Gods of Egypt started shooting in Sydney last Wednesday and wil star Gerard Butler in a lead role.

Gods of Egypt started shooting in Sydney last Wednesday and will star Gerard Butler in a lead role. Photo: Jason LaVeris

Australian director Alex Proyas' blockbuster Gods of Egypt started shooting in Sydney last Wednesday. The $150 million epic centres on the showdown between the evil god Set (Gerard Butler) and Horus (Danish Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldeu). It also stars "our own" Geoffrey Rush as the sun god Ra and Brenton Thwaites as a "common thief" who joins the mythical figures on their magical quest.

In other words, it's a film set in Egypt with Egyptian characters, but (with the exceptions of Chadwick Boseman and Elodie Yung in minor roles) a white cast.

And so, the time-honoured tradition of Hollywood whitewashing continues.

Geoffrey Rush will also star in the $150 million epic, Gods of Egypt.

Geoffrey Rush will also star in the $150 million epic, Gods of Egypt. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams

Ever since D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation non-white characters in films have often been played by white people in blackface (or yellowface or brownface) or left out altogether.

Biblical blockbuster Noah - now in cinemas - stars Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson, while Christian Bale will play Moses in the upcoming adaption of the exodus story. It seems we have become so accustomed to depictions of biblical figures as white, that such blatant whitewashing barely even registers.

But whitewashing isn't reserved for historical epics. Real people whose stories are considered extraordinary enough to bring to the big screen are finding their race erased also. Connelly also starred opposite Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, based on real couple John and Alicia Nash. Only the real Alicia Nash was not white but from El Salvador. 

When I wrote about the whitewashing in tsunami disaster film The Impossible last year, I was given a dressing down by outraged commenters who deplored my "inability to look past race".

But the idea that race is something we can transcend in a world still reeling from colonialism and its racist legacies is a notion only privileged white people can afford to entertain. As Waleed Aly wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald last Friday, there is no such thing as racial neutrality:

"Only white people have the chance to be neutral because in our society only white is deemed normal; only whiteness is invisible. Every other race is marked by its difference, by its conspicuousness – by its non-whiteness."

Every time people of colour are whitewashed - and it happens with alarming frequency - those of us who dare complain are told not to overreact, that it is just entertainment, that we shouldn't play the race card. After all, why should race matter in a good film?

It matters because actors of colour are routinely sidelined.  They may get literally a handful of leading roles per year in films where race is an essential aspect of the narrative such as 12 Years A Slave, but are usually relegated to minor roles such as the black 'sassy' friend, or the Asian nerdy sidekick, as this parody video shows.

The last line in that video, where the actresses dream of a casting breakdown that reads "submit all ethnicities", refers to the common practice of casting calls asking only for Caucasian actors.

I spoke with an employee at the casting agency that worked on Gods of Egypt but a strict confidentiality agreement they meant couldn't answer my questions. However, previous films that did request only Caucasian actors to audition include The Hunger Games (even though lead character Katniss Everdeen is "dark haired" and "olive skinned" in the book) and The Last Airbender, so it's not far-fetched to imagine that this film likely did the same.

However, Gods of Egypt did request extras of Middle-Eastern appearance. I spoke with Mohab Kamel, an Egyptian-Australian broadcaster at SBS Radio who responded to the casting call. Kamel was told all roles had been cast but is sceptical that they were filled by any actual Egyptians. In his experience, producers are keen to cast extras who "look the part" but don't necessarily have any connection to the race or culture they will be depicting.

And yet, even as people of colour are expected to be happy with peripheral roles, when the tables are reversed, and a person of colour beats the incredible odds and lands a film role the white portion of the population has already claimed as theirs, the backlash is as offensive as it is disproportionate.

When the first Hunger Games instalment was released, many fans were incredulous and outraged that Rue was played by Amandla Stenberg. Even though she was clearly described as "dark-skinned" in the book, the fact she was also ''innocent'' led many to assume she must be white.

Likewise, the remake of beloved musical Annie with Quvenzhane Wallis in the title role also sent Twitter racists into a meltdown, with one comparing it to an all-white Roots remake. Roots, of course, is a drama about slavery.

But nothing seems to arouse white anger like comic book characters played by black actors. A campaign to get Community star Donald Glover cast as Spiderman was quickly dropped amid a furious backlash by fans that wouldn't accept a black Peter Parker.

There was furious pushback, including boycott threats when Thor was released with Idris Elba as Heimdall, and most recently Michael B. Jordan's casting as Johnny Storm in the new Fantastic Four movies is also seeing a backlash.

That fans could be equally angry at the casting of black actors whether this is true to the source material or not shows that these outcries are pure racism. As this Atlantic article notes, "American racism holds that only certain racial differences matter."

Keep in mind also that many comic book characters and the original Annie were created in a time of enforced white dominance, when prevailing norms meant nearly all characters were white by default.

All of which goes to show that our society remains structured around the centrality of whiteness, where white is the default race that can represent all humanity, and the rest of us are mere bit players.

I could finish with a lamentation of how, after centuries of white colonialievsm and supremacy, our society still lacks the will to make whitewashing a thing of the past. I could also ruminate on how, despite a modicum of lip service to ending racism, we remain resistant to true diversity.

But perhaps this meme sums it up best.