Can an Imperial Stormtrooper be black? Can ancient Egyptians be white?
Hey, in the movies, anything is possible – though some things are perhaps more possible than others.
A filmmaker telling a story drawn from an entirely fictional imaginary can probably take all kinds of liberties with characters (not to mention settings, props, special effects, etc.) But a filmmaker telling a story drawn from an imaginary that is based (however loosely) upon a set of canonical texts has to be much more careful about violating the sensibilities and expectations of the audience.
So of course it’s easier for Ridley Scott to get away with a Biblical epic about the Exodus story featuring an all-white lead cast than it is for J.J. Abrams to get away with a 90-second Star Wars movie trailer depicting one black Stormtrooper.
As you can see from the above-linked Atlantic piece, or from the comments section beneath the YouTube video of the Star Wars trailer, much virtual ink has been spilled trying to address the question of whether it is possible – possible within the canonical story arc of Star Wars (a story arc informed but not bound by the stories comprising the expanded universe of Star Wars) — for there to be such a person as a black Stormtrooper.
Here are some examples of such discussions, screengrabbed this morning from the YouTube comment thread (click any image to enlarge):
According to these commenters, it’s not about race; it’s about fidelity to the received narrative. It’s about canonicity. (And what is canonicity about? Is Star Wars canonicity circa 2014 about something different than, say, Western Civ canonicity circa 1988?)
Meanwhile, speaking of canonical texts — as in, the Bible — Rupert Murdoch has come to the defense of Ridley Scott’s casting choices for Exodus: Gods and Kings. Yesterday the media mogul addressed the Twitterverse: “Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast,” he wrote. “Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.” (Since when are Egyptians not white? Well, that’s an interesting question — an historical question, even.)
So Murdoch addressed the Twitterverse, and the Twitterverse, as is its wont, talked back; you can read various responses to Murdoch’s initial tweet (and to his doubling-down-and-digging-the-hole-deeper follow-up tweets) in these stories.
One of the best responses I saw to Murdoch’s tweets came from Tressie McMillan Cottom
That’s an astute (and funny) reading of the (unacknowledged) logic of Murdoch’s argument.
In a way, Murdoch’s argument is an argument about canonicity. Murdoch asks, “Since when are Egyptians not white?” I suppose a corollary question might be, “Since when has Western Civilization been white?” (Spoiler: since the 1780s.)
As far as canonicity goes, Scott’s film is in no danger, and poses no danger. And that’s likely to be the biggest problem for his bottom line. Oh, he may be taking liberties in his presentation of the Biblical story of the Exodus. But that’s Hollywood, and the Bible is not the canon that matters there. Blackness matters — the blackness of the bottom line. And this explains Scott’s utterly conventional casting choices. He said as much himself: “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.” The film’s only hope as a box-office draw looks to be its potential to wow the crowds with some (possibly) stunning CGI. But that’s Hollywood too — very much by the book. Indeed, as far as the conventions of Tinseltown go, Scott’s film looks like it will fit very securely — perhaps even forgettably? — into the filmic canon of Big-Budget Blockbuster Biblical Epics featuring melodramatic over-acting, the very latest in special effects, and a (mostly white) cast of (now virtual) thousands. I suspect this is a movie we’ve seen before, and I’m not so sure that we’ll all flock to see it again.
But I’m pretty sure that the Star Wars film will clear a profit at the box office mighty fast, canon be honored or canon be damned. And if those who are bothered by the idea of a black Stormtrooper for whatever reason (and I’m sure the concern is purely canonical) will just stay home, then those fans whose hearts beat a little faster at the very thought of seeing Han Solo on the screen again can get a better seat, again and again.
Whoever those fans are.