We’ve been trying, over the years, to be more inclusive in the historical costume movie and TV shows we watch and review. We enjoy costume dramas that tell the stories about and by people of color at different points in history. We do have a hard time finding a lot of multiracial shows set before 1970, and preferably earlier so we have more costume content to critique. But we keep trying.
This is always relevant, but especially right now, when the United States is again grappling with our original sin of racism, sparked by yet another murder by police of an unarmed African American. As historians, we look to understand more of the context for what’s going on and hope you do too, as fellow historians and fans of history. This event is not isolated, it cannot be ignored, and it does affect everyone.
The three of us here at Frock Flicks and much of our audience are white, and we get to see ourselves reflected in movies and TV all the time. Our history is reflected back to us in costume dramas constantly. But that’s not the case for those with dark skin. Beyond representation for people of color, it’s important that white viewers expose ourselves to the history of marginalized people and their points of view about history. While this isn’t often shown onscreen, when it is, we should watch. That’s how we start to decolonize our frock flicks, show by show, movie by movie.
To ‘decolonize’ your media means to watch films, read books, etc., that are made by and represent marginalized people, and to do so broadly and with intention. This is one method to counter dehumanization and increase visibility. Specifically, we can widen our understanding of history and question the colonialist narratives that permeate costume drama.
Now, we’ve seen some of you comment things like “having a black person in movie XYZ isn’t historically accurate!” To which we say, a) educate yourself and b) why does that really matter to you?
First, education — we’ve talked about this before (go reread, we’ll wait). Black people have lived in Britain since at least 1505. Africans were probably in Spain and Italy much earlier. In America, while Africans were brought here as slaves around 1619, free black communities existed before the Civil War. And that’s not even mentioning Latinx and Asian migration. There are many more complex and varied parts of history all of us should be researching (and Hollywood, et. al., should be putting on film with more voices).
Second, why would this one supposed historical inaccuracy be such a big deal? Yes, Frock Flicks is devoted to nitpicking the inaccuracies of historical costumes in movies and TV. And we sometimes throw in snark when flicks get other historical stuff wrong too. But we know that movies are not historical truths and none will ever be perfectly accurate.
As our friend at An Historian Goes to the Movies so carefully points out in three detailed blog posts, There’s No Such Thing as an Historically Accurate Movie. Otherwise, movies would include every lunch eaten and piss taken, but movies wouldn’t know every word spoken by many historical people. And movies adapted from books would be insanely tedious because they’d have to recreate every single line of prose. Instead an Historian suggests we consider:
“All historical films are inaccurate; that’s just a given. The question we should always be asking instead is “why is this film being inaccurate about some things and not others?” This question asks us to analyze a film, the intentions of the screenwriter and the director, and the overall message the film is offering to the viewers.”
So if the one thing that bothers you about Mary Queen of Scots (2018) is that Bess of Hardwick is played by an Asian woman, well, we’re going to question how much you care about history at all because that movie was a goddamned shitshow from every historical and costume point of view, so who gives a fuck that a relatively minor character wasn’t lily-white?
It seems like the people who cry “why is everything about race?” in our comments are the same ones who complain about these small casting choices. If the race, ethnicity, or gender is not germane to what the character does in the movie, then actually let any actor fill the role.
OK, what can we watch to help decolonize our historical costume dramas? Here’s what we’ve reviewed so far. Some of these may be hard to find, so keep on googling. Some of them are problematic, but we’ve included them in this list because problematic can spark discussion.
- Belle (2013)
- Beloved (1998)
- Bessie (2015)
- Black Girl in a Big Dress (2018-)
- Black Venus (2010)
- The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (2018)
- The Book of Negroes (2015)
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007)
- Cadillac Records (2008)
- The Courage to Love (2000)
- Dancing on the Edge (2013)
- Daughters of the Dust (1991)
- Dreamgirls (2006)
- The Empresses in the Palace (2011-2012)
- The Feast of All Saints (2001)
- Harlots (2017-)
- Harriet (2019)
- The Help (2011)
- Hidden Figures (2016)
- Jefferson in Paris (1995)
- Jericho (2016)
- Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
- The Josephine Baker Story (1991)
- The Joy Luck Club (1993)
- Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
- The Last Emperor (1987)
- Les Misérables (2019)
- The Liberator (2013)
- The Load (2016) aka La Carga
- Indian Summers (2015-2016)
- Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019)
- Marshall (2017)
- Mercy Street (2016)
- Much Ado About Nothing (1992)
- Mystère à la Tour Eiffel (2017)
- The New World (2005)
- Oliver Twist (2007)
- Ordeal by Innocence (2018)
- Othello (1995)
- Princess Kaiulani (2009)
- Roots (2016)
- The Royal Tailor (2015)
- Sanditon (2019)
- Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)
- Selma (2014)
- The Spanish Princess (2019)
- Still Star Crossed (2017)
- Taboo (2017)
- The Terror (2018)
- Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991)
- Timeless (2016-2018)
- Tut (2015)
- Underground (2016-2017)
- Victoria and Abdul (2017)
- Westworld (2016-)
- Wuthering Heights (2011)
- Year of the Rabbit (2019)
Not everything listed is a masterpiece, but then, neither is everything we’ve reviewed that features all white people. And it’s not a comprehensive list because here at Frock Flicks, we enjoy watching female-focused stories, so while there seem to be several costume dramas about the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, for example, that’s not our jam. Still waiting for an Ida B. Wells biopic, a miniseries adaption of Daughter of Fortune by Isabelle Allende, or flick about Mary Edmonia Lewis though!
OK, now it’s your turn — how do you recommend we all try to decolonize our frock flicks?