When it comes to the colour of real human skin, the relationship between black and white is not symmetrical. They are not just two colours — like, say, yellow and green — perceived on an even plane of meaning and value. This is an unfortunate fact about the world today. But to discount this political reality, one has to wish away centuries of lived history and its continuing ramifications. And once the other colours — brown and yellow, for instance — are projected upon the ethnological chessboard, the dynamic of the past and present becomes even more complicated. So, when a British director makes an Old Testament film called Exodus: Gods and Kings, where the gods and kings — Moses, Rameses the Great, and Joshua — are all white, and the slaves, thieves and killers of darker hue (mostly Africans), it should not come as an unpleasant and inconvenient surprise that the idea of “cinematic colonialism” has been invoked. Colonialism — especially in the way it persists in a post-colonial world — is about the abuse of power, kept alive through the systematic perpetuation of economic and cultural inequality. And within such a hegemonic system, the power of images always has a crucial role to play. So, in an un-ideal world, it becomes difficult to assert in all fairness, as it were, that the creative anomaly of a black character played by a white actor is the exact equivalent of that of a white character played by a black actor.
There can be two ways of arguing against, and around, this issue. First, the argument of art. To take two of the most contentious racial stereotypes, does Othello have to be played by a black actor, and Brünnhilde sung by a white soprano? Lawrence Olivier as the former and Jessye Norman as the latter embody an incongruity that is generally overlooked in the realm of fictional characters. Yet, a black Hamlet never quite goes unnoticed — colour suddenly becomes the point of such a production, and there is a politically correct vocabulary ready at hand to express that point. And even in the world of performance, there is often articulated unease about white singers singing the blues — giving yet another turn to the chromatic screw.
But Moses, for those to whom his colour and ethnic origin matter, is not a fictional character. He is situated somewhere between history, mythology and more than one religion. This lends to the question of his representation an inevitably political dimension, where ‘political’ includes the racial and the religious. For very similar reasons (though the matter often seems to lie beyond reason), some Indian Hindus found it problematic that Peter Brook had chosen African, or non-Indian, actors to play many of the leading characters in his theatre and film versions of the Mahabharat. Somehow, Mr Brook’s white actors did not seem to offend these Indians — and this makes one wonder about other, more bizarre, forms of residual colonialism. It is not too far from the kind of imagination that unthinkingly accepts a blonde and blue-eyed Jesus, with a bearded white elderly gentleman as his omnipotent Father.