In 2011’s Thor, Idris Elba, despite not looking typically Norse, plays the Norse god Heimdall. In 2016’s Gods of Egypt, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, despite not looking typically Egyptian, plays the Egyptian god Horus. The casting of Elba as Heimdall surprised me the first time I saw the movie, but it has never bothered me as a fan or as a historian. Coster-Waldau as Horus really bothers me and I think it’s worth taking a minute to explain why.
I have nothing against Coster-Waldau as an actor. I haven’t seen Gods of Egypt and don’t plan to, so I have nothing to say about his performance in this particular role, but he’s not the problem here. The problem is in the casting of the movie as a whole.
Coster-Waldau is not the only white person playing a god of Egypt. Look down the cast list and it’s mostly white people playing the divine roles. The cast of the movie is not entirely white, but the people who look typically Egyptian are mostly playing humans and, from the looks of the cast list, mostly in smaller parts.
The gods of Thor are sufficiently-advanced aliens. The Gods of Egypt seem to be giant super-powered earthlings. Neither is a faithful rendition of the original myths (there’s far too little cat-wrestling and penis-hiding for that), but both stand as modern fantasies on real historical cultures.
Now, typically Egyptian, like typically Norse, is a deceptive term. Neither ancient Egypt nor medieval Scandinavia were homogeneous societies. Vikings traveled from as far west as Newfoundland to as far east as Iraq. Their journeys of trade and raiding took them around the coasts of Europe and north Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean, and to the great commercial centers of Constantinople and Baghdad. All that travel brought the Vikings into contact with lots of other people and they brought some of those people into Norse society. There were probably a few Vikings who looked a bit like Idris Elba. There may not have been very many of them, but they were there. Casting Idris Elba to play one character among the varied folk of Asgard stays true to this history.
Ancient Egyptian culture did not encourage a lot of going out and traveling the world (though some Egyptians did anyway). Rather, the world came to Egypt. The Nile valley was one of the most phenomenally fertile regions in the ancient world. It was also a critical link across the Sahara desert between the Mediterranean and central Africa. While Egypt was always somewhat isolated by its landscape, it was never cut off from the world. The population of ancient Egypt reflects these contacts with Mediterranean, African, and southwest Asian peoples.
There were certainly people in ancient Egypt who looked like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. There may not have been very many of them, but they were there. Casting one white European actor to play an Egyptian god wouldn’t bother me much. Casting a whole raft of them is a problem.
Worse yet, casting a lot of white people to play the powerful and important characters in an Egyptian-based fantasy plays into the old dynastic race theory. This racist narrative, concocted by Europeans in the age of imperialism, denied that ancient Egyptians were capable of creating a sophisticated civilization and posited that a superior race must have conquered Egypt and brought their culture with them. This theory is no longer accepted among scholars, but it lingers in our cultural baggage. White people have historically had trouble accepting that non-white people can have cultural agency. (See also: Dances With Wolves.) Intentionally or not, Gods of Egypt feeds that narrative.
I am aware of no history of black people denying the cultural achievements of Scandinavians. If I were, I might think differently about Idris Elba as Heimdall. I am all too aware of white people denying the cultural achievements of Egyptians. That makes the casting of Gods of Egypt a problem.
Images: Heimdall via qnr.ca. Horus via thisisafrica.me. Collage by Erik Jensen
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.