The news of Israeli actor Gal Gadot, cast as the last the Ptolemy dynasty ruler of Egypt Cleopatra, brought up the issue of diversity in Hollywood on the surface of society’s consciousness, which is reflected on social media.
When I saw the article on BBC with the title “Gal Gadot’s Cleopatra film sparks ‘whitewashing’ claims,” I forwarded the news to my Egyptian software engineer friend right away to gauge his feelings. His reply was quite illuminating.
“Arab actress?” he said. “That would be a day, lol.”
My friend lives a very comfortable life in Southern California and has nothing to do with the entertainment industry. But his answer reveals a few poignant realities.
First, it is evident in the mind and psyche of people, particularly the non-white, Hollywood is not interested in representing an accurate portrait of them. This is even more true when we talk about the people from the MENA region.
Second, the expectation of faithful representation exists in social consciousness.
The second point raises another question. Do we expect, let’s say, the Egyptian Cinema to show an accurate portrait of America? Why do we have this expectation from the American Film Industry? The answer to this question lies in the overwhelming dominance of Western Media, especially Hollywood, as almost the only cinematic source with a global reach. Over the years, this overpowering superiority tilted the worldwide market in a specific direction, the direction that the gate holders had- the white male POV of the world. Hence, the word Whitewashing.
So the concerns have a substantial historical background. These are not issues that were raised out of nowhere. Answering these concerns is not only about being painstakingly accurate about the Ethnicity or the nationality of the characters or their skin color. In many regions of the world, Ethnicity and race are very loose definitions, especially when we go back in history before the concept of Nation-State was even b orn.
The Middle East, for example, contains 14 countries. Iranians, Arabs, Turks, and Israel, which is a melting pot of Jewish people worldwide. And even within these big categories, there are many different varieties. Just Iran alone contains 18 different ethnicities- Persians, Kurds, Mazandaranis, Gilaks, Lurs, Talysh, Tats, Baloch, Azerbaijanis, Turkmen, Turkic tribal groups, Arabs, Assyrians, Jews, Mandaeans, Armenians, Georgians, and Circassians. And we are not talking about the Iranic people, which includes Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and many more that each comprises numerous ethnicity. Therefore, the whole discussion about being accurate about the character’s Ethnicity is not that helpful and sometimes confusing.
Here, I want to introduce an idea that is continuously getting lost in these discussions, and that concept is Respect.
Respect is an ideology; it is the north pole. It is the ideal that we have to strive for. We can talk about the fictional/historical character’s Ethnicity till the end of time. But in many cases, talking about Ethnicity is a distraction; the big picture is about how historically Hollywood has treated non-white people as story subjects. It is about the lack of Respect.
There is a story from the movie Kingdom of Heaven that is simply moving. Robert Fisk, the British journalist who lived in Lebanon for 29 years, watched the film in a cinema in Beirut with the Lebanese audience. He describes the people’s reaction at the end of the film this way:
“At the end of the film, after Balian has surrendered Jerusalem, Saladin enters the city and finds a crucifix lying on the floor of a church, knocked off the altar during the three-day siege. And he carefully picks up the cross and places it reverently back on the altar. And at this point, the audience rose to their feet and clapped and shouted their appreciation.”
You can read his full article here.
The actor for Saladin’s role is the great Syrian actor, Ghassan Massoud. Saladin, the real person, was a Kurd who was born in Tikrit, which is now part of Modern Iraq. Kurds are considered Iranic people. So what is the Ethnicity of Saladin? It doesn’t matter, does it? Nobody will ever raise the question of Saladin’s casting accuracy and his Ethnicity. Another good example is the musical Hamilton.
The issue of diversity is not only about historical accuracy or realism; it is the question of Respect and Acknowledgment. It is about the appreciation of other people’s beauty, talent, achievements. And the acceptance of their identity within a cinema that has the most significant global reach. With great power comes great responsibility.
If this machine works towards Respect, all of us will be better off.