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Analysis: Denzel as Afrocentrist Hannibal

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   July 17, 2002 at 1:45 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, July 16 (UPI) -- Press reports that 20th Century Fox is considering making an epic movie starring Denzel Washington as Hannibal -- not the cannibal, but the North African general who led his war elephants over the Alps to surprise ancient Rome by attacking from the north -- are reviving controversies over Afrocentrism and just how "ethnically correct" movies need to be.

Washington is one of Hollywood's most honored and consistently profit-generating leading men. Washington can "open" a movie big and with the kind of budget this costume war movie would require, that's a crucial consideration.

Washington is black. But, what was Hannibal?

After many decades in which white actors played non-white characters, such as John Wayne's curious portrayal of the Mongolian Genghis Khan in 1956's "The Conqueror," should non-whites like Washington now play ancient figures who were probably Caucasian, such as Hannibal? How important is it for actors to racially match their characters?

Hollywood will have to come up with some solution to the complications that Afrocentrism and other forms of identity politics pose for the casting of ancient epics, because a huge number of these sword-and-sandal films are being planned. The box-office success of the Oscar-winner "Gladiator" and the 30 percent increase in revenue over the last two years have combined to allow Hollywood's more macho and grandiose moguls, directors, and stars to seriously propose filming some of their favorite role models -- the conquerors of the ancient world.

These include at least four potential Alexander the Great projects and two Julius Caesars. The latter might raise the hugely controversial issue of the race of Caesar's lover Cleopatra.

One thing to keep in mind about rumored Hollywood productions, though, is that after all is said and done, a lot more is said than done. Southern California is full of respected, veteran screenwriters driving S-class Mercedes who have never had one of the numerous scripts they've sold actually made into a movie.

Meanwhile, Revolution Studios is trying to beat Washington's Hannibal with its own biopic of the Carthaginian military genius who posed the gravest threat to Rome in its first thousand years of existence. It would feature Vin Diesel, the action star of "The Fast and the Furious."

Diesel doesn't like to discuss his racial background in detail, other than to say, "I am truly multiracial. When people view me they don't necessarily see a black man," he notes.

To some Afrocentrists, Hannibal ranks not far behind Cleopatra as a black hero. Since 1975, Anhueser-Busch has been promoting its corporate image in the African-American community by commissioning and distributing portraits of "The Great Kings and Queens of Africa." These attractive and forceful paintings include a Hannibal who is depicted as even blacker than Washington. In the beer company's view, Hannibal more closely resembled Michael Clarke Duncan, the imposing 6'5" African-American actor who earned an Oscar nomination for "The Green Mile."

In contrast, non-Afrocentrists interested in the classical world have generally not reacted enthusiastically to the rumors that Washington might play Hannibal.

Mary Lefkowitz, a leading classicist from Wellesley, and author of the anti-Afrocentrist bestseller "Not Out of Africa," told UPI that Hannibal "came from one of the elite families of Carthage; his ancestors were settlers from Phoenicia (in modern day Lebanon), Semites like other peoples in that area of the world. They spoke Phoenician, a Semitic language."

Carthage was a colony founded by the Phoenicians in what is now modern Tunisia, which is only about 125 miles southwest of Sicily. Philippe Gouillou, a French evolutionary psychologist who spent the last two years in that North African country, laughingly commented about his former hosts, who aren't always terribly sensitive toward diversity, "I imagine Tunisians would hate Hannibal being considered as a black African."

Indeed, in the depictions of Hannibal on Carthaginian coins, he appears to be a strong, handsome Semitic white man. Of course, ancient artworks weren't always perfectly realistic.

Salim George Khalaf, a North Carolinian of Lebanese origin who runs the informative Phoenicia.org Web site, commented, "Although Washington is a great actor, for him to play Hannibal would be joke."

On the other hand, as Lefkowitz noted, "Of course, the Phoenician colonists could have intermarried with native African peoples."

Richard Poe is a white conservative political pundit. He wrote a sophisticated Afrocentrist book called "Black Spark, White Fire," which argued against Lefkowitz's view that the ancient Egyptians had very little influence on Greek culture. Poe said, "Nobody really knows to what extent the Phoenicians did or did not intermarry with Africans during the hundreds of years that followed the colonization of Carthage." He suggested, "For this reason, it is possible that Hannibal might have resembled either Diesel or Washington, but it's perhaps more probable that he resembled Diesel."

Still, the indigenous people of Africa's northern coast west of the Nile were largely white. (Today, the U.S. Census Bureau classifies individuals of North African descent as white.) The largest North African ethnic group of that time was the Berbers, many of whom would appear to be closer to Europeans than to Africans.

Yet, there are also other Berbers tribes who have some clear sub-Saharan black admixture. Further, there are some quite black occupational castes in North Africa, such as the blacksmiths. When exactly the bulk of these admixtures took place is hard to say.

The Nile provided an easy road from the equator through the Sahara desert to the Mediterranean, a route that has continued in modern times.

Yet, crossing the arid central Sahara to Carthage was much harder, especially before the domestication of the camel.

The racial diversity of North Africans offers the more erudite Afrocentrists a clever response. If you use the old American "one drop of blood rule" for defining who is black, then you could argue that there is a strong probability that Hannibal was "black" in the Jim Crow sense of having at least one black ancestor somewhere in his family tree.

The passions these kind of questions arouse make casting politically delicate.

Many theatre companies these days use colorblind casting. For example, the prominent Goodman Theatre in Chicago blithely cast a black actor as a 17th-century Italian cardinal in Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo."

Film is a rather different medium, however, and moviemakers obsess over whether actors would look right to audiences during close-ups. As fans travel more and become more sophisticated about how different peoples from around the world look, this puts added pressure on casting.

The more ethnically correct the casting tries to be, the narrower the talent pool it can draw from. Lebanese-American actors who would be perfect as Carthaginian aristocrats include the distinguished F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar winner for "Amadeus," and the respected Tony Shalhoub ("Monk" on the USA Network). Yet, both are probably a little too old for the sword-swinging Hannibal, so they'd be better for supporting roles.

Hollywood has a long tradition of using stars to portray ancient North Africans who, like Diesel, are hard to pin down racially. The exotic European and Mongolian Yul Brynner made a striking Pharaoh in "The Ten Commandments," and wrestler The Rock (who is Samoan and black) was a likable hero in "The Scorpion King."

Poe argued, "Using racially ambiguous stars in some roles is not only a reasonable precaution, but also probably gives a relatively accurate picture of how many people in ancient North African societies looked."

Several ancient world enthusiasts, who objected to Washington as Hannibal, approved of Diesel in the role. Khalaf of the Center for Phoenician Studies enthused over the star of the upcoming "XXX, "Vin Diesel is the absolute best choice for playing Hannibal. He looks very Mediterranean."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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