Biblical movies keep trying to have the same effect as The Ten Commandments or The Passion of The Christ, but that time is long gone. The whitewashed Ten Commandments that’s on again every Easter is on the same level as every other problematic fav from old Hollywood; it has just been so integrated into our pop culture that we no longer feel a reaction to it.
The Passion, despite being financially successful, is now more accurately seen as a borderline mess with all of the dogmatic integrity of a snuff film. While not completely devoid of merit, it’s a film I was forced to watch in Catholic School and promptly forgot, except for when that South Park episode comes on.
Today, a trailer for the next attempt at a successful, post-Passion Bible movie has been released: Mary Magdalene. One interesting cast member in the upcoming Mary Magdalene film is Rooney Mara, playing the character of Mary Magdalene. And I say “character” because, while it’s unclear whether the movie will go the whole “Mary of Magdala was totally a prostitute” way rather than sticking to literal gospel, that has become such a common trope in pop culture that most films depict her as a former prostitute just because.
In the trailer, Mary rises to become a high-ranking apostle amongst Jesus’ followers, who helps to baptize women, and of course Peter, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor is super threatened by this because she’s a woman and how dare she be raised up higher than him and blah-blah-blah. While there’s a part where Mother Mary tells Mary Magdalene that if she loves her son, she must be prepared to lose him, it’s unclear if it’s going to be depicted as romance, rather than just a spiritual love.
Jesus is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who is Jewish. Judas is played by Tahar Rahim, and by looking at the cast list that has been put out, while many of the other roles are played by Israeli, Arab, or brown actors, the top-billed actor—who is the hero of our story—is Rooney Mara. Now, this is not Mara’s first brush with a white-washing controversy. In 2015, when she was cast to play Tiger Lilly in Pan, it was brought up that hey, maybe a white person shouldn’t be playing a character who is Native American, even if the original source material is racist. Mara’s response was:
“I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”
Mara maintains that director Joe Wright’s intentions were “genuine” and insists she loved being part of the production.
Still, she says, “Do I think all of the four main people in the film should have been white with blonde hair and blue eyes? No. I think there should have been some diversity somewhere.”
Well, I guess she looked at all the diversity of this cast and said, “It is good.” Look, this is definitely a “diverse” cast, and considering how we constantly whitewash the Bible’s setting to fit the Western idea of Christianity, it’s easy to just shrug it off. But, the reality is that it the people of the Bible, the majority of them, exist along places in the Middle East, North Africa, and Mediterranean.
How many times are we going to have the same conversation about Biblical movies and race? We just recently had to go through it with Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, both recent enough films that those discussions haven’t been lost to time exactly. You cannot take people who would have been brown, make them white, and tell us it’s okay because people still have this weird idea that Jesus was a blue-eyed man with soft waves of brown hair.
You do not get a pass by putting brown people in every other role except for the main one, the leader, the hero, the revolutionary—all the things Mary is being shown to be just in the trailer alone. Because now we have to watch Chiwetel Ejiofor talk down to and dismiss a white woman, along with a bunch of other fucked up racial dynamics, because the director wanted to cast an actress he liked rather than understand that this is a powerful story of a Jewish woman, and that should be reflected in the casting. Choices matter.
While I’m still hoping this film will do justice to the Biblical Mary Magdalene and not play into the same false, sexist narrative she’s had to deal with since the Middle Ages, I also hope that we eventually get a Biblical movie that depicts the events of the Bible in a more racially accurate way.
Oh wait … we already did.
(via Uproxx, image: Columbia Pictures )
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