Tag Archives: Tut

What the New Study on Ancient Egypt Says About Media Representation

Science and the fight for representation in the media has intertwined in a brand new study coming from Germany. The study focuses specifically on ancient Egypt. What the scientists have to say about their findings could give Hollywood food for thought, if they decide to dissect the scientists’ results.

What the DNA discovery actually is

As CNN reports, researchers from Germany’s University of Tuebingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena have finally been able to do what scientists invested in studying Egypt have been trying to do for years–learn more about the genetic history of ancient Egyptians, a people who have been fought over by the Western World. That fight has played out in our modern media, with white actors playing the parts of historical ancient Egyptian characters, most notably the sheer number of actresses who have played Cleopatra.

The scientists used 151 mummies from Abusir el-Meleq, Middle Egypt. “The samples recovered from Middle Egypt span around 1,300 years of ancient Egyptian history from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period,” states the study, which was published in Nature Communications. The scientists found that ancient Egyptians from that area were more closely related to “Neolithic Anatolian and European populations.” Modern Egyptians, however, have more of a a genetic relationship with sub-Saharan Africans.

The reason behind the genetic surprise isn’t much of a surprise when you take into account the historical context the ancient folks of Abusir el-Meleq lived in. According to the study, Abusir el-Meleq was inhabited from around 3250BCE to about 700CE and was an attractive burial site because of its active cult to the god of the dead, Osiris. The site was part of a wider region during the third century BCE, a region that included the northern part of the Harakleopolites province and the Fayum and Memphite provinces, the latter two of which Abusir el-Meleq had close relations with. The Fayum province saw a huge influx in its population, more than likely from Greek immigration. During the Roman Period, many Roman veterans, described by the study as being people who weren’t “initially at least…Egyptian but people from disparate cultural backgrounds,” settled in the Fayum province after their time with the Roman army was done. After settling, they became a part of the local society and intermarried among the locals. Immigrants also influenced culture in Abusir el-Meleq, where coffins featuring Greek, Latin, and Hebrew names and Greek art remain.

However, the rate of intermarriage in the Fayum and surrounding areas was localized because of the high population of Greek and Roman immigrants. Intermarraige also seemed to serve political and social gains, since Roman citizenship was at stake and while Egyptians were granted citizenship under Roman rule, no doubt one could gain more rights of a Roman citizen if they married up, as it were.

“Our genetic time transect suggests genetic continuity between the Pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic and Roman populations of Abusir el-Meleq, indicating that foreign rule impacted the town’s population only to a very limited degree at a genetic level. It is possible that the genetic impact of Greek and Roman immigration was more pronounced in the north-western Delta and the Fayum, where most Greek and Roman settlement concentrated, or among the higher classes of Egyptian society,” states the study. “Under Ptolemaic and Roman rule, ethnic descent was crucial to belonging to an elite group and afforded a privileged position in society. Especially in the Roman Period there may have been significant legal and social incentives to marry within one’s ethnic group, as individuals with Roman citizenship had to marry other Roman citizens to pass on their citizenship. Such policies are likely to have affected the intermarriage of Romans and non-Romans to a degree.”

The amount of sub-Saharan ancestry in modern Egyptians possibly comes from greater trade between the two regions. That trade also includes transporting slaves.

“Possible causal factors include increased mobility down the Nile and increased long-distance commerce between sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt,” states the study. “Trans-Saharan slave trade may have been particularly important as it moved between 6 and 7 million sub-Saharan slaves to Northern Africa over a span of some 1,250 years, reaching its high point in the nineteenth century.”

Despite the genetic breakthrough of tracing the genetic lineage of Abusir el-Meleq, the scientists stress that this one study probably (and more than likely isn’t) indicative of the lineage of the entirety of ancient Egypt.

“It is possible that populations in the south of Egypt were more closely related to those of Nubia and had a higher sub-Saharan genetic component, in which case the argument for an influx of sub-Saharan ancestries after the Roman Period might only be partially valid and have to be nuanced,” the study states. “Throughout Pharonic history that was intense interaction between Egypt and Nubia, ranging from trade to conquest and colonialism, and there is compelling evidence for ethnic complexity within households with Egyptian men marrying Nubian women and vice versa.”

In closing, the scientists stress that more studies need to be made of the ancient peoples of southern Egypt and Sudan in order to give a much more complete (or near-complete) picture of the vastness of the Egyptian genetic story.

Portrait of a woman from the Fayum province with a ringlet hairstyle, an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings. Royal Museum of Scotland. (Public Domain)

How this affects the always-raging argument about how to portray ancient Egyptians in film and television? Does that mean Gods of Egypt is actually accurate??

Reading the original CNN article on this post, I knew there would be people, scholars who believe in the “Egypt-is-Anglo-Saxon” model in particular, who would take this study to mean that they are right and everyone who believes in a much more POC model of Egypt are wrong. While the study shows that there are European ties to ancient Egypt, some of these ties are what we’ve already learned from the history books–indeed, the Romans and the Greeks did come to Egypt due to its geological location as well as for political reasons (i.e. the Ptolemaic Dynasty–a Greek ruling family with origins in Macedonia–and the Roman Period), and Cleopatra herself, as the last Ptolemaic ruler, is of Egyptian and Greek-Macedonian background.

What is semi-new is the direct connection to Anatolia, otherwise known as Asia Minor or the Near East. Today, much of Anatolia is known as Turkey. While it’s always made sense that ancient Egyptians would share genetic connections to the Middle East simply because of Egypt’s geological location to many of the countries in the Middle East, the direct connection to Turkey has never been known.

In regard to this new knowledge, what does that mean for Hollywood when it comes to casting actors for films about ancient Egypt? Regarding this information about the citizens of Abusir el-Meleq, it would still be incorrect for a director to lazily cast characters since, going by old and new genetic information, ancient Egyptians were never “white” in the Western sense. For example, Gods of Egypt, which included actors hailing from Denmark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Australia (Brenton Thwaites), Scotland (Gerard Butler), and France (Elodie Yung, who is of French and Cambodian descent), is still historically incorrect and, just on a base level, visually upsetting. Even Chadwick Boseman, who is part of the African Diaspora, more than likely doesn’t share any strong genetic ties to Egypt. Most of the actors who would at least, visually, present a better vision of ancient Egypt were actors or crew who either had bit parts or went uncredited–Josh Farah, Wassim Hawat, Julian Maroun, Ishak Issa, and Rhavin Banda, to be specific. Of course, having these guys might not make the film any more or less accurate either, since this casting would be based solely on skin color and not on historical accuracy.

Hollywood actors who would have been perfectly suited for these roles would have been actors who are of Egyptian or Turkish background, such as Numan Acar (Homeland, of German and Turkish heritage), Deniz Akdeniz (I, Frankenstein, Once Upon a Time), Osman Soykut, also known as Ozman Sirgood (The Hot Chick, Alias, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, of Eastern European and Turkish heritage), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, Night at the Museum series, of Egyptian heritage), Amr Waked (Lucy, Egyptian heritage), Khaled Nabawy (Kingdom of Heaven, Egyptian heritage), Sammy Sheik (American Sniper, Egyptian heritage), Ahmed Ahmed (Iron Man, Egyptian heritage), Kal Naga (Tyrant, Egyptian heritage) and plenty of other undiscovered Turkish and Egyptian actors in America looking to make their mark in Hollywood, as well as established Turkish and Egyptian actors who are looking to break into the American market. Ditto this list for a more accurate portrayal of biblical characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

However, that’s also not to say that the European ancestry of some ancient Egyptians shouldn’t be expressed in films. This needs to be done with care, since too often, the casting practice for Hollywood is, as we’ve seen with Gods of Egypt, to whitewash with abandon. Some of the actors I mentioned are biracial, which goes right into the picture that the study itself painted about the ancient Egyptians of Abusir el-Meleq. Overall, casting history should be done with care, not with Hollywood stereotyping and tropes.

Portrait of a man with sword belt from the Fayum province with British Museum. (Public Domain)

The Takeaways

If there’s been any production that made an effort to be at least visually appealing in regards to showcasing ancient Egypt is Spike’s TUT, which starred Avan Jogia and a mostly brown and black cast in an attempt to show how ancient Egypt and neighboring regimes in Sudan actually interacted with each other. Sure, it’s not historically accurate, but as far as Hollywood standards go, this was a knock out of the park. If Hollywood went in this direction more often, there might be less gripes from audience members.

In short, the new study doesn’t go against what folks who are vying for better represented Egyptian-themed movies have been preaching. If anything, it clarifies things even more. It showcases that there is not only a need to show ancient Egyptians as they actually looked, but there is also a need to remember that ancient Egyptians, just like us, existed in a multiracial, multicultural world, that included intermarriage and biracial/multiethnic offspring. It would be great if the people behind the films we loved showed an interest and curiosity in creating a film that not only had a great story, but also paid respect to the people whose stories they are telling.

Portrait of a man from the Fayum province, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

The Biggest TV Events of 2015: “Tut” and “The Wiz Live!”

2015 was the year of TV specials, such as History’s Texas Rising (which was, to use a buzzword, problematic for me), Sons of Liberty, and Saints and Strangers (which, from the commercials at least, also looked like it had its moments of historical propaganda).  But, there were two specials that stood out, at least for this writer. Tut and The Wiz Live! were what TV specials should aspire to in this day and age. Why? Let’s take a look.

Why Tut was great: This year is supposed to be the year in which I use a lot less “I” in my posts, but I have to break my rule for just a second and put in some personal opinion; I’ve wanted to see a proper dramatization of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s reign for decades, which means, I’ve wanted that for most of my life. After seeing the travesty that was Exodus: Gods and Kings come to theaters, I was especially ready for a Tut movie or TV show (or anything concerning ancient Egypt) that actually cast non-white actors. I was robbed when FOX killed Hieroglpyh, but I was appeased and delighted when I learned about and later watched Tut. 

Tut-Avan-Jogia-5

Spike’s Tut, starring Avan Jogia, Ben Kingsley, and Sibylla Deen, was a boon for the network, and it was a joy to watch. Everyone gave stellar performances, and for me, the breakout star was Jogia, who proved he’s got leading man material. To quote part of my review:

It’s really Jogia’s shoulders that the film rests on, and he plays the part of a boy maturing into a seasoned, slightly jaded king exceptionally well. Perhaps you slept on his talent when he was in ABC Family’s teen soap Twisted. Perhaps you didn’t watch Victorious because you’d grown out of Nickelodeon dramas. If you weren’t aware of Jogia’s talent before, Tut will show you that Jogia’s not someone who’s cut from the same tween star cloth as some of his other contemporaries. His capabilities for drama and action not only relay his maturity and awareness, but also show how ready he is for the movies. Movie studios: if you’re still doing those same outdated practices of casting only white actors because you think they’re the only ones capable of being thought of as a leading man, you’re doing everyone, including yourselves, a great disservice, since Jogia should be on every casting director’s “leading man” list.

The most important part was that there wasn’t a white actor portraying a non-white character. Again, to quote my review:

Films that are set in either ancient Egyptian or biblical times are some of the films Hollywood loves to whitewash the most. I give some reasons as to why I think that is, but just a quick summation: Hollywood is still behind the times when it comes to casting. It still acts as if it’s still in the golden age of Hollywood, when a large majority of America was white and wanted to see only white faces instead of the diversity that existed around them in America and in the world (something Comics Alliance’s Andrew Wheeler points out in his takedown of the comic book movie and racial diversity).

Tut does an exceptional job at casting people who aren’t white. I know some people have said they feel the casting should have been of darker people. To that criticism, I say, “I understand.” But from my point of view, Tut gives us a vision of Egypt that’s closer to the truth than Exodus and other films like it have ever done. I’m extremely proud of how Tut decided to cast against Hollywood “business-as-usual” methodology. More than likely, I’ll have posts about this later, but for now, here’s my handclap for Tut‘s casting department.

As I addressed in the blockquote, there are some who are irritated that actual Egyptian actors weren’t cast for this film and some would say that this miniseries is just as whitewashed as Exodus for that reason. I’d say that while they aren’t Egyptian, let’s not compare Tut to something like Exodus, which went out of its way to copy the whitewashed biblical epics of the 1950s. Tut’s casting department did what casting departments should always do, and that’s cast non-white actors for non-white characters. And, Tut proved that stories featuring non-white figures, including dramatizations of historical characters, can and will bring in audiences, especially those thirsting to see themselves on screen.

Want to read more about Into the Badlands and Mr. Robot? Read the inaugural issue of COLOR BLOCK Magazine!

Why The Wiz Live! was great: The Wiz Liveis NBC’s first successful live musical event, and good for it, because it had a ton of expectation riding on it. In short, the direction by Kenny Leon (who was revealed in the making-of special to be a taskmaster in the best way), the talent, featuring Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley, Amber Riley, Stephanie Mills, Uzo Aduba, Cirque du Soleil, tons of dancers, and newcomer Shanice Williams, and the set design and use of the stage combined into truly magical entertainment.

It was fantastic to see black representation on this apologetic of a scale. In a way, the production plays on the core tenet of Afrofuturism; that blackness is defined by black people only, not by the society in which black people exist at present. Within Afrofuturism, black people aren’t “black people.” They’re just people, defined by their circumstances, just like how every white person in every movie and TV show is defined.

The Wiz Live! - Season 1

It was also a historical production on account of the first showcase of ballroom culture on standard television. The gay ballroom scene has still remained underground, despite some of the dancers featured in The Wiz Live!, Dashaun Wesley, Danielle Polanco and Carlos Irizarry, being dancing legends in their own rights (as well as working choreographers) and despite pop culture’s penchant for lifting heavily from gay club culture. But famed choreographer Fatima Robinson brought the ballroom to mainstream America in the most creative and funky way; by making The Emerald City one big ballroom. (Also amazing: seeing Queen Latifah’s Wiz as a drag king, which was the icing on the Emerald City cake.) Between seeing Williams’ star born right on their screens, Uzo Aduba inspiring all of us to believe in ourselves, and being bowled over by the surprise of The Emerald City, Twitter was on fire with people tweeting about how much the amount of representation present in The Wiz Live! spoke to them.

What did you think of these specials? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Queer Coded: Amun (Spike's "Tut")

It’s been a few weeks out since Tut aired on Spike, and, to reiterate, I loved it. But I did notice one element of one of the characters that could be considered very loose queer coding, if you chose to see it that way. All this posturing is to say that the decision to show the evil priest, Amun, putting on makeup was a very decisive (and probably unconscious) decision on the part of the writing or staging. 

MOC Monday: Nonso Anozie

Nonso Anozie is an actor who still seems like he’s on the fringes of American television, even though he’s been in a lot of American projects. The Grey, Game of Thrones, The Bible, Son of God, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Ender’s Game, NBC’s Dracula, CBS’ Zoo, the list goes on and on. Perhaps his role in Tut will finally cement him as one of Hollywood’s brightest newcomers (and I say “newcomer” loosely, since he’s been in the game since 2006). 

MOC Monday: Ben Kingsley

It’s officially Tut week! If you’ve read my review of Spike’s three-night event, then you might have read what I wrote about Kingsley’s portrayal of Tutankhamun’s adviser, Ay:

Just as much as Jogia commands the audience’s attention as the quickly-maturing boy king by imbuing Tutankhamun with outgoing bravado, Kingsley demands the audience’s attention by portraying Ay with cautious carefulness and an undercurrent of seediness masked over with paternal gentility. Ay is formidable in that respect; he does genuinely care for Tutankhamun, but he also cares for his own power more and will do what he can to secure it while, to paraphrase Tut’s sister Ankhesenamun, insulating himself from being discovered as a crafty mastermind.