Where Are All The Black People In The New ‘Noah’ Movie?

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In Miriam Krule’s article for Slate, “How Biblically Accurate Is Noah?” I found no mention at all of the most glaring error in the entire film: the absence of black people. Let’s be more to the point, no one is particularly “Middle Eastern” looking for that matter. This raises a number of important questions:

1. Is Hollywood afraid of casting African or Middle Eastern people as the predominant leads in big-budget films. If so, why? Is this a product of their own overt or covert racism? Or is this based on the marketing belief that Caucasians will not turn out to see a movie with such demographics? Either way, this is an important question to ask ourselves and Hollywood alike.

2. Why do all of the critiques about the “inaccuracies” of the Noah movie not even apparently notice this most basic of errors. 

3. Is this error based, in any way, on the long-discredited racist myth of the “Curse of Ham”: the origins of blackness deriving from a curse put on Ham the son of Noah?

 

To be clear, I am a scholar of religion, with an emphasis on Near Eastern traditions. To speak of “inaccuracies” in a movie about “Noah” misses the point. The name “Noah,” like most names of patriarchs in the Torah, is a play on words, even a pun. There is no sense that these were thought to be the historical names of personages. If we are to go back before the Bible, “Noah” was called “Atrahasis.” Even “Atra’Hasis” was itself a reference to an unnamed man, simply called in “he who is Extremely Wise”. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, he is called “Utnapishtim” (“he who is far away”), a seeming reference to the Sumerian King “ZI.UD.SURA.” But I digress. Back to the issue of where all of these white people came from in the Noah movie.

In terms of Jewish Midrashic tradition, Noah was thought to be “white,” probably an albino. In Louis Ginzberg’s worth collection of Midrashim “Legends of the Jews”, the birth of Noah is described as follows:

Methuselah took a wife for his son Lamekh, and she bore him a man child. The body of the babe was white as snow and red as a blooming rose, and the hair of his head and his long locks were white as wool, and his eyes like the rays of the sun. When he opened his eyes, he lighted up the whole house, like the sun, and the whole house was very full of light. And when he was taken from the hand of the midwife, he opened his mouth and praised the Lord of righteousness. His father Lamekh was afraid of him, and fled, and came to his own father Methuselah. And he said to him: “I have begotten a strange son; he is not like a human being, but resembles the children of the angels of heaven, and his nature is different, and he is not like us, and his eyes are as the rays of the sun, and his countenance is glorious. And it seems to me that he is not sprung from me, but from the angels, and I fear that in his days a wonder may be wrought on the earth. And now, my father, I am here to petition you and implore you, that you mayest go to Enoch, our father, and learn from him the truth, for his dwelling place is among the angels.”

That’s right, Noah was white (if we are to imagine these traditions as history), but this was an anomaly. It was so rare that Noah’s father thought his son was a child of the angels, not a human being. Why? Because human beings didn’t look white… at least not in that geographical region.

It turned out that Noah was just a regular old human being in the story. He wasn’t an angel baby, and he wasn’t black. Again, if the tradition is true then he was likely an albino. But if whiteness was so rare, and if we know that even apart from what religious tradition says, why does Hollywood insist on white-washing the cast of Noah?

One theory that I have kicked around is that there is some influence of the long-discredited “Curse of Ham” myth, on the making (and makers) of the film. So what about the old racist notion that the “Curse of Ham” was blackness? Linguistically, this comes from the closeness of “Ham” to the Hebrew word for “brown.” But here are some points to remember:

1. Ham was not the source of brown people according to the Bible, and he was not according to broader Jewish Midrashic accounts.

2. Ham was also not cursed according to the Bible, only one of his descendants was. Other descendants, and he himself were not cursed. There goes the “Curse of Ham” theory racists so used to enjoy.

3. In “Enochian” Jewish Second Temple tradition (think offshoots like the Essenes, Ethiopian Jewry and such, which all came from a common “Enochian” source), Ham was regarded as a prophet. See the Book of Jubilees, which can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls or even in Ethiopian Jewish communities and even Christianity.

Oh yeah, here’s one more important point: in Jewish tradition Shem and Ham were both said to be black and brown. Specifically, tradition states that both were beautiful and dark. This was hardly a curse.

How did Middle Easterners get lighter in many cases, according to tradition? The Bible says that Shem would dwell in the tents of Japheth, who tradition regarded as white. Thus, this mixing led to an array of shades and hues in the Middle East. That’s the Biblical and Midrashic way of explaining it at least.

He blessed Noah and his sons, as it is said, and God granted them their gifts and bequeathed the entire world to them. He blessed Shem and his sons, black (shehorim) and comely and granted them the entire cultivated world. He blessed Cham and his sons, black (shehorim) as the raven, and granted them the coast of the sea [in East Africa]. He blessed Yafet and his sons, all of them white (levanim) and handsome and granted them deserts and fields.

Either way, whatever the actual – historical – case may be, the tradition is not that black people came from some “Curse of Ham”… Even though that seems to be the myth that the Noah movie is buying in to.

(Article by M.B. David; image screenshot from Noah movie)  Reprinted with permission from Political Blind Spot