Marching on a Hard Heart: Selma Is the Exodus That Ridley Scott Failed to Deliver

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is located in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is located in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.

At the culmination of the 54-mile march from Selma, addressing the crowd of nonviolent demonstrators, Martin Luther King invoked one of his dominant biblical tropes: the Exodus. Speaking about "age-old oppressors," King repeated the refrain, "let us march..." Let us march on poverty. Let us march on ballot boxes. Let us march on segregated schools. Marching, persistent, hopeful, determined, unified marching offered a battle strategy. Except King described this battle, the Selma march, as "creative nonviolence." He likened it to Joshua's nonviolent march around the walls of Jericho.

The march featured in Ava DuVernay's Selma, opening on Friday, could not be more relevant. We will see the scenes of police using billy clubs and tear gas on bruised black marchers, inducing horrified reactions in a 1960's white television viewership. I almost expect to see posters in the film: "Black Lives Matter," "I Can't Breath," "Hands up, Don't Shoot." Countless innocents, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice... will haunt these theaters as Selma shows us the single most important march in the civil rights movement. In the wake of American demonstrations for Black Lives Matter, Selma takes on new relevance. It is hard to imagine a more opportune moment to listen again to Martin Luther King's speeches.

King's civil rights speeches and sermons made extensive use of Exodus motifs. King especially drew on the concept of a march. People must cut through impossible odds like the march through the Red Sea. They must march through fatigue and doubt like they march through the wilderness. They must keep on marching up to the base of Mt. Sinai where justice finds her purpose in law. A march is the symbol of movement. A people's march reveals the power of collective consciousness to fight for social change.

It is so ironic, then, that when I went to see Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, it was not the feature but the preview for Selma that gave me the Exodus story I've come to know best. This is because Martin Luther King's biblical rhetoric stands in an enormous stream of revolutionary interpretations of the Exodus. From medieval uprisings in the Netherlands, to William Bradford's early American pilgrimage speeches, to slave songs in Antebellum America, to Gustavo Gutiérrez's liberation theology in Latin America, to Jewish ethics of justice, to Rastafari seeking an end to British rule, these revolutionary interpretations are about the quest for liberation. They are about people seeking the freedom to establish their own code of life.

How come Ridley Scott's Exodus strayed so far away from this revolutionary tradition? The media captured some of the controversy about how Scott whitewashed the characters of Exodus. The film avoided casting black, Egyptian, or Afro-Asiatic characters. But Scott's casting decisions hardly even begin to cover how he whitewashed Exodus's liberation potential.

Slavery was like a scene set. Freedom was the film's two-dimensional assumption, not its thesis. The Hebrew slaves walked through the biblical plot elements with unconvincing passion. Putting a sword in Moses's hand and portraying him as a war general for the Israelites was good Hollywood spectacle, but it did little to give the film a burning sense of purpose. There was no march. There was no cry, "Let my people go."

Scott managed to turn Exodus into an adoring meditation on state power. The camera lingered over the architecture of the Egyptian one percent, gorgeous domestic rooms and grandiose halls. Selma brings us to the steps of the Montgomery capital building, but Exodus continues into the state architecture with a sense of awe.

Instead of a liberation leader, Ridley Scott's Moses seems like the preferred candidate for Pharaoh denied his chance to rule. The major plot problem is not slavery but the fact that Moses loses his political clout in Egypt. With stated belief in Egyptian social progress and a ringer of a line in which "the suffering of my people" refers to Egyptians, the Hebrew cause is undersold scene after scene.

Exodus: Gods and Kings overshadows Hebrew suffering from slavery with the pain caused everyone by the plagues. This empathy is exemplary. All people, both Egyptian and Hebrew suffer in the plagues. But the Hebrew suffering is redoubled, not erased by the plagues. It's like someone today who says All Lives Matter as a replacement for Black Lives Matter.

Most depressingly, Scott's Moses doesn't really care about human life. If he did, he would have given Ramses the same instructions he gave the Hebrews about how to avert the plague of the first-born. No, Moses reveals his real concerns when instead, he warns Ramses of the danger to "citizens...This is about Egypt's survival," he says. Moses is apparently more concerned with the propagation of the citizen state than he is with the lives inside it.

In Exodus, the heart of Ramses remains supple. The biblical theme of the hard heart of oppressive state power is never dissembled. And for this, the film is morally blind. Slavery is glossed and Exodus features only Gods and Kings.

Selma delivers the Exodus that history keeps writing. Black Lives Matter in the 1960s and today. And like an arrow into Pharaoh's heart, the film asks with MLK in that Selma speech, when will "the conscience of America begin to bleed" again?