Ben-Hur, the classic tale of revenge and redemption, is returning to the silver screen. It was twice filmed as a silent movie in 1907 and 1925. The 1959 remake is considered one of Hollywood’s most exciting spectacles. Ben-Hur was the best-selling American novel of the 19th century. It’s been successfully adapted into plays in 1889 and 2009, made into an animated film in 2003, a Canadian mini-series in 2010, and now in 2016, Hollywood has remade Ben-Hur again.
This time, the movie is featuring a far more diverse cast. Although Judah Ben-Hur and Messala are played by British actors, other roles are played by African-American, Iranian, Brazilian, Israeli, Turkish, Hispanic, Danish, and Tunisian actors.
The inimitable Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy, Batman Begins, The Shawshank Redemption, Glory) plays Sheik Ilderim, the wealthy sheik who teaches Judah Ben-Hur to become a champion charioteer. In the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, Ilderim was a supporting character, almost comic relief, portrayed by Shakespearean-trained Welsh actor Hugh Griffith. In the 2016 version, according to the New Yorker, “Ilderim has been reconceived.”
“Gone are the eructations and the casual racism. Ilderim now seems to be the biggest figure in the movie—Freeman towers over Jack Huston, the British actor playing Ben-Hur.”
Nazanin Boniadi was born in Tehran, spent her childhood in England, and completed her education in the United States. She’ll be playing Esther, Judah Ben-Hur’s love interest. Boniadi is best known for her work in General Hospital, How I Met Your Mother, and Scandal.
Rodrigo Santoro (300, Love Actually) is Brazilian. Santoro will play Jesus, and will have a much larger part in this version than in previous theatrical versions of Ben-Hur.
Ayelet Zurer, an Israeli actress, will be playing Naomi, mother of Judah Ben-Hur. She’s currently co-starring in the Netflix show Marvel’s Daredevil as Vanessa Marianna. She’s also won awards for her appearances in Nina’s Tragedies, Betipul, and Hostages.
Simonides, the loyal slave to Ben-Hur played by Sam Jaffe in 1959, will be played by Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer in this reboot. Bilginer has worked on stage, in television, and in movies in England (EastEnders, New Blood), Turkey (Ezel, Polis)k and Germany (The International).
Moisés Arias, an American actor who is the son of Colombian immigrants, will portray Gestas, a Jewish zealot. Arias is best known for his work on Hannah Montana, Dadnapped, and The Kings of Summer.
Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, best known for Game of Thrones and Borgen, is playing Pontius Pilate. In addition to condemning Jesus to be crucified, Pontius Pilate also judges the famous chariot race.
Marwan Kenzari, a Dutch actor of Tunisian heritage, is the Roman soldier Druses. Kenzari speaks four languages, and has appeared in Autobahn, Wolf, Penoza, and will be in the reboot of The Mummy.
Some of the actors in Ben-Hur are American or British. Jack Huston (American Hustle, Boardwalk Empire), who plays the title role of Judah Ben-Hur, comes from both British aristocracy and theatrical royalty: he’s the nephew of Anjelica Huston, the grandson of director John Huston, and the grandson of the Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley. Toby Kebbell (Control, Prince of Persia, War Horse), who plays Messala, is English. American actress Sofia Black-D’Elia (All My Children, Gossip Girl) plays Tirzah, Judah Ben-Hur’s sister. Quintus, the Roman consul whom Judah saves, will be played by Scottish actor James Cosmo (Game of Thrones, All the Queen’s Men, Trainspotting).
The director, Timur Bekmambetov, is from Kazakhstan. A director, producer, and scriptwriter, he is best known in the United States for Night Watch and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.
Hollywood, as The Guardian has pointed out, “loves the sound of political correctness if not the reality of equality.” The #HollywoodSoWhite hashtag pointed out the problems of the lack of African-American and Latino-American actors, producers, scriptwriters, and directors. Some studios are trying to increase diversity; The Inquisitr reported that Marvel is improving with Black Panther and Dr. Strange.
Does the new Ben-Hur herald a new age of diversity in Hollywood? Maybe, maybe not, but at least this reboot gives a small kick to #HollywoodSoWhite.
[Image via Paramount]