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27 November 2014

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.

By Musa Okwonga

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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