Understanding Racism via The Prince of Egypt

The Prince of Egypt is a 1998 American animated musical produced by DreamWorks Animation and released by DreamWorks Pictures. You’ve probably seen it; it starred Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, and Patrick Stewart, and the music was full of banger after banger. Seriously, Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz did not need to go in that hard. Consider this opening track, Deliver Us:

The epic scale really drives home the suffering and pain of the Jews enslaved in Egypt. The plot follows the story of Moses in Exodus, delivering the Jews from slavery under Ramses I and Ramses II. Moses of course was raised as Ramses I’s son, alongside his brother Ramses II, but he did not discover that he was a Jew until he was grown and Ramses II was taking over as the pharaoh. He ran away for a time, learning the ways of the Levites (Jews who were not enslaved) and getting married, before returning to free as many of his people as he could.

The emotional climax of the film is the Ten Plagues, delivered through the most epic song I’ve heard in an animated film in a long time. Through the melody line, we come to feel Moses’s pain for the suffering of both his birth people the Jews and his adopted people the Egyptians. But we also come to feel for Ramses II, who did not personally begin the enslavement of the Jews but also chose to, by inaction and inattention, prolong their suffering.

From Ramses II’s perspective, his brother has come back from being missing for decades, something that should have been a joyous occasion for reunion — but instead of good tidings, Moses brought back pain, suffering, and supernatural plagues for not just the royal family, but all of his people as well.

Why would Moses do this to his own brother, his own family, his own people? Ramses cannot understand it. What sense is there in destroying his family and his country when he could instead work from a position of power to reform it slowly? If the Jews are being mistreated, surely there are little things that can be done to ensure their comfort without destroying everything the mighty Egyptian empire has built? Surely Egypt, the most prosperous, powerful, and blessed nation on Earth, has room for both Egyptians and Jews? After all, Ramses doesn’t hate the Jews — his own beloved brother is a Jew.

But all this erases, eclipses, and shadows the very real pain and suffering the Jews were undergoing due to their slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. When you cannot see the Jews as people, you cannot see their pain and suffering. You cannot take into account the enormity of the crimes against them, the vast cosmic unbalance that led to this point. Ramses isn’t capable of understanding the harm he’s causing — so he hardens his heart, turns away from their cries, and refuses to move, insistent that if Moses just approached things the right way things would have been different, but now we have to fight and it’s all Moses’s fault for being unreasonable.

I love Prince of Egypt. There are so many Ramses when we come to do justice work, that it’s easy to understand what’s going on in this song, in this scene. It takes the death of his own son to get Ramses to let the Jews go — and not because he understands, but because he is afraid of what more may come upon his household if he does not. In order to change the heart of a Ramses, we have to make the current system untenable. It has to hurt more than change would in order for change to happen. And people assume change will hurt.

Be gay. Love your neighbor. And make it hurt.

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2 Responses to Understanding Racism via The Prince of Egypt

  1. Horace Green says:

    Powerful analogy to what’s going on in America today. We are trying to do better, but there are many Ramses in power.

  2. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for April 9, 2021 | The Slacktiverse

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