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Tut: a quick review

Tut is a Canadian-American TV miniseries that aired this past July on U.S cable network Spike. It is a three-part miniseries that focuses on the life and intrigues of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Produced by the same company behind Pillars of the Earth, the production strives to be a big TV blockbuster.


The show stars Ben Kingsley, Avan Jogia, Alexander Siddig and Sibylla Deen, and it was brought to my attention due to the enormous controversy it caused (which I found out about during my research for the Cleopatra article).

On the one hand, it was praised for its ethnically diverse casting, but, at the same time, it was heavily accused of whitewashing Egyptian history. This really spiked my curiosity and drove me to google the show. Some of what I saw was really interesting, other stuff... not so much.

But, because I haven't seen it yet and won't have time to see it in a while (yes, it's a very long three-part show) I wanted to do a quick review focusing on first impressions (both good and bad).

QUICK HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Tutankhamun was an Egyptian Pharoh of the 18th dynasty, who ruled c. 1332–1323 BC, during the period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom or New Empire Period. He was the son of Akhenaten and one of his minor wives. After his ascension to the throne at the age of nine or ten, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenamun (daughter of Nefertiti). He reigned for 10 years and died under mysterious circumstances.

THE COSTUME DESIGN

The first pictures I saw of the show were actually really impressive. The costume design was created by the Italian designer Carlo Poggioli, and most of his work for the show is actually quite good.

Some of his previous work includes the costume design for Cold Mountain (2003, co-designed by Ann Roth), Van Helsing (2004, co-designed by Gabriella Pescucci), The Brothers Grimm (2005, also co-designed by Gabriella Pescucci), Romeo and Juliet (2013) and Divergent (2014).

A self-proclaimed Egypt lover, the main drive behind his designs for Tut was historical accuracy and heavy detail and quality. And for most of it, he succeeds.

THE GOOD

Ancient Egypt has often been misrepresented in Hollywood and therefore is quite rare to see faithful representations of the period. What's even harder, is to find movies that even try to be faithful. But this is not something you can blame Tut for.

For the most part, the costumes for the show are really impressive. The shapes and types of dress are all very accurate, as is the use of materials (mostly linen).


There is quite the attention to detail at work here. The colors and patterns used are really spot on.


It's very easy to see that these costumes were made exclusively for this (instead of reused). Not only that, but they were also handmade; each and every one of them. From the regal tunics to the armors.


I particularly like the designs for the High priest, which are a hundred percent historical and look amazing on the Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig. I love the inclusion of the cap, which was something high priest wore that is usually left behind on movies set around that period.


Also, this costume for Ankhesenamun is amazing and perfect for the period; from the crown to the cut of the dress, to the linen.


Doing some research on these costumes I found out that all the tunics and dresses (both male and female) were done using pleated linen; which is very much accurate to the period. But, pleated linen is not something you can go and buy. You have to buy normal linen and manually create the tiny pleats that give this very particular texture that is so characteristic of this historical period. This, in itself, speaks of the commitment that everyone in the costume department had with making this as real as possible.


Looking at the picture above is really easy to point out how using the right material and the right cut helps skyrocket the accuracy levels. I particularly like how you can see the shape of her legs through the linen (which is something very characteristic of Ancient Egyptian fashion).

But, if you look past the beauty of the costume, you might also spot the not so good elements of these designs.

THE BAD

I have to concede that, for once, my main problem with the look is not the costume designer's fault. The fault is completely laid at the doorstep of the hair designer/stylist and the make-up artists. Are we to believe this is actual Ancient Egypt?


Yes, the costumes are spot on, but is that natural hair I see? Yes, according to what I've found out, there is plenty of natural hair worn perfectly styled in soft waves in the show.


Here's the thing; Egyptians did not use natural hair for their hairstyles. Both men and women shaved their heads and used highly decorated wigs. This was done to avoid lice and other insects to nest in their heads and avoid the illnesses they carried around. Also, it was a great way to keep cool during the worst of the summer heat.

This is what Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun would actually look like.

Representation of the Royal Couple engraved on the famous
Throne Chair found at Tutankhamun's tomb.

Definitely no thin, wavy hair there. What she sports on the show can't pass for anything but 2015's Fashionista style. And, what's worst, ruins the wonderful costumes, making the whole look seem phony.


For instance, in this pic below, she is wearing a wonderfully accurate dress with a perfectly accurate crown, but the hair... it just cuts through its accuracy levels like a machete.


There's even a proto-hippy look included in the show, which happens to be hilarious and not in a good way.


That headband with the hanging feathers is absolutely ridiculous.

And this huge styling mistake is not only reduced to the women on the show. Tut, himself, falls into the whole "natural hair" trend as well and spends most of the show with a half ponytail worthy of any hipster you know.


Then there's the other horrendous styling choice: the makeup.

This is a wonderfully accurate crown, by the way. But the
makeup is nothing but 2015 trendy

As I explained in my Cleopatra article, Egyptians were not shy about makeup. Both men and women painted their eyes heavily. It's a very iconic look, and it's generally the only thing they get right in most movies set in Ancient Egypt. That's why I find so baffling that Ankhesenamun is constantly shown wearing so little makeup and always in a very modern fashion.

And for some even stranger reason, the only character that consistently gets an accurate hair and makeup treatment is the character played by Ben Kinglsey.


It is as if only old, ugly men get the "accurate" treatment. Because, otherwise, how are we supposed to know the young characters are "hot" and "sexy".

THE CONTROVERSIAL

This historical "inaccuracy" has been the real cause behind the whitewashing controversy of the show. While it is very much possible that they chose to go with the more modern hairstyle and makeup to appeal to a younger and wider audience (since they are clearly pandering to a very contemporary sense of beauty), it is also true that those hairstyles are undeniably Caucasian.

Hollywood has a rather long and shameful tradition of whitewashing Egyptian history: by casting white actors (from Elizabeth Taylor to the more recent Gerard Butler and Christian Bale) and "bleaching" Egyptian history through the systematic portrayal of Egyptian as white or light-skinned and their enemies as black-skinned.

Here, despite the unusual choice of various ethnically diverse actors (Avan Jogia, who plays Tut, is a Canadian actor born of an Indian father. Sibylla Deen, who plays Ankhesenamun, is an Australian actress of Pakistani descent. Ben Kingsley is of Indian descent, and Alexander Siddig is from Sudan), still shies away from the "blackest" aspects of the Egyptian culture.

This is made very blatant by the generalization of straight, light hair in the look of the characters (a trait that is the staple of "white beauty"). Even if Egyptians would not have used wigs, they would have had what is considered "black hair" (curly and thick and very dark), which is the complete opposite of what they show here.

If pandering to a contemporary sense of fashion and beauty in period pieces is one of the worst things a designer can do, pandering to a racial standard (because unfortunately many people still consider "Caucasian" as the default) for beauty is definitely the worst.

And what's even worst, I'm sure that the blame for this is not on the designer. I'm almost 100% positive that this decision was pushed by the producers, in a sad attempt to cash in the young, American audience.

A RECAP

For what I've seen (which basically amount to youtube clips and a ton of photos), the costumes are truly amazing. But the hair and makeup sort of undermine that amazingness; it's lazy, cheap pandering and it's just not good enough.


I'm sure that I will end up checking up the entire show, but for now, I really don't have the time, and my initial reaction to those hairstyles was way too strong to keep in check until I got the chance to see the show. Sometimes one needs to let their rants loose.

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Comments

  1. thank you for this analysis! i also love historical costumes!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Elizabeth Taylor was not white washing since Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek not actual Eqyptian like people here. I thought you knew this based on the Cleopatra article?

    But this was great article. Shame with the hair and make-up here since the costumes are so beautiful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're absolutely right, I know (I know about Cleopatra, I mean). What we meant was that, even if it's not as horribly obvious white washing, it still is. She doesn't look Macedonian either and it's promoting a crystal clear anglo-saxon standard of beauty. That's what we meant. But I understand the confusion (mainly because she's name dropped next to two casting choices who are actually supposed to play characters of Egyptian ethnicity), and I apologize. Sometimes, when I write, I fail to clarify stuff because I have it so integrated in my brain.... and then nobody gets it because it's not explained. Hooray for me :S

      My apologies again, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

      Delete

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