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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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood