by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh (14/10/2020)
A row has recently erupted over the casting of the Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Cleopatra in an upcoming film. Part of the objections to her playing the role are based on the fact that she is not only Israeli, but a Zionist to boot, though this is rarely stated. The objections are clouded in the fog of identity politics that only an Arab actress should or could play Cleopatra (who was Greek) and includes a number of dubious ideas around Hollywood’s historical accuracy being one of just who plays who and not what is said about them or how it is said and also who makes the films. There is also a very racist flip side to this discourse which crops up a lot about black actors playing roles traditionally reserved for whites or multicultural productions of Dickens or Shakespeare.
This article aims to look at these issues and the wider issues of identity politics in cinema and representation. First of all, we should dispense with the easy element, Gal Gadot the Zionist. Gal Gadot is Jewish, born and raised in Israel to Israeli parents of Ashkenazi descent, her grandfather being a survivor of the camps. As with most Israelis she served in the Israeli Defence Forces, in her case as a combat and fitness instructor. She made some controversial comments on Gaza, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of Hamas.
I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens,” she wrote. “Especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children…We shall overcome!!! Shabbat Shalom! #weareright #freegazafromhamas #stopterror #coexistance #loveidf”[i]
She played into and fed the Zionist narrative of blaming the victims. Though a number of years later she did also defend an actress who had been criticised by Netanyahu over her comments on Israeli treatment of Arab citizens stating “This isn’t a matter of right or left. Jew or Arab. Secular or religious… It’s a matter of dialogue, of dialogue for peace and security and of our tolerance of one towards the other.”[ii] How sincere this later statement is, is beside the point, if you are looking for political guidance from a Hollywood star you are already in trouble and should stop reading this now.
Do her views preclude her playing the role of a long dead queen of a civilisation that no longer exists? Cleopatra was Greek, part of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the ancient Egyptian civilisation has as much cultural, social and religious relevance to modern Egypt as the Celts have to modern Ireland, slim to nothing, despite our cultural appropriation of Celtic symbols and New Grange, which we constantly remind ourselves is older than the pyramids.
But to answer the first question, no, her views do not necessarily preclude her from any role. Actors act, it is what they do. Actors with very dubious politics play all sorts of roles in theatre and cinema and a quick search on the internet would throw up some surprising names of right wing actors, who due to roles they have played might be presumed to be more progressive in their politics. Of course, Gadot’s politics might affect box office receipts, but she might be able to pull off the role. It is not like a film is being made about the PFLP fighter Leila Khaled, a role which might cause more than one to suspect whether she could pull it off and Khaled is a more recent figure from which there is a real community from which to draw an actress and there are real current politics at play. Cleopatra is ancient history.
In the case of the Cleopatra role, claims that an Israeli could not or should not play the role are based on historical ignorance and a few grains of stupidity in some cases. As stated Cleopatra, though born in Egypt was Greek, or to be more historically accurate Macedonian and to trace an historical lineage from ancient Greece or Egypt to the modern nations, is historically inaccurate and the wishful thinking of right wing zealots, who tend to want to trace their past to some mythical glory lost in the mists of time from which they hope to rise phoenix like at some point. The fact that supposed progressives play into this discourse is telling about the nature of certain strands of identity politics. It is only a matter of time before Boudicea is declared to be beyond interpreting in film or theatre as her descendants were later taken over by Angles and Saxons, Vikings etc.
A more important question though is the general question of the whitewashing of roles, black face etc. in Hollywood. Historically Hollywood has been loathe to cast non white actors in roles that they should be in and even in some cases were designed for them. A famous case is that of Bruce Lee who came up with the role of a Shaolin monk in Kung Fu which was given to David Carradine as Lee was “too oriental”. Native US Indians were frequently portrayed by white actors with heavy make up. Some progress has been made on this front, but not that much, there have been a number of controversies particularly around Asian roles, with white actors being cast or the role rewritten to make it suitable. On that count Hollywood stands guilty. But the modern Woke angst on the issue is not some anti-racist crusade, quite the opposite, they don’t really care about race, or how plausible it is for an actor to play a role different from their own background. A more nuanced take on the Gal Gadot controversy came from Hanna Flint in The Guardian. She laments that an opportunity has been lost to give north African actors a higher profile, which is a reasonable comment and criticises Hollywood’s record on the issue. She makes two important but contradictory points on the subject. The first one is more about writing non white characters out of stories, something which is not resolved by casting but by the script itself. She states.
It wouldn’t be as tough a pill to swallow for the north African diaspora if Hollywood didn’t repeatedly use the region as a simple backdrop for white actors. From The Ten Commandments to Star Wars, The English Patient to The Red Sea Diving Resort and nearly every movie in The Mummy franchise, north Africans are either sidelined, underwritten, negatively portrayed or erased to centre white characters and – especially – to champion white saviours.[iii]
This is as true now as it ever was and does not just pertain to Hollywood, but European and North American literature as well and as Edward Said points out in his famous work Orientalism, Europeans have been constructing an Orient from the word go.
…the “Orient,” that semi-mythical construct, which, since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the late eighteenth century, has been made and remade countless times by power acting through an expedient form of knowledge to assert that this is the Orient’s nature, and we must deal with it accordingly. In the process the uncountable sediments of history, which include innumerable histories and a dizzying variety of peoples, languages, experiences, and cultures, all these are swept aside or ignored, relegated to the sand heap along with the treasures ground into meaningless fragments that were taken out of Baghdad’s libraries and museums. My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silences and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated, so that “our” East, “our” Orient becomes “ours” to possess and direct.[iv]
All of the films about Cleopatra have engaged in this and the new one with Gal Gadot will most likely do the same, it will impose its view of the Orient as Said describes. Those demanding that Gadot not be cast are also engaging in this flattening and imposition of a uniformity on a diverse region. Cleopatra ruled Egypt, Egypt is in Africa, therefore she must be Egyptian (in the modern sense of the nationality), an Arab or / and black. The fact that she was of Greek descent, though born in Egypt, which was a Greek Kingdom at the time, a view of who and what she was, is imposed through a modern lens with no reference to historical fact which is not worthy of consideration in their eyes. There is a view to imposed, and not discussed. Hanna Flint the author of The Guardian piece is also doing this, imposing her view on a faraway part of the world.
Part of this discussion is down the rabbit hole terrain with the moralism so beloved of the Woke crowd though they may be on to a hiding to nothing. One reply to Hanna Flint on twitter stated that “Gal Gadot’s family were exterminated by the Nazis for not being white. You calling her casting “Whitewashing” is borderline antisemitic and definitely offensive.” It is a bit of a simplification and historical inaccuracy to frame Nazi supremacism and the extermination of Jews and Gypies etc in terms of white, non white, it was much more complicated than that, but you get the point: there is no where to go on this discussion, really, not with the case of Cleopatra and Gadot. No one has raised any concerns over who will play Mark Anthony. Will he be played by an Italian?
However, the whitewashing of films is real and though not all films accused of White Saviour complex are in fact that, many of them are, perhaps the vast majority of them.[v] This is to do with a colonial view not just of history but also of the modern world. it is the same world view which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, even though the real reason was as simple as oil. There is also the problem of a lack of casting of non white actors when the role being played could be played by anyone. Most films set in the modern USA or some Sci-Fi future thereof could be played by almost anyone, from any linguistic group, race, religion and even the sex of the protagonist could be switched around in a lot of cases without it affecting the text and yet it is an indisputable fact that non white actors are under represented even in such productions. In terms of historical accuracy, it would be better for General Custer to by played by a white person and the Indian roles to be played by native Americans, but two detectives investigating a murder, you could switch any characteristic around and it wouldn’t make much difference.
On this point Flint says that some progress has been made.
All of this is galling considering recent steps have been taken to diversify historical storytelling on screen. New precedents were set by the likes of Armando Iannucci’s multicultural Dickens adaptation, with Deve Patel playing David Copperfield. Soon Constance Wu and Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù will play romantic leads in the English-set 19th century period comedy Mr Malcolm’s List. The actor Sophie Okonedo played the tragic queen of Egypt in the National Theatre production of Anthony and Cleopatra in 2018.[vi]
But how much of those castings are historically accurate? If we apply the logic of identitarians, then none I would suggest, not even Sophie Okonedo, in fact she is English born to a Nigerian father, and lets be clear Africa is not some monolith from which you switch and move around people on the basis of the racist notion that they are all the same and thus a person from Nigeria is the same as someone from Egypt. Her mother is Jewish, and her grandparents on that side of the family came from Poland and Russia, sharing some background with Gal Gadot herself. (Opposite Onokenodo’s Cleopatra was Ralph Fiennes as Mark Anthony a decidedly Roman role played by a quintessential English actor). Dev Patel playing David Copperfield is interesting but Copperfield in the Dickens novel (which is partly autobiographical) was not of Indian origin. Does it matter? Should it matter? The answer to both questions is no, it doesn’t matter and nor should it. But the flip side of the coin on the issue is precisely that, if Gadot cannot play Cleopatra, then all sorts of roles are off limits to all sorts of talented actors. This discussion is not just limited to white and non-white roles.
David Oyelowo is a black British actor who was cast to play the role of Martin Luther King in the film, Selma. The film was directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by Oprah Winfrey and Oyelowo was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in it. And yet, the casting was criticised by Samuel L. Jackson because Oyelowo is not from the United States he is from Great Britain. He also laid into the casting of Daniel Kaluuya in the film Get Out. He thought that a US actor should have been given the role and that basically the Brits were taking over. The irony of it all was lost on him. He claimed one of the reasons black British actors were getting hired was “They’re cheaper than us, for one thing. They don’t cost as much.” Not a shred of difference between that comment and the typical racist trope of “All the [pick your minority] are moving in, taking our jobs”. But that is the reality of this type of discussion, it is inherently reactionary and does not deal with the real issues of representation and racism in Hollywood.
Hollywood is an industry, its sole purpose is to make money, artistic pretension, is just a pretence. It is run by reactionaries and the odd splattering of US liberals who are quite right wing by normal standards on lots of issues. The real problem is that artistic purpose is not part of the Hollywood equation and certainly not part of the decision to cast Gadot as Cleopatra (Wonder Woman had no artistic pretensions so lets not even go there). She is being cast on the basis of being a money earner.
So the first problem is one of power relations, those who define the narrative of Africa, of minorities, of the working class, including white workers are the capitalists. Their artistic vision and aims are bound up not only with their class background but also their political perspectives. Cinema is a modern form of literature, no matter how much it horrifies our literati to think of it as such and does not differ much from previous written forms of literature on such issues and literature is not something that is isolated, it is part of political discourse, it shapes it, it influences, it borrows from politics and reinforces it and ultimately, the successful writers are those whose works sell and make huge profits. J.K. Rowling is a successful writer because her works make vast amounts of money, how she compares in a literary sense to lesser known authors, is of little consequence in capitalist “culture”. So we have films made by Hollywood about other parts of the world, Iraqis do not get to represent Iraqis, Hollywood does that. Of course there is a cinema produced by lesser know directors or directors who are nationally well known but not by Hollywood and so their casting decisions are never discussed in this way, nor is the content of their scripts. They are a minority in economic terms. Powerful films are made every year, historically accurate films are made every year, but not so much in Hollywood, not even when the director comes from the same community. A case in point is Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. In a film that lasts 202 minutes Malcolm X never meets Fidel Castro nor does he speak about Socialism. Next year the film Judas and the Black Messiah about the life of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader murdered by the FBI comes out. It stars the black British actor Daniel Kaluuya much criticised by Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Shaka King. From the trailer the film looks good but it would have been a disaster in the hands of someone like Spike Lee who as a very comfortable bourgeois identitarian would not likely represent well a working class Marxist revolutionary like Fred Hampton.
Mississippi Burning, is an older film from the 1980s and presents many of the problems with how Hollywood represents communities. It stars Gene Hackman and William Dafoe as two FBI agents. It is based on real events during the Civil Rights period and there are quite a lot of black actors in the film, but the FBI is gung-ho in catching the racist murderers and the black community is largely passive. This is a deliberate distortion of the events, not just artistic licence, the FBI had to be pushed and forced to act by a community that could not be described as passive. The film was released in 1988 just 20 years after the murder of Martin Luther King, and just 24 years after the murders it is based on. There can be no question of the director Alan Parker not knowing about the period, even though he was British.
The question of who gets to represent who is important not just in terms of race, nationality or ethnicity but also in terms of politics. Gal Gadot is unlikely to have firm opinions on the politics of Cleopatra, it would, as stated be much more problematic were she to play the role of a Palestinian freedom fighter and not just because there are plenty of Palestinians who could play the role, but because her politics don’t match and anyone willing to cast her as such would most likely share the same Zionist politics. But the current row about Cleopatra is a storm in a teacup or even a storm in a bath of ass’s milk.
Casting, as stated, is not the only aspect in which the dominant ideology of Hollywood comes into play and in which any pretence of historical accuracy is steamrolled over. There is a famous song by the Argentinian singer-song writer Piero called Los Americanos (The Americans). In it he pokes fun at a common US view of the world.
To them Napoleon was an Italian guy, who organised that thing
And they are more than sure, that he would not have lost
Waterloo with the help of the Americans.
If they know about history, it is not from reading it, but rather having seen it
In the American cinema.
He does exaggerate, it is unfair to say everyone from the US has this world view, but if you learn your history from the TV and cinema, well, you might just think Napoleon was Italian etc. Hollywood regularly falsifies history. Nearly every film about WWII is a falsification of history, John Wayne’s Green Berets was a propaganda piece worthy of Goebbels, Rambo was just crude propaganda. But there are other films in which they falsify history and by that I don’t mean taking some dramatic licence but just the simple falsification of history, not to mention modern society. A row about Gal Gadot, but Homeland’s portrayal of the Arab world and major factual errors are let pass by. As people would sometimes say to children messing about, Have you nothing better to be doing? The identitarians and Woke crowd obviously haven’t.
[i] The Independent (02/08/2014) Wonder Woman Gal Gadot on Israel Gaza: Israeli actress’s pro-IDF stance causes controversy https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/wonder-woman-gal-gadot-israel-gaza-israeli-actress-s-pro-idf-stance-causes-controversy-9643412.html
[ii] The New Arab (11/03/2019) ‘Wonder Woman’ actress Gal Gadot defends Palestinian – Israelis after Netanyahu’s anti-arab remarks https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2019/3/11/wonder-woman-defends-palestinian-israelis-after-netanyahus-anti-arab-remarks
[iii] The Guardian (14/10/2020) Gal Gadot as Cleopatra is a backwards step for Hollywood representation https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/oct/14/gal-gadot-cleopatra-backwards-step-for-hollywood-representation
[iv] Said, E. ( 1979 ) Orientalism. Vintage Books. New York. (epup format) para.8.5
[v] The Free State of Jones was accused of being a White Saviour film, though it was based on real events, one of the many white rebellions against the Confederacy and the US Civil War. It didn’t fit the Woke narrative and was unfairly dubbed a White Saviour film.
[vi] The Guardian (14/10/2020) Op. Cit.