Ridley Scott cast the commercially “safe” Christian Bale in a leader role in Exodus.
Show Hide image

Why Ridley Scott is wrong to say films with non-white stars won’t get financed

This is Ridley Scott we are talking about. He’s a superstar director. If anyone is a position to challenge Hollywood’s prejudices, it’s him.

Ridley Scott has snapped back. Following months of criticism about his casting of white actors in the main roles for Exodus: Gods and Kings, his upcoming film about Moses and Egypt, he gave a somewhat testy response in an interview with Variety. “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”, he insisted. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

At first glance, Scott seems to be correct that a film with a relatively unknown lead is an impossible sell – even if “Mohammad so-and-so” seems jarringly dismissive – yet he should more closely interrogate his motives and capacity for making such a film. First, there is his capacity. This is Ridley Scott we are talking about, one of the few superstar directors whose name on a billboard creates the same anticipation as any leading actor or actress. Scott’s Prometheus was exciting not primarily because of the casting of Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace or Michael Fassbender, but because the brilliant mind behind Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator was at the helm. It is entirely possible that, given his status, he could create a platform for young, outstanding yet undiscovered actors. Scott may feel entitled to hold up his hands and say that the system is bigger than him, that he is merely subject to his whims.

It is then, however, that we move to his motives. Scott’s primary intention appears not to be the realistic ethnic representation of his new venture: it is to boost the bottom line. Looking at the last few blockbusters he has made, it is clear why he is very mindful of money. Since Gladiator, whose outlay of about $100m produced takings of just over $450m at the box office, his films have generally produced returns that are more solid than spectacular. To take the last three prior to Prometheus, there is 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven (investment $130m for a return of $211m), 2007’s American Gangster ($100m for $266m) and 2010’s Robin Hood ($155m for $322m). Prometheus itself returned $403m on an investment of between $120-130m, which again was a good result – particularly in an era when piracy is rife – but which pales in comparison with the takings of Christopher Nolan’s biggest films.

From this perspective, there may be some sympathy with Scott’s desire to make conservative casting choices, giving Christian Bale, the star of the Dark Knight trilogy, the leading role as Moses. But Scott’s argument that “big names mean big takings” doesn’t hold weight when we view the example of James Cameron’s Avatar. Here, Cameron chose to build a $237m-budget film around Sam Worthington, who up to that point had almost no experience at this level, and was certainly not a name whom most people would have recognised. Cameron, too, made a worldwide search for someone to play the part he eventually gave Worthington. For Scott, in his own words, such a search was out of the question. It’s not that he couldn’t have made a financial success out of casting a Egyptian actor in the lead role, or even one of Middle Eastern appearance. It’s not that he didn’t unsuccessfully use his leverage to produce a cast that viewers in Egypt would recognise as representing themselves. It’s that he simply couldn’t be bothered to try.

Why does this matter? Well, it matters if you are remotely concerned with diversity, in an industry where “only 11 per cent of films cast an ethnic minority actor in a lead role while ethnic minority actors made up just 10 per cent of the cast in the majority of movies”. It matters if you’re willing to provide access for future stars like Chiwetel Ejiofor or Denzel Washington, both of whom Scott cast once they were safely commercially viable. What’s sad here is that an opportunity – potentially a lucrative one – has been missed to give a young actor from an under-served part of the entertainment community the breakthrough role that they need. Once an outsider to the industry himself, having grown up in Newcastle before going south to London and then eventually onto Hollywood, Scott should know the need for that breakthrough more than anyone else. Sadly, with Exodus, he has failed to heed it.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

Show Hide image

Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue