction is part of the continued effort to change the perception black characters and black audiences have in the entertainment industry. Blackness is viewed as a niche market confined to one buddy comedy a year, one Oscar-bait film about our suffering, and whatever action movie The Rock gets paid $50 million dollars to do — and if Dwayne’s skin was a few shades darker, we wouldn’t even have that. This kind of racebending helps to break that highly racialized film standard.

The Rock as Hercules.

Whitewashing, on the contrary, serves no forward purpose whatsoever. Hollywood filmmakers who whitewash seem content to continue the tired trend of viewing the words “mainstream” and “white” as synonyms. Black audiences are expected to watch films with no black people. Asian American comic book fans are expected to read comics with no Asian Americans. Latinas are expected to watch television shows with no Latinas. But white audiences are never asked to do the same. The closest thing they get are the aforementioned Oscar-gobbling films about black people suffering, such as the admittedly brilliant 12 Years A Slave. It’s more than a little sobering to realize that the only time white audiences are asked to endure colored folk is when they get to watch us be whipped and chained for two hours.

Hollywood will completely alter characters like Moses and the Egyptians to ensure that the mass appeal (read: white appeal) of a film is not damaged, and that’s the importance of the difference between racebending and whitewashing: racebending attempts to dismantle racist assumptions about which audiences are considered mainstream, whereas whitewashing perpetuates the notion that only white viewers are real viewers.

Come December, I probably won’t go see Exodus, but I will find a bootleg of it online and watch with morbid curiosity as a white Egyptian Hebrew falls in love with a white Sub-Saharan African woman to lead the white slaves out of the hands of their captors, who according to promotional stills, look pretty dark-skinned. I won’t do this because I want to. I have no interest in seeing a film that should logically have an all-POC cast get all the good guys whitewashed while all the bad guys magically keep all their melanin.

I will watch it as one might watch a wedding between a couple that hates each other, wondering how this thing ever got put together, why no one stopped it, and waiting for somebody, anybody, to speak up about how wrong the whole thing is.


Dion6Dion Beary is a North Carolina-based pop culture essayist and blogger who has been featured as a guest on Grantland’s podcast network and whose writing has been published in outlets such as Yahoo.com, The Atlantic, and Thought Catalog. He can be found on twitter @hashtagdion.

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40 thoughts on “Everything Wrong with Christian Bale as Moses

  1. I don’t agree with any type of race-bending if its done to get column inches in the press or pretend that the makers are totally inclusive. Some-times it can be extremely offensive like how they used Chinese actors for Memoirs of a Geisha. But i don’t agree with the Moses problem. A lot of the Egyptians back there were direct descendants of greeks eg.Cleopatra had light skin. Also bible stories could be considered mythology meaning it the rules don’t really apply to it. There are films that should annoy you but i think this one is a poor choice

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    1. Many people believe the Bible stories to be true. So movies like this one would just enforce the whitewashing that’s affected world history. Since this story is supposed to take place thousands of years before Cleopatra’s time there’s a greater chance many Egyptians had a darker complexion. Even now, many of the people living in the Mediterranean islands have a tan complexion with North African features.

      All in all, this movie is just more of the same. The animated film “Prince of Egypt” was visually a better idea, but Hollywood tends to backtrack.

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      1. Lets be objective about this. Many people do not believe the Bible stories to be true. Last time I heard – Christian Bale was not a believer? – I could be wrong about this. What am I upset about? Not that Christian Bale who is white is in fact playing a Hebraic role but rather that Christian Bale who may not really be a real believer (at least in Judaism – not to say that I would not be upset at this either).
        Now I am upset with the fact that historically speaking Captain America was first portrait as a White Man (could have been the times). Now all of a sudden when everyone wants to get their piece of the pie – even the Homosexuals – it is now not politically correct to label people boy or girl, blue or purple. My upsetness would be at the fact that Marvel would want to change a Character’s color (sort of like Annie) to be politically correct. Where does it not offend even the Black people? Sort of like Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. and even the rest of history where things were given to people from the government – Rousseau was the worst of politicians.
        Booker T. Washington earned his way to the top, now we have Affirmative Action where we do not want to offend anyone do to race, orientation, and religion or even disabilities. Sure we are to be kind to people, but sometimes you can be TOO kind like the driver who waits for you to turn when you really did not need him to wait.

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    2. WOW, do you h Ave a white washed view of history! The Africans DID NOT come from the Greeks. The Greeks came FROM Africans. To this day thier skin is still darker thuser European neighbors!

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  2. This is a poor argument.

    The author’s distinction between racebending and whitewashing, to use his terminology, associates positive, forward thinking on race with racebending and regressive, negative thinking with whitewashing, as if increased visibility for people of color in Hollywood entertainment is always something to be desired by progressive consumers. I disagree wholeheartedly.

    To the author’s credit, this post makes a clear statement in favor of increased racial minority visibility in Hollywood entertainment. The problem is that the desire for that visibility is not positive, not forward, and not progressive. That desire is tribal.

    Again, using the author’s terminology, the only difference between portraying a character with a White actor versus portraying a character with an actor of color is how we as consumers should respond to those casting choices, not the choices themselves. Certainly, many people would love to see dark-skinned character actors like Taye Diggs tackle meaty dramatic action roles like Moses in big-budget tentpoles, but this post argues that casting Christian Bale to play Moses automatically undercuts whatever utility Bale’s acting prowess might provide a modern re-telling of the Exodus story. More to the point, we don’t have a discussion on what the actors actually do, we have a superficial discussion on actor appearance.

    That’s literally judgment on the color of one’s skin, not the content of one’s character.

    Now, as a consumer, the author has the right to patronize other films and ignore Exodus. But it’s not possible to argue that changing fictional and historical characters to non-European racial identities is always positive, while the reverse subtly oppresses underrepresented minorities. One can posit that casting directors and/ or comic writers should never manipulate the racial identities of publicly known properties, or one can argue that all fiction is imagination, and therefore subject to dramatic manipulation.

    But to argue that some character changes are morally permissible while others impose harm is absurd. What’s clear is that this author, like so many nerds of color, simply want to see themselves in the panel, on the screen. They want play the hero. That’s not a ethically defensible desire, no matter where it’s expressed.

    This is rank tribalism. Nothing more.

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    1. What the fuck are you talking about ? J.lamb So all white entertainment isn’t Tribalism ? (Gonna ignore that fact that Moses is complete white washes history actually looking in the regions that these story historically occur you would not have people looking like they came out of Ireland and the UK ). That the very definition of a damn tribe “All white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American entertainment ” What is some magical neutral humanity flowing from all white entertainment that I become unaware of it ?. Yeah we just had all white TV books movies for the past 300 years . from a group of people who annihilated the original Armednian people living here . Yeah somehow that not Tribalism” , but people asking for Non-White character story and mythology to featured in entertainment is “Tribalism . . So what white folks have being doing for the past 300 years .. That wasn’t tribalism that was humanity ? then you go on some some random babbling crap about the “content of the character /ethics ” guess all that character content makes me overlook the “White wash human history “LOL Jesus most illogical nonsense i’ve ever read . So people demanding more people of color in TV is Tribalism? But all white Entertainment isn’t Tribalism ? lol and demanding story that set in Egypt/North Africa in the middle east actually include actual people from these culture, and not random white actors that don’t belong in the region , If that the case we need alot more tribalism where do I sign up seem to get a lot of things done? . Seem to work very well for white christian protestant majority in the USA given all the entertainment is created and made and socially controlled by them. . Jesus I can handle ignorant red necks who openly racist, but ignorant people who dress up bullshit in political correctness and intellectualism are the worse kinds of cowards.

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      1. @brandons:

        I did not offer an opinion on general Hollywood whitewashing in my earlier comment. Of course that’s also racial tribalism. It’s so painfully obvious I did not believe I needed to openly state that case in a discussion of racebending characters to inject racial diversity in American entertainment.

        Because general Hollywood casting uses actors of European decent in everything, it’s obvious that racial tribalism does not reflect our understanding of the historical record our our nation’s current diversity. Yet arguments like the one featured above posit that actively hiring actors of color for major roles in Hollywood productions is generally positive, while hiring White actors for major Hollywood productions is generally negative, given the initial decision to change the race of the original character in both instances. That thinking is, to my mind, flawed.

        It also reeks of the same tribalism that encouraged generations of Hollywood directors and executives to allow only White people on screen. Brandons, if I’m wrong, why are you so comfortable with advocacy that uses the same logic that kept people of color off-screen for generations?

        You know Brandons, it’s helpful when you refrain from making up someone else’s argument. If you didn’t understand my perspective, just ask for clarification. No biggie.

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    2. “What’s clear is that this author, like so many nerds of color, simply want to see themselves in the panel, on the screen.” Of course they do. Doesn’t everyone?

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    3. Your argument is universal and ignores the fact that the US is not white, the world is not white and white imagery should not be the only imagery our society is fed.

      I wish I could cite an exact quote but someone once said something to the following effect: “To destroy a man you need only deny him a reflection of himself [on a societal level].”

      It is IMPORTANT that children OF ALL COLORS be allowed to dream and see themselves saving lives, saving the universe, sacrificing themselves for a greater good, being loved, accepted and being all-around heroes.

      White tribal affiliation shouldn’t be a prerequisite; that would be retrograde tribalism. To do nothing to address the problem would be to support the 2.5 century old status quo. That’s backward, man and our future depends on our sorting it out.

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  3. What are you an idiot? Dion, do some research before writing your non sense. You are just obsessed with your blackness, nothing else. Do some research; Christian Bale’s mom is Jewish. He has Jewish ancestry and any Rabbi will tell you that he has a million times more right to do the role of Moses than a goy like you. Or do you believe in any black Moses afrocentric nonsense….
    Shalom

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    1. Modern Jews are not Hebrew, my man.

      Hebrews were not white; they were thoroughly semitic (racially mixed) and spoke Aramaic (among other things). This is why Moses was able to pass as son to an African king.

      Proper definitions of Hebrew classify them as having been “Afro-Asiatic”.

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    2. Taken from IMBd: Christian Charles Philip Bale was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK on January 30, 1974, to English parents Jennifer “Jenny” (James) and David Charles Howard Bale. His mother was a circus performer and his father, who was born in South Africa

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  4. I discovered this post just a week and a half too late, or I would have been able to mention the page as a discussion point in some of the panels I sat on at LonCon3. Exodus came up during my last, ‘Representation, Whitewashing, and Internationalism in Fandom’ and will have to watch, again, not at the cinema, but just to see if all my fears are true.

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  5. So I’m sort of left wondering what the author actually wants, or what he would have wanted. What actor should play Moses? What race or ethnicity would the actor have to be in order for it to be okay to play Moses, according to the author. I’m an Israeli Jew, like Moses (in the author’s terms, at least), and I’m white. Does that mean it would be okay for me to play Moses? Can any Jewish person play Moses, even if they’re white, or does it have to be a Sephardic or Mizrahi Jew? Or an Ethiopian Jew, for that matter? Or an Arab? Could a black person, or any person of color from a race that Moses wouldn’t have historically belonged to (assuming that we’re approaching this as a matter of historical accuracy, as the the author seems to do, rather than treating it as a myth) play Moses, and would that somehow be less historically inaccurate than having a white person play Moses? Who is it okay to have play Moses?

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  6. I was actually verbally chastised as a kid, for pointing out that Moses was ‘way too white’ to be Egyptian…I said this out loud, in my Sunday school class, at the age of 9…I was so fed up with my brainwashed church peers, that at 13, I left the church forever. I will never return to a religion of any kind, as far too much of it makes no logical or factual sense…and the ‘white is clean’ perspective that damn near all bible stories are depicted to have, disgusted me, even as a child.

    The first time I heard someone shout in a crowd, “JESUS WAS BLACK!” I laughed and applauded! It was such an amazing moment, that it caused an outburst of joy, which often comes in an emotional explosion of laughter, and I applauded, because that man had the balls to not just say, but shout it, in a crowd of primarily white people.

    I love meeting people, who can see historical figures, accurately for their region of existence. I’m of German heritage, proud of the thousands of years of my history. So why is it so unacceptable for a black man/lady to be proud of their history, and want it accurately portrayed as such?

    Fear is such a sickening emotion, and all those that cannot handle a character accurately portrayed by regional heritage, are simply too fearful of losing their self-importance, indoctrinated by their own parents and teachers (anyone who has taught you something, can be seen as a teacher)…only a small percentage can, and will break out of that pattern, and see facts…

    I’m still hopeful of a future, where cultural heritage and ethnicity aren’t an issue…I may not live to see it, but I’m hopeful that it’ll eventually occur.

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  7. I am not sure what the complaint is all about. What is defined as White anyway or what did the Hebrews look like if they existed at all? The Bible is full of bullshit anyway and only the feebleminded believe in Hebrews or Joseph and he many colored coat, and anyway what wanker would refuse gratuitous sex, obviously the wanker Joseph. It is all bullshit. The big question is what are crap films being made about the Exodus or that stupid Noah film. Give me another fantasy like Batman any day that religious tosh.

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    1. Ponto, I would like to say that your comment is full of non-sense. You hardly prove anything. also I would like to ask how do you know that the Bible is full of bullshit? Have you read that somewhere? Knowledge apart from Revelation especially of God is not possible and that the atheist or secular or even the non-Christian worldview leads to some great error and that knowledge is impossible.

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  8. I am a middle eastern jew (quite literally the same genetic lineage as “theoretical” Moses… My family traces back to Arab countries as far back as possible until myself who is the first American in the bunch) and to be honest I am getting very tired of both black & white Americans telling me what my own race is supposed to look like or “looked” like or how we should be repped in films. it’s honestly like you guys are trying to claim us. I have family that is very very dark and some that is white looking. I am personally dark haired and olive skinned. We come in all different shapes and sizes so please stop generalizing us or telling us that all ancient Egyptians were Sudanese looking because it’s just as false as the opposite that they were all white. We look how we look. Everyone seems obsessed with classifying everyone else’s race today (based primarily on the color of their skin) and then says you can’t understand what it’s like to be this color or that color as if your skin color defines your entire heritage and life… it doesn’t… There are other factors at play that make you who you are… I have a half black half white best friend who was raised solely by his black mother who is told (primarily by other black people) that he isn’t black or can’t understand what it’s like because his skin is too light. This is a complete dismissal of his heritage and experiences as a person.

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    1. If you bothered to look up the truth instead of reading books by white authors who insert themselves into history, you would know that various invasions of Egypt by other countries resulted in what it is today. Arabs are not the original Egyptians, no more than white Europeans are the original Americans. They are invaders that happened to over-power the native occupants and dwindle their numbers to a point that their existence as people are a lunacy of the mind or a fantasy.

      And to speak of Egypt “and” Africa as if they are two separate things is preposterous.

      The amount of damage that white people have done to black history is astounding and just sick. There are paintings, text, sculptures, and craved stones that prove who and what the Ancient Egyptians were. And here you come disregarding it all because one race decided that another wasn’t worthy as being see as human beings.

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  9. First off. Belated respects to the late Martin Bernal, whose books “Black Athena” sparked the awareness of Black culture in ancient world history. Thank you, white man.

    Second, get off your high horse about Arabs and North Africans living in North Africa. Many of their ancestors just migrated there, just as the Hebrews migrated to Ethiopia. Because of tribalism and regionalism Africans have done more harm to themselves than any Western empire throughout history. Be willing to claim all that too if you’re insistent on claiming all of it.

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  10. double standards are rediculous, its OK to replace white people with non-whites but its WRONG to replace non-whites with whites. How about just keeping characters the same race and if you want a character of a different race then make a NEW MOVIE with that character. As for moses how do we know that he wasnt WHITE??? I mean apparently he was different enough from the egyptians that they could tell he wasnt one of them just by looking at him. So pretty much considering that asians were on the other side of the world at that time, everyone in that area (besides maybe a exception every now and then) was either WHITE or BLACK. So if moses was white then the egyptians were black, if moses was black then the egyptians were white. Many black people claim that the egyptians were black, and besides the Ptolymaic dynasty (who were definately greek, and MUCH later than moses) the egyptians WERE most likely black which would make moses WHITE. duh. if moses was the same race as the egyptians he would have blended in… Plus one last thing, hebrews were from asia NOT africa, so that is one more reason they were probably white. Egyptians were fish out of water in that part of africa because they were surrounded by whites, think about it, black people are from sub-saharan african and are NOT desert people so they would have stayed mostly in sub-saharan africa, the ONLY reason there were in that part of egypt is because they could use the NILE to get there… WHITE people used the MEDITERRANEAN to spread along the coastline, and hence SURROUND it on all ends… WHITE could basically be a synonym for mediterranean considering that is where their ORIGIN is… WHITE RACE = MEDITERRANEAN RACE and israel (the origin of the hebrews) is on the MEDITERREAN….

    Just speaking from a scientific and historic standpoint, not yelling or anything just using caps for emphasis (beats trying to use HTML tags).

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    1. It was banned for different reasons than what you think. Not because of the inaccuracy of the actors skin. Plus Jews aren’t very popular among racist Islamic nations these days.

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