Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hollywood, Race and Classical Stories

There is a brewing controversy again (it comes up periodically) about Hollywood's attitude towards race. The latest brewhaha is over the casting of Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra. Some African Americans are upset because they insist that Cleopatra was Black and so should be played by a Black actress. This raises a few issues in my mind that I'd like to get off my chest.

First, Hollywood is usually bad at portraying classical stories in the first place. Even European stories are bastardized by directors who refuse to do their homework. The story of the Spartans at Thermopylae and Beowulf (see a Scandinavian produced version of Beowulf here) were turned into well animated but cliche video games. Movies about classic norse legends are turned into ridiculous remakes of Conan the Barbarian (like the movie Pathfinder - see the Sami-Norwegian version here). Other examples are the movie Excalibur which portrays 6th century Arthurian legendary characters running around in 15th century parade armor. Or the monotone and American accented Kevin Costner portraying a 12th century Robin Hood using a telescope (and the African-American Morgan Freeman playing a Kurdish Saracen BTW). The list is endless. I'm sure the next step will be to show Anthony rescuing Cleopatra from the Battle of Actium with a McGyver'ed hang glider or something. In this context, the fact that Hollywood casts the ridiculously collagenated Jolie as Cleopatra is hardly unusual. Nor is it obviously part of some racist conspiracy. In my view, Hollywood is peopled largely by uneducated idiots. The appearance of racism is easy when dealing with idiots.

Second, can people please stop claiming that Cleopatra was "Black" in the sense we think of it today? Cleopatra came from a family of Macadonian Greeks that frequently practiced sibling marriage. It is probably true that her family occaisionaly married into prominent families from neighboring kingdoms but this family had a preference for "keeping it in the family" - literally. She only had 4 great grand parents (ewww). So let's figure that the chances of her having a Nubian (the only neighboring kingdom that was inhabited by people we would think of "Black" today) anscestor is about half what we would normally think. And most of the family's connections would have been to other powerful Hellenistic (Greek) kingdoms and empires in the eastern Medditeranean and Middle East. So we have a daughter of an absurdly incestuous family of Greek extraction that mostly interacted with other royal families of Greek extraction. The only reason to think Cleopatra was "Black" is because some people look up Egypt in their coffee table atlass and notice that Egypt is technically on the continent of Africa. But geography and race are more complicated.

Are there racists in Hollywood? Almost certainly - racism is part of the human experience. But are the casting decisions in major Hollywood pictures motivated by racism? I'm not convinced. They are often explained by sub-standard intellects convincing themselves they are great artists.

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