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

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser