Gods of Egypt is a mess. You can look at the myriad of reviews trashing it and see it for yourself. Heck, you can look at the trailer — or its box office receipts — to see how much of a joke it is. Have you seen such bad CGI in the modern era? But even more insidious than the CGI is that the film went out of its way to cast white actors in an ancient Egypt-set story. This is the second film within two years that showed audiences a white Egypt. You might recall how spectacularly Exodus: Gods and Kings failed.
Technically, Gods of Egypt had all of the ingredients necessary to make a fun “swords and sandals” fantasy. It’s a fantasy that’s not just set in ancient Egypt, but involves gods and goddesses interacting with their human subjects. Who wouldn’t want to see Ra and Horus get into it on the big screen? But where the film’s team went wrong is that they treated it like a “traditional” fantasy. What’s a traditional fantasy, and why was that the wrong approach? Let’s find out.
Fantasy has routinely been used (wrongly I’d say) as the one genre where white privilege and white supremacy go unchecked. Anything that doesn’t fit into that narrative either gets whitewashed or suppressed.
Let’s take a look at some definitions of fantasy. Literary Devices defines the fantasy literary genre as one “in which a plot cannot occur in the real world. Its plot usually involves witchcraft or magic taking place on an undiscovered planet of an unknown world. Its overall theme and setting is a combination of technology, architecture, and language resembling European medieval ages.” Wikipedia describes fantasy as “a genre of fiction that uses magic or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common… In popular culture, the fantasy genre is predominately of the medievalist form.”
Wikipedia does go further and state that fantasy “comprises works by many writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians from ancient myths and legends to many recent and popular works.” But for the most part, fantasy has been thought of as a way to recreate and relive the glory days of medieval Europe, specifically medieval England. Even more specifically, fantasy has been given the literary “white flight” treatment; it’s been segregated from other genres in order to “preserve” the genre’s tradition of prevailing whiteness. There’s also a tendency for some fantasy lovers to defend the whiteness of fantasy to the death, a tendency that speaks volumes to wanting to preserve a world of white escapism.
University of Leeds in England Ph.D. candidate Victoria Cooper wrote a paper called “Playing Politics: Exploring Nationalism and Conservatism in Fantasy Video Games.” In her paper, she found that with some players, there’s a direct correlation between a love for fantasy and a love for white supremacist views. According to Cooper:
The Middle Ages is a space where white supremacy is legitimized. The maintenance of white privilege. The gamer community uses ‘historical facts’ to legitimize this kind of literacy… [M]edievally-themed video games are a space where whiteness can be anchored, in a ‘happy history’ where a world is free of multiculturalism and white guilt.
I can attest to what Cooper has written about myself. I’ve written about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit before, particularly how The Hobbit finally included people of color in its movie series. One of the comments I received was one “explaining” to me how inaccurate it was for people of color to be in the films, insinuating that people of color didn’t exist in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s. That’s wrong for two reasons:
Non-white individuals have lived in Europe (and, frankly, all over the world) during any era, including the medieval era. Visit MedievalPOC to see just how involved people of color were in the times before the modern era. There aren’t many areas in the world that haven’t been touched in some way by non-white involvement.
- If The Hobbit wanted to attract today’s audience (and walk back accusations of discriminating against actors who wanted to play Hobbits), they needed to add people of all races to the film series. All races watch the fantasy films, so why not put them in the movies?
…I was talking about Game of Thrones and how the few black people that they cast in that show, they made some of them slave-owners, and I thought that was a gross misrepresentation. I made a snarky comment about that and someone was like, ‘The historical period that it depicts, there weren’t many black people,’ and I was like, ‘What?’… [I]t’s a work of fantasy that takes place in a fictional realm. Westeros is not the earth, so there’s no need to be historically accurate. Second, there’s never been a time when black people did not exist. There’s never been a time when black people weren’t present! They were in medieval Europe. In most times in European history, black people were there.
The ferocity to which people will protect the validity of fantasy as we know it is limiting, since it not only reduces the amount of POC we see in fantasy literature, film, and TV, but it also removes validity from other stories — particularly stories centered around people of color — because, if we go by a white supremacist viewpoint, those stories aren’t “important” enough. If we do see characters who aren’t white in fantasy, they’re usually in a subservient or evil role, such as the people of the south in the Lord of the Rings books and films, or Khaleesi’s subjects and servants in Game of Thrones. Or, in most other cases, the lack of addressing the humanity of people of color leads creators to inject white characters in POC roles. Prime example: Gods of Egypt. The gods and goddesses have always been drawn in the ancient Egyptians’ own image. Yet, because of laziness and selfishness, a nearly all-white cast was chosen. It was too much work to find Egyptians (or people of color period, since Hollywood hardly ever casts correctly) to play these roles, unless you’re playing the goddess of love and beauty. Then, of course, cast a woman of color so she can fulfill racist, sexist stereotypes of the exotic, hypersexual siren.
Other examples of laziness and appropriation include Hawkman and Vandal Savage on The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow. In DC Comics’ original 1940 Hawkman story, Carter Hall finds out he’s the reincarnation of Khufu, a prince of ancient Egypt. Hawkgirl is the reincarnation of his bride. The move to have a white man tell the story of an African prince is seen as “respectable,” especially for the time Hawkman was created. Conventional wisdom would have people believe that no one would want to read a story about an Egyptian prince. It also shows that no one sought to actually do proper research on Egypt outside of stereotypes that Hollywood had already immersed itself in thanks to whitewashed Cleopatra films. The reality of Egypt is never taken into account; the only thing of interest are the cool cultural things — hieroglyphs, creature gods, etc. — that can be mined for selfish benefit. Some movement has been made to rectify some of the glaring racial oversight of the Hawkman story; even though Hall himself has always been portrayed as white, most recently by German-born actor Falk Hentschel. For instance, Hawkgirl has been voiced by Maria Canals-Barrera in the animated Justice League series and is currently played by Ciara Renée in the CW series.
Vandal Savage is an immortal caveman (a caveman who is originally coded as white, since he was created in the 1940s as well) who becomes known throughout history as Cheops, the architect of the pyramids, ancient Egyptian pharaoh Kafre, and the Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, to name a few. This appropriation is even more dangerous than Hawkman, because the appropriation is of entire histories and it sets up the idea that a white man has to always be the leader of any civilization. It’s only been in recent years that Vandal Savage has been portrayed as an ambiguous person of color, with Phil Morris voicing a decidedly darker (and more African-looking) Vandal Savage in the animated feature Justice League: Doom and the ambiguously beige — but still European — actor Casper Crump playing him on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow.
One of the underlying tones of fantasy is that civilization can only exist with white people at the center. All other civilizations aren’t treated on the same level. That tone is supported by the whitewashing of conventional world history.
On my own corner of the internet, when Exodus: Gods and Kings was a dark cloud over the theater-going experience, I wrote about how the 1800s saw the rise of controversy over just what race ancient Egyptians belonged to. At the time, the idea of Africa was that it was a continent of “uncivilized” and “animalistic” people who would never live up to anything of importance. But ancient Egypt proved a conundrum to many historians of the day. To reconcile the reality of Egypt in their minds, they decided to “investigate” the paintings left behind by the ancient Egyptians and came to the conclusion that none of them exhibited a “Negro appearance.” Archaeologist Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac even goes so far as to say that other historians’ assertions of Egypt’s African heritage (including the assertions of his own brother, Jean-François Champollion) are incorrect: “The opinion that the ancient population of Egypt belonged to the Negro African race, is an error long accepted as the truth,” he wrote, also stating that a fellow historian’s statement of Egypt being a part of African civilization is “evidently forced and inadmissible.”
The irony shouldn’t be lost that Champollion-Figeac said that intelligent, self-sufficient, powerful black civilizations were a fantasy. Too many fantasy stories (and many of its fans) routinely reflect this sentiment; why else would there be so many people arguing for “historical accuracy” in Game of Thrones or The Hobbit, when neither of these worlds exist in the first place? Why else do you have some believing in conspiracy theories that state that ancient Egypt was founded by aliens? Why else would make-believe be treated as more real than the actual reality of ancient Egypt? And why else would white actors be thought of to play in a non-white story?
Because “traditional” fantasy has been used, consciously or unconsciously, to deny rights to others and to uphold racist views that have been accepted as fact in our society. Apparently, it just wasn’t “historically accurate” to have Africans be the masters of their own destiny.