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Pet Sins March 2005

Alexander

Oliver Stone's Alexander opens in Ptolemaic Egypt, where the aging Greek ruler Ptolemy narrates his youthful adventures with Alexander the Great to the Egyptian scribe Kadmos. Althought the main character Alexander is presented as a culturally open-minded conqueror who respects the conquered civilizations as 'far older than our own (Greek civilization)', the 'racial' hierarchy of the movie is already set in the opening scene. A white European, Ptolemy, is ruler over Egypt. In his retinue are brown-skinned native Egyptian scribes and clerks. So far, this is probably historically accurate. Ptolemy was indeed a colonial ruler of Egypt, though the Greek ruling family took on Egyptian customs and religion to more closely align themselves with the natives. In Stone's film, we see black servants in addition to Ptolemy's brown-skinned servants. The black servants, presumably Nubians, are *all* in blue-collar jobs such as gardeners, guards, and other menial workers. The brown-skinned native Egyptians all hold clerical jobs. The Nubia of Alexander's day was hardly a backward nation, with a civilization on par with Egypt's. It is highly unlikely that Nubians in Egypt would be confined exclusively to menial jobs as depicted in the film.

This color hierarchy carries over to the rest of the movie. Later in the film, black-skinned Africans would appear in Asia as attendents to Alexander's troops, performing the most menial of tasks. In contrast, the servants Alexander recruited from conquered Asian populations such as the Persians and Central Asians served as counselors, soldiers, and, in the case of Bagoas the handsome Persian eunuch, as Alexander's personal attendant and sometime bedmate.

Stone's Alexander sounds a little like some modern politicians of European descent. When he faces the Babylonian army, Alexander proudly compares the Greek soldiers favorably against the Asians. The Greeks, he said, were free men who follow him into battle out of choice. The Babylonian soldiers, Alexander claimed, only came to battle because their king ordered them to do so. These lines are not too unlike the allegations we heard concerning a certain political leader who until recently ruled in the location of ancient Babylon - Saddam Hussein allegedly only secured the obedience of his people by tyranny, and did not truly have their hearts. I'm not making any claims as to whether such allegations are true or false - mainly pointing out some coincidental similarities between contemporary political rhetoric and the movie script.

In the scene where Alexander's generals entered Darius' harem. The men wasted no time at all in indulging themselves with the more-than-willing harem inhabitants who welcomed the conquerors with open arms. The women, mostly of color, enticed the Greeks by dancing around them, presenting a stereotypical image of the insatiable woman of color, equally willing to serve all comers. And in the social mores of that time, women of the harem were all considered wives of the king (the word 'concubine', which is popular with Western Orientalists, does not quite reflect the real social status of a ruler's lower-ranking wives). Such women were also unlikely to welcome the advances of anyone who happens to step into the harem, and submission to foreign conquerors would be more out of fear than gladness. A New York Times film review mentions Alexander's "rapacious conquest of the feminized East".

Later, Alexander chooses a woman of color, the daughter of a Sogdian chieftain, as his queen. He plays the enlightened white hero by angrily overriding the racist protests of his Macedonian compatriots, who consider the taking of an Asian wife as a dishonor to the Greeks. Stone's Alexander reminds me of the modern racially 'open-minded' European male who appreciates people of color (as long as people of color know their place) - he speaks of bringing Europe and Asia together as one, rewards the Asian wives of his European soldiers with dowries, and sees the Eurasian children of these unions as the new basis of a "permanant Greek army in Asia". Here we see support for mixed race relationships, but only on a white man's terms - all sanctioned interracial unions must fit a certain gender/race combination (white male/woman of color), all the offspring of such unions must be "given a proper Greek education" (i.e. encouraged to identify with the conqueror's culture), and all these children will be co-opted into the political machine of the conquering Europeans (become Greek soldiers) in order to continue the status quo (a 'benevolent' European ruling class with grateful, appreciative Asian subjects).

Western scholars romanticize the historical Alexander as a racially and culturally open-minded ruler who believed in world unity and meritocracy. While Alexander was at times merciful to the populations of surrendered cities, he was known for his cruelty to those who resisted conquest. Iranians today do not see him as a benevolent conqueror. The movie Alexander (and in some respects the Alexander of history books) is an anachronistic reference to today's self-styled 'liberal' white male who shows off his Asian wife and hapa children as tokens of his 'open-mindedness', while still enjoying the benefits of white privilege. For all his talk of 'conquering the world' to bring 'freedom' to the world's people, Stone's Alexander, and by extension the intended viewership of 'enlightened' white males who are expected to identify with the main character, would not have been willing to live under an Asian ruler - even if such a ruler was as 'benevolent' and 'open-minded' as himself. The attendent result of Persian men taking Macedonian women as wives instead of the converse would not be as palatable for white audiences of European descent.

2004