Race and Roles in Historical Costume Dramas


In an interview with the Sunday Times, actress Thandie Newton commented on the limited roles available to her, as a woman of color, in the UK. She said:

“I love being here, but I can’t work, because I can’t do Downton Abbey, can’t be in Victoria, can’t be in Call the Midwife — well, I could, but I don’t want to play someone who’s being racially abused. I’m not interested in that, don’t want to do it … there just seems to be a desire for stuff about the royal family, stuff from the past, which is understandable, but it just makes it slim pickings for people of colour.”

She’s not the first non-white actor to make this observation.

Jefferson in Paris (1995), Thandie Newton

In Jefferson in Paris (1995), Thandie Newton played Sally Hemings, the young slave Thomas Jefferson fathered several children by. This was the first screen portrayal of Hemings.

David Oyelowo told the BBC: “We make period dramas in Britain, but there are almost never black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years. It’s frustrating, because it doesn’t have to be that way.”  Oyelowo says he even suggested a historical drama based on a black character to a U.K. executive at one point, but was told: “…’if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don’t understand.’ I thought, ‘Okay, you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me. I can’t live with that. So I’ve got to get out’.”

David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)

David Oyelowo had to go to the U.S. to star as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma (2014).

Actor Idris Elba also chimed in, talking to the Guardian, on the limited roles in British historical costume film and TV:

“There’s definitely a particular lens on the type of period dramas that we make. You tend to see stories about well-to-do Victorians and not the stories outside London, the history of Bradford, Birmingham, Newcastle. Make period pieces more diverse. Look at England’s multicultural history. There’s a lot more stuff to unearth in period drama. I’m not a massive fan of it.”

The British Film Institute has research on the issue, and the numbers don’t lie. Between 2006-2016, of the films produced in the UK, 59% did not have any black actors in a named character role, and 80% of historical dramas in this 10-year period featured not one single black actor. The problem is not isolated to the United Kingdom by any means. A University of Southern California study found that of 2014’s top 100 films, 73.1% of all characters were white, and only 17 of those top movies had non-white lead or co-lead actors.

When these stats come up in relation to historical costume movies and TV shows, there are a number of predictable reactions, such as:

  • “But there are already historical movies about / starring people of color — look at 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Roots (1977), and that one was even remade in 2016!”
  • “Don’t you care about historical accuracy? It’s not like there were any people of color at Versailles with Marie-Antoinette!”

And that’s when I know we’ve got some work to do, because those reactions are misinformed at best. I’m not claiming to be perfect or have all the answers, but I’m a researcher by trade and there’s plenty of info out there we can dig up and chew on before we say this is no big deal. So let’s get to it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013) was the first film directed by an African-Briton to win a Best Picture Oscar and the first film written by an African-American person to win Best Adapted Screenplay. But still, slavery.


Existing Roles for POC in Historical Films/TV Are Limited

About the existing roster of historical films featuring people of color (POC) — how would you like it if you always saw yourself reflected on screen as a slave? Like, all the time, in every ye old timey movie and TV series. That’s it! That’s the only history you get. How’s it feel? Pretty shitty, actually. No matter how “uplifting” the final scene is, 99% of the story is “my ancestors were human chattel” — which gets really old to watch, and, as an actor, gets super-old to play.

Oh, I nearly forgot, the other role available is a domestic servant (aka a paid slave). See also, The Help (2011), The Butler (2013), and everyone’s favorite Gone With the Wind (1939). While all the white girls are admiring Scarlett’s fabulous frocks, the African-American girls are stuck with “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies!”

English-language historical movies and TV shows that include Latinos and Asians don’t fair much better. Stereotypes like the Latin lover and the submissive China doll or manipulative Dragon Lady dehumanize people of color and are frankly just bad storytelling. And do we even need to talk about Hollywood’s crappy portrayal of Native Americans as “injuns” in countless Wild West flicks? Ugh.

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1960) - Anna May Wong

One of Anna May Wong’s final roles, in a cliche-ridden western TV show, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1960).

So while there are some historical movies that include people of color, doing so in cliched, stereotypical roles doesn’t do actors or audiences any favors. Both U.S. and U.K. producers have occasionally made biopics and other realistic films like Bessie (2015) and The Tuskegee Airmen (1995). They’re few and far between and tend to focus on 20th-century entertainers, athletes, and war stories. When Hispanics were 23% of frequent U.S. moviegoers in 2016 (yet 18% of the population), African-Americans were 15% of moviegoers (12% of the population), and Asian-Americans and other people of color were 11% of moviegoers (8% of the population) according to Motion Picture Association of America data, it’s a shame to have so little accurate, interesting, relevant history onscreen. As of 2010, non-Hispanic whites account for only 63.7% of America’s population, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our film and TV screens.

Dolores del Rio, 1934 Madame Du Barry. 1964 Cheyenne Autumn

Dolores del Rio was the first Hispanic actress to break into Hollywood. In 1934, she starred in Madame du Barry (left). But she still had to take generic ethnic roles at the end of her career, as in 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn (right).


POC Existed Throughout All of History

Historical costume movies and TV series tell stories that are either based on real events (the life of Queen Victoria) or they’re fiction events set in a past time (based on a book, like Pride and Prejudice, or written originally for screen, like Downton Abbey). None of these have to exclude people of color automatically just to be “historically accurate.”

Yes, I realize that most of the frock flicks we discuss — certainly the English-language productions made in the U.S. and U.K. — draw on European history pre-World War II. But there was still a lot of contact between Europe and Africa, the Middle East, and Asia before the mid 20th century. Immigration to America before World War II tended to be more controlled, by both geography and by law, with immigration peaking between the 1880s-1910s. Also, America was home to native tribes and Mexicans, considering how today’s California was part of Mexico as late as the 1840s. Point being, there’s a lot more opportunity for integration in historical dramas, and little excuse for historical shows to be so incredibly lily white.

Californio woman, 1856, Oakland Museum of California.

Californio woman, 1856, Oakland Museum of California.

While slavery is part of the history of race relations, and should be addressed in historical film and TV, there’s a wide range of history that can be told, even in British costume dramas. As the prologue to one of the most famous books on the topic sums up:

“Black people — by whom I mean Africans and Asians and their descendants — have been living in Britain for close on 500 years. They have been born in Britain since about the year 1505. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries thousands of black youngsters were brought to this country against their will as domestic slaves. Other black people came here of their own accord and stayed for a while or settled here.” — Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Peter Fryer

From the division of Moors that defended Hadrian’s Wall in the third century C.E., including an Ethiopian solider who mocked the emperor, to the group of African entertainers and servants at King James IV of Scotland’s court in Edinburgh around 1504-13 — there’s plenty of interesting fodder for movies and TV shows in pre-slave trade eras that’s still historically accurate. There were enough Africans in Tudor England, being “baptised, buried, and recorded in parish records in London, Plymouth, Southampton, Barnstaple, Bristol, Leicester, Northampton, and other places across the country” noted History Extra, that it may have played into Queen Elizabeth‘s controversial 1596 letter ordering these “blackamoores” be deported (political forces may also have been at play, Moors being aligned with England’s enemy, Spain).

If you’re saying “pix or it didn’t happen,” check out the People of Color in European Art History Tumblr for images of people of color everywhere from Black Madonnas from the 8th and 10th centuries C.E. to the crowd scenes of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s peasant life scenes of Netherlands in the 1560s. If we can use art to document froofy dresses and hats, surely we can use it to document POC in history, right? Isn’t that historically accurate enough?

1520, Saint Maurice and His Companions; Adoration of the Magi, detail. From Medieval People in European Art Tumblr.

1520, Saint Maurice and His Companions; Adoration of the Magi, detail. From Medieval People in European Art Tumblr.


It Shouldn’t Be Hard to Tell Inclusive Stories

As I’ve said before, historical costume movies and TV shows aren’t documentaries (unless labeled as such), they’re entertainment. They have to tell a good story. So if producers don’t want to mine actual history, it’s easy enough to start with fiction and adapt that. This may be where the greatest opportunity for inclusion lies, and if you think about it, this is where our most beloved historical costume movies and TV shows come from.

Jane Austen and Charles Dickens film/TV adaptions aren’t telling actual history, so why not cast actors of any race in the stories? It’s been done with Shakespeare (see Sophie Okonedo as Margaret of Anjou in The Hollow Crown, 2016, for example), and it works just fine. This is sometimes called “color-blind casting” or simply “non-traditional casting” where the race or ethnicity of the actor is not germane to the character he or she is playing. Pride and Prejudice would work with a diverse cast just as well because it’s a love story and a comedy of manners; nothing about the characters requires them to be a certain race or ethnicity. You can watch Bride and Prejudice (2014), a Bollywood-ized modern Indian version, and you’ll see that the story translates just fine. And really, if you can add zombies to Pride and Prejudice, why not people of color and do a better job of it?

Bride & Prejudice (2004)

It’s like the ball at Netherfield, but more colorful.

Then there’s original stories created for film or TV, which aren’t beholden to either historical figures or a book’s premise. Consider Downton Abbey, but instead of Mr. Pamuk dying suddenly when he and Mary shag, they fall in love and want to marry all proper and legit. His sister comes over from Turkey and starts breaking hearts among the London gentry. Maybe his mother is a recurring character who matches wits with the Dowager Countess. As a diplomat negotiating Albanian independence in London and son of a minister for the Turkish Sultan, Pamuk’s character could have lent many opportunities to explore British colonialism from different points of view, while still showing off all the fabulous costumes and houses we all love. Integrate the Abbey from the highest level in the first season, instead of randomly have Rose get a crush on a black jazz singer in season four, which kinda felt like “oh noes, Julian Fellowes is placating someone’s complaints.”

Downton Abbey (2010) Kemal Pamuk

Kemal Pamuk on Downton Abbey (2010) was played by part-Greek Theo James. What if the character was more authentically Turkish, and the show was given an different spin?

Or how about a fantasy-tinged historical show a la Outlander? Sure, that’s based on a book, but why shouldn’t a person of color time-travel back to the 16th-century court of Elizabeth I or 18th-century pre-Revolutionary France and interact with real historical characters as well as invented characters? The modern POC character could be treated very differently in each period — sometimes standing out, other times blending in, depending on the time, place, social status, political situation, and more. The TV series Timeless does some of this with Rufus and plays the concept of a 21st-century black man time-traveling for laughs. I don’t mind that it’s humorous, but he could be more than just a sidekick.

These are just a few ideas, and hey, Hollywood, BBC, anyone else who’s reading, if you use them, I’d like a screen credit and royalties, kthx! Honestly, it’s not that difficult to try and come up with new stories to film that are historically accurate (or as historically accurate as anything else that’s currently being filmed, let’s get serious). We have a running series of articles on actual historical people, and a few books, that are just as interesting as the same old topics that are constantly recycled for historical costume movies and TV shows. So y’all should know by now that there’s plenty of real history that The Powers That Be are ignoring when they make historical movies and TV shows.

1887 Japanese Empress-Shoken

There doesn’t seem to be a major genre of Meiji period film/TV, but it’s ripe for exploring, as these guides to European fashions circa 1887 promoted by Japanese Empress Shoken suggest.

One problem is that movie/TV production is expensive and the business is conservative; they don’t like to risk their money on anything that isn’t tried and tested and guaranteed to make money. However, historical films starring people of color do make money. Hidden Figures (2016) cost $25 million to make, and it’s earned over $214 million worldwide as of this writing. For comparison, Jackie (2016) cost $9 million and earned a bit over $11 million worldwide, and Hacksaw Ridge (2016) cost $40 million to make and earned $163 million worldwide. All of these mid-20th-century historical films were praised by critics, so it seems an equal comparison. Clearly, a film about African-Americans — yet not about slavery — can be a big money-maker.

It seems like everyone in the U.S., & most of the world has seen & loved Hidden Figures (2016).

TV may have a lower bar for production, especially these days with streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and others making their own series. And more new drama and comedy shows are being made today than in previous years. Over the past decade, the number of scripted TV shows being produced rose by 137%, and 455 scripted shows aired on broadcast, cable, and online services in 2016, according to Variety.  We’ve seen a few Amazon “pilot season” episodes of historical series (Casanova, The Last Tycoon, Z: The Beginning of Everything), but only one so far (Z) has been made into a full season. This should be the area where producers experiment, takes risks, and explore new stories, including more inclusive historical costume dramas.

If they do, will you watch?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

120 Responses

      • Grace Burson

        OMG I would watch the HECK out of this. Preferably in a full length version.

    • Bronwyn Benson

      Of course it posted twice once it finally posted… lol

  1. picasso Manu

    “It’s not like there were any people of color at Versailles with Marie-Antoinette!”
    I could add to your very interesting answer “Yes, there were… Mostly confined to servants roles, sadly (it was the fashion at the time), but there was also an extraordinary man at court:
    The chevalier de St Georges.
    Amazing duelist, sportsman… And a musician and composer that earned him the name of “the black Mozart”.
    Not bad, eh?
    But yes, we are guilty of this: Population was far more varied than we think, and lots of people traveled very long distances quite early in history (of their own volition or not).
    From what I’ve read about the Chevalier, I’d LOVE to see him on film or TV… Heehee!

    • Trystan L. Bass

      These are exactly the stories that would make great new, original films! So muck of what’s onscreen is recycled, esp. period dramas – but there’s no shortage of history to mine for new films.

      • Deborah Pesa

        and when I googled de St. George, I also got shown Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, both of which sound like they would make fascinating stories.

    • inny

      Didn’t they slightly cover that in Versailles? I don’t mean that in terms of ‘way to go with a wide world, show’ at all.

      But he was both colored and experienced dwarfism, so double-other.

      I’m just commenting of the costuming, which, unfortunately, race was one.

      And I would adore a Chevelier series too!

  2. Melinda

    Hello Hollywood/BBC! Sounds like a great adventurous flick to me: Sara Forbes Bonetta (1843 – 15 August 1880) was a West African Egbado omoba of Yoruba royalty who was orphaned in intertribal warfare, sold into slavery, and in a remarkable twist of events, was liberated from enslavement and became a goddaughter to Queen Victoria. She was married to Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Victorian Lagos philanthropist.

  3. Susan Pola

    Same here with the Chevalier St George.

    But why not make a movie/miniseries on one of Spain’s most artistic painters, Velasquez? Among the supporting cast would be Juan de Pareja, a pupil of Velazquez, artist himself and a POC. One of Velazquez’s most famous paintings is a portrait of him. It hangs in the Met.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yes! More please. Hollywood, are you listening? Heck, if I could get a sabbatical from my day job, I’d write these screenplays myself 😉

    • Jennie Gist

      There’s even a Caldecott Award-winning young adults’ novel about him (1965) – titled I, Juan de Pareja. I read it when I was 13. Looks like it has stayed in print ever since.

  4. LadySlippers

    I’ve long since thought this — especially when considering the range of topics one could cover AND how fast and loose people already play with history.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Seriously, if movies are going to do the stupid things they do with history ALREADY, why not just throw in whoever wherever? Why should “historical accuracy” only matter for skin color when it apparently doesn’t matter for zippers, stretch velvet, moving around timelines, and creating totally fake characters? Sheesh.

  5. Gill

    To be fair to the BBC, they have made an effort in recent years to include some POCs in their casting – Tatty, last time they did “Little Dorrit”, for example, or the whole storyline of “Taboo”. They even included a Black messenger in the re-enacted bits of a three-episode discussion of the events of 1066 recently. And Dr Who has had a fairly good range of companions. There is undoubtedly room for improvement, but the Beeb is not unaware. One rather suspects Julian Fellowes is, though (Downton is NOT the BBC).

    • Kendra

      Thery also did a version of Oliver Twist with Sophie Okenedo as Nancy, which was great.

  6. Lisa

    You’re jumping the gun by judging Outlander. They’re only on the 3rd book/season. Hold your horses for a hot minute and maybe you’ll be surprised.

    • Susan Pola

      In the book Voyager, Claire has a African American friend, a neurosurgeon at the same hospital that Claire’s a cardio-thoracic surgeon. Frank, being the idjit and git he is suspects the worse. I’ve always believed that Frank is the one cheating on Claire. The war & maybe at Harvard. Hopefully, we’ll see this POC.

      • Sarah Lorraine

        Side note: I just read “Voyager” recently, and it’s pretty explicitly stated that Frank was cheating on Claire and she knew it and let it happen because she was out of fucks. She essentially condoned the extramarital relationships because it meant that Frank wasn’t bugging her for sex.

        • Susan Pola

          It’s been awhile since I’ve read Voyager. I need to reread it and I’m planning on doing that right before season 3 is on.

        • Broughps

          Yes and no. Claire didn’t like that Frank was cheating on her. She thinks about it in other books and remembers the jealousy she felt. She used sex to challenge Frank about his affairs. Sometimes he met the challenge sometimes he didn’t, but they didn’t have sex because Frank “bugged” to have it. She had it willingly.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      I didn’t judge Outlander at all — I used it as a positive example that could be extended to other times & places w/a person of color as the protagonist. I judged Timeless a little bit for using Rufus as just a sidekick.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yeah, but “Voyager” also had a REALLY highly problematic Chinese character that was basically one big ball of racial stereotypes rolled together. And word is that they haven’t reworked Mr. Willoughby much for the show… I hope for all our sakes that that isn’t the case, because he’s the most cringe-inducing character in that entire series.

        • Alison Campbell

          Which is pretty much the point. He was apparently based on a real Chinese man in Edinburgh at the time who could not manage to learn English and settle so turned to drink. But I’ll wager he wasn’t the tiny, tumbling foot fetishist that Willoughby is. That character is dreadful in his earlier scenes. There was a thriving tea trade between Scotland and China at the time, so there would’ve been a lot more than one Chinese person in the country anyway.

          • Broughps

            Well DG claims to do thurough research, so who’s to say there weren’t guys who that foot fetish? As for being tiny, I never got that impression. Obviously he wasn’t Jamie’s size, but I always saw him as around Claire’s size (5’6″) or slightly taller. Not exactly tiny.

            • Emily

              Right, I never through Willoughby was like, 4’9″ or something. Next to Jamie (book Jamie) , everyone’s short. :)

      • inny

        Technically, if one were to combine book with show, I understand why they didn’t go there. I know that if I were 1960s tv Claire, I’d be saving my fucks for Jamie:) (fans self)

        But yep… If they’re really ‘going to the Americas during the 18th C,’ I’d better see some dark skin wearing something more than a chemise. And we won’t discuss Mr. Willoughby.

      • Yoonmi Kim

        I read all the books. And Diana Gabaldon pretty much admitted in the Outlander accompanying book (The Outlander Companion) that Mr. Willoughby was a horrible depiction and she wished she did a better job. It’s one character I hope they edit for the show. It’s kinda sad since she did a fairly good job with the other ethnicities she tackled throughout.

        So if she’s aware of it, and the production is sensitive to it, then I hope they do their best to fix it. I’ll be disappointed if they don’t.

        I wouldn’t mind if he were cut entirely, either, because bad representation is worse than no representation.

        BTW, I’m East Asian, not moonlighting as an East Asian…

  7. Susan Pola

    Barbara Hambly has a mystery series featuring a POC set in New Orleans during the late 1830-1840s. The protagonist is one Benjamin January, a free person of colour, is a skilled musician & trained, I believe, in Paris as a physician.

    • Ana Lopez

      This is SUCH a brilliant series! So well written, and all the stories are so fascinating and well researched. So many people of all colors, being… people! With flaws and virtues and complications. It would make a great set of movies, or Downton Abbey style mini-seasons of a few episodes per book. Every time I read it, I get mad that no one has licensed these books yet.

    • Becca

      I have been *longing* for the January books to be picked up by one of the cable networks. I even have my dream casting for Ben picked out – Omar Sy, because he’s the correct height and a Francophone :)

      • Susan Pola

        I chose Aldis Hodge but he’s tied up with Underground. Monsieur Sy would be a great choice.

        • Alys Mackyntoich

          When the first book was published back in 1997, I wanted Carl Lumbly to play Benjamin, but he’s too old now. This series is just chock full of great roles for people of color. I wish someone would pick it up.

    • Alys Mackyntoich

      I love the Benjamin January series, and often cast it in my head on long drives in the car. I would watch and shamelessly promote a TV mini-series based on these novels.

  8. Bea

    at LAST! Two of my great internet loves (MedievalPOC and FF) are connected!

  9. Sarah Lorraine

    One thing I’m really liking about “Harlots” so far is the way that they incorporate non-white characters as just… normal. No signposts, no preaching, just “Oh, the main character is in an interracial relationship with a black man and has a biracial son. Cool.”

    So far, anyway, the show has just presented non-white characters as de facto. I mean, it’s only 2 episodes in, so it could change, but right now it’s incidental to the plot — the characters could have easily been white, but they aren’t. Sort of like when a woman is cast in a role that was written for a man, without changing anything significant about the character or the plot.

    • Hespera

      I do find that BBC or British productions, besides the issues addressed in the article, tend to do this more often than US ones do. I’m thinking Merlin, the Casanova series with David Tennant, Doctor Who (I think…I’m trying to remember a specific episode), and the latest Musketeers television series. Still not a ton of examples, but it still feels more natural for them to do something like this than in the US.

  10. Melanie Clark

    I love this. One example that sticks out to me was the colorblind casting of Harriet (or Tattycorum) in Little Dorrit. Freema Agyeman was great in the role. Now, we just need that approach with more empowered characters. Of course, there’s always the example Denzel and Keanu playing brothers, too!

    When I saw Beauty and the Beast a few weeks ago I couldn’t help thinking that Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a superior actress and most definitely a better singer than Emma Watson (and I do like Emma Watson). And Gugu played the feather duster. I would have loved to see her as Belle.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, I didn’t get a chance to work her in — I thot I’d see more POCs in Dickens, but maybe that was wishful thinking? It’d work well, both for accuracy, & simply bec. of the huge casts in Dickens’ stories.

      • Hester

        I hope since then you’ve managed to see The Personal History of David Copperfield! It was such a brilliantly funny and joyous film, and it turns out there’s absolutely no reason not to do colour-blind casting, to the extent of casting roles of family members as different colours. I didn’t find it any more distracting than seeing any well-known actor and going “Oooh! It’s thingy from wotsit!” And then just enjoying the performance.

  11. Saraquill

    Sh*t people say to geeks of color Part I’ve-lost-count:

    -Random people on Reddit are more reliable as historical sources than period art.

    -Disliking that a white woman was cast to play an African is not only insincere on my part, but that queen was totally white.

    -TV and film character MUST skew heavily white, or the industries will run out of story ideas.

  12. Sharon

    As a gorgeous woman of colour, I watch and enjoy, but every now and then I think, “mmmmm people of colour have been in this country, (U.K) since the 1500’s, it would be nice to see somebody, when they are actually on the telly, who isn’t in the background and isn’t a servant”.
    There was a good BBC radio play about a skilled black silk weaver with a white wife, working in Shakespeare’s time, a BBC production of ‘Vanity Fair” had a black girl as Becky Sharp’s best friend at school, the opium addicted parson in “The Ruby in the Smoke” was black and Dr Who is usually pretty good at diversity, (I’m hoping it’s a black woman next time, that should cover a lot of bases!!). But it shouldn’t be an exercise of sitting and listing all the occasions where a black person was spotted, or getting all excited when a black person is seen on the screen, it should just happen.
    I remember seeing a documentary about the making of the stage play “War Horse”. There was a cavalry charge with a black officer leading it. I’m sure lots of people must have thought that the playwright was being politically correct, but there was a mixed race officer, (the first one) called Walter Tull. He was a successful and admired footballer before the 1st World War before he joined the Army and became an officer, dying at 29 just before 1918. The stories and people are there, it just takes a bit of effort to put them on the screen.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      “But it shouldn’t be an exercise of sitting and listing all the occasions where a black person was spotted, or getting all excited when a black person is seen on the screen, it should just happen.”


    • Trystan L. Bass

      “it shouldn’t be an exercise of sitting and listing all the occasions where a black person was spotted, or getting all excited when a black person is seen on the screen, it should just happen”

      THIS. And when we have to list Dr. Who & other sci-fi — which I love, but c’mon, actual legit history does include people of color in various times & places, aaaaarrrrgggghhhh. I am reduced to making random noises bec. I spent all my braincells writing this post!

  13. MoHub

    Someone needs to make a film of Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like the Sun, a fictional autobiography of Shakespeare that includes Will’s relationship with a black woman who becomes the “dark lady of the sonnets.”

    • Trystan L. Bass

      That one *would* make a great movie! So many excellent options. Could Hollywood, et.al., be ignoring these on purpose??? Hmmm….

    • LadySlippers

      There’s another theory that a female Jewish converso from Italy wrote Shakespeare’s works. Apparently, her published works match the writing style of Shakespeare, and the theory is she herself is The Dark Lady.

      Either way, it creates an interesting story!

        • perditabohemia

          Her name was Emilia Bassano Lanier. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emilia_Lanier
          The idea that she wrote Shakespeare’s plays or poems is, of course, as bonkers as any of those Shakespeare-didn’t-write-his-plays conspiracy theories, but Lanier was an interesting person who could be the subject of an interesting film!

          Anthony Burgess’s novel has some absolutely beautiful prose (inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses) but unfortunately it is at times painfully sexist, mainly in the characterization of Anne Shakespeare (not the first time she’s gotten that treatment in fiction!). Fatima, the “Dark Lady” character in the novel also isn’t a fully fleshed out character, she just functions as Will’s muse and the object of his desire. (Could be explained by the fact that the frame story of the novel is a 20th century English professor giving a guest lecture on Shakespeare’s poems at an Asian university, while getting drunker and drunker as the lecture goes on..)

          That said, I think a fictional story about one of the many black women who lived in Elizabethan England, who inspired Burgess, would also be a great subject for a movie.

  14. Pina

    I’m glad you brought up that character Orhan, no sorry, *Kemal* Pamuk from Downton Abbey, because throughout the late 19th/early 20th century, Ottoman diplomats and intellectuals roaming through Western Europe for educational purposes, on governmental duties or simply for entertainment wasn’t rare, and it seems sometimes their female family members really were allowed to accompany them. The novel “Handan” by Halide Edib, herself the highly-educated daughter of an Ottoman statesman, takes place almost entirely in the early 20th century London. The eponymous Handan is a highly intelligent and well-educated young woman from an upper-class family, she marries a much older pasha who is unfaithful and emotionally abusive, they settle in London, the Pasha takes their English maidservant as his mistress, Handan is miserable, she starts falling for the intellectual, “nice guy” husband of her step cousin/adoptive sister, who is also a diplomat based in London. I’m actually no fan of Halide Edib, her novels (among other things) are usually centred around a very intelligent and refined “ideal” woman (usually too obviously based on Halide herself), and all the other women (especially the pretty ones!) are essentially nice, but ultimately too dim-witted dullards at best and petty, jealous harridans at worst. (And this is just a problem with her writing, apparently there were some unsavory aspects to her personality and actions as well.) Still, the novel Handan is an interesting read, if only for the (depressively) realistic depiction of a relationship with an emotionally abusive partner, and how well it works as a sort of twisted revenge fantasy against such a partner. I’ve always thought it could turn into an even better story in the hands of a very talented scriptwriter, playing up, for example, the London aspect (how these solidly upper class, cultured and refined “Orientals” experience the “Western culture” once they are actually surrounded by it etc.)

    • Pina

      Though I’d also like to add, I’m not sure if Ottoman diplomats or “Turks” in general can be defined as “people of color”. Most people living in Turkey today are white or lighter shades of brown, and they wouldn’t describe themselves as “people of color”, race distinction not really being a concept in Turkey (ethnicity is what matters the most).

      • Trystan L. Bass

        In Europe pre-World War II, Turks / people from the Ottoman Empire were often considered “Orientals,” & in Shakespearean academia there’s discussion that Othello, the “moor” of Venice could be an Ottoman Turk. Point being, race & ethnicity are defined by society, & so of course, the definitions change over time & from place to place. They’re not universally agreed upon.

        This is yet another reason why we really need more costume dramas that include people of color — to show how race was experienced differently in different periods!

      • Kendra

        Right, but Europeans (I know, Turkey potentially being IN Europe aside) still see them as Other.

        • Pina

          Yes, I very much agree. What I wanted to point out was, when I read the memoirs and travelogues of those Muslim Ottomans/Turks who visited/lived in Europe even before WWII, I still don’t get the feeling that they know or suspect that they are being considered people of “color”. One gets the sense that they feel like outsiders for being Muslims or Turks or “Orientals”, of course, but they don’t identify the issue as being related to physical appearance per se. This is partly because most of these people looked not that different from Europeans, but also because the idea that the darker you are the more oppressed you get is a very Eurocentric (maybe even America-centric) idea. (As I once saw a Cracked.com commenter very aptly put it, for example, Kurds are one of the most commonly oppressed ethnic groups of the region, but it’s not because they look all that different or “browner” than their neighbors.)

  15. Caroline

    Maria Edgeworth, a novelist contemporary with Austen had a supporting romance between an English farm girl and a former slave in her 1801 novel Belinda. One of the heroine’s suitors is also a “West Indies Creole,” so part black. Interestingly, these were scrubbed from the 1810 reprint at the request of her father, who thought such things shouldn’t be encouraged.

  16. Charity

    I’d like to see some stories about the Blackamores that accompanied Katharine of Aragon’s entourage to England in 1502. She had a few slaves, yes, but there was at least one high-born African-Moor lady in waiting, as well as Moors among her archers and musicians.

  17. Marissa

    I’m actually a bit surprised the movie “Belle” wasn’t discussed in this post! An upperclass mulatto in 18th c UK? That was a fascinating watch due to the dynamics of race and class.

  18. inny

    Now that I’ve arsed my way into your site, I should do something else than upend the china.

    (looks around and sees no fragments – effs off her archeology boyfriend). Sorry Neil! (and if you don’t remember that reference, then, well…)

    Hi – I’m inny. I have been in bed with a broken ankle for the last week. I have an 100 year old house, 4 stories, 4 cats and 1 pain killer:) You know that IP address that read everything you wrote for all pages? That was me.. nibbling 1/8th of my future heroine addiction.

    I say this because I’m also an academic – social psych, to be exact. Persuasion (not the film) to be more exact. I work with historians to try to figure out what the eff?

    And if you, in your snarkiest. remember the Tudors forum on TWoP? Using the same name.

    Thank you for this site. Thank you for your work. Kickin’ a few bucks in to the bustle:)

      • inny


        And really… I think I read your entire site (comments included) in 3 days. My only addition to the wig book would be how to do that with a rather large cat on your head:) Come on… he comes with his own wig stays!

        Anyhoo… back to normal (and another 1/8th on my way to my future addiction). Love the snark, love the analysis. I know absolutely nothing about costuming, but I was listening to a book set in 18th C Versailles and they didn’t back-lace! And I knew why!

        For my history-loving-but-I-don’t-know-why-loving self, thank you. I shall do don a head necklace and await your next post:)

  19. Cassidy

    I think it’s really interesting that the US is apparently more willing to make movies *about* non-white experiences with many actors of color, while the UK (or maybe just the BBC) seems overall more willing to show diverse crowds in historical movies/shows (I have gotten into so many arguments with idiots who find this OMG SO JARRING AND IMPLAUSIBLE) and do color-blind casting. But there are so many historical figures that could be the basis for a great miniseries, characters that could be reimagined as another ethnicity, and stories that could be written about perfectly accurate fictional people of color that still need to be explored …

    Wouldn’t recommend MedievalPoC as a source for historical people of color, though. She has some big context problems, a tendency to tell other people how to identify, and knowingly stretches the truth about where/when images come from.

    • Hana - Marmota

      Oh, I’m glad to hear she often has context problems! I had a bit of a blow-up in her inbox some time ago (years, now?) when she tried to prove the upcoming Czech game “Kingdom Come” (which came to my attention through that; I’m not a gamer) should involve people of colour and did so by pointing out Tatars in countries hundreds of kilometres away (the thing is, Tatars at large never made it all the way to Central Bohemia, where the game is supposed to take place, and that’s a historical fact. Random foreign merchants would have been a much better call.)
      I’ve been feeling a bit bad about the knee-jerk of my reaction whenever this sort of thing is brought up, but I still believe I was right. It makes me feel better to know I’m not the only one to have noticed that problem.

      • Susan

        Yeah, MedievalPoC/girljanitor has an absolutely terrible reputation among a significant part of Tumblr. (I’d link you to the ffa wiki entry but it looks like it’s password protected at the moment for some reason and some of the posts explaining the issues with her have issues themselves.) She’s just managed to pass herself off as an authority, especially with people who don’t know who she is, and some of those people are people like Neil Gaiman and NPR.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      “So why do so many people assume Austen’s world is so white? Perhaps because they are experiencing her world largely through film and television, two media in which the long eighteenth century has, most certainly, been whitewashed. Ethnic and racial diversity was an historical reality throughout the Anglophone world and beyond in this period, and yet popular representations of the past, with very few exceptions, entirely feature white actors. It’s easy to assume that Austen’s world is all-white when all our favourite images of her period suggest just that.”

      Ehem. As I was saying…

      Thanks! Great article :)

  20. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I would love to see an English speaking version of the life of Sayyida al Hurra. An Islamic queen in her own rights that took to piracy as a giant fuck you to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain for being driven out of Andalusia in her childhood.
    Just an FYI, Trystan is of an age with me and remembers when everyone lost their flipping mind of the casting of Morgan Freedman in Robinhood Prince of Thieves. They ignored the spotty accents, questionable plots and the fact all the pesants were dirty bog people for no reason, but heaven forbid they show a black man in Sherwood forrest. :P

    • Trystan L. Bass

      LORDY YES, the outrage! Kevin Costner brought that frickin’ movie down all by himself, & Morgan Freeman plus Alan Rickman were the only highlights.

      • Lady Hermina De Pagan

        Well, to be fair Kevin Costner had help with the questionable casting of Will Scarlett ever. Christian (I’ve spent my entire career doing a Jack Nicholson impression) Slater.

    • Cassidy

      The same thing still happens, unfortunately. Doctor Who is a magnet for irate white fanboys complaining that it “just doesn’t make sense for there to be several black people in a crowd scene in London!!”

  21. ladylavinia1932

    The TV series Timeless does some of this with Rufus and plays the concept of a 21st-century black man time-traveling for laughs. I don’t mind that it’s humorous, but he could be more than just a sidekick.

    Rufus has his own story arc and his role is not there “just for laughs”.

  22. NPHooks

    Standing ovation for this article!

    I’d also like to add that Hamilton: An American Musical (I know it’s not TV or film, but it has been covered here so mebbe a little leeway?) has a cast that is almost entirely of color and it’s one of the bestselling musicals (if not THE bestselling musical) of all time. Whereas several whitewashed films (Ghost in the Shell, The Last Airbender, The Lone Ranger) have done horribly at the box office. Diversity DOES sell and people DO want diverse stories!

    It’s sad that the racists “don’t see race” until a post like this and then suddenly they’re cultural anthropologists. Yeah, I’ve followed MPOC for a long time and seen that reaction a lot. Sigh…

    • Trystan L. Bass

      I’ve only addressed the Hamilton costumes here — https://www.frockflicks.com/hamilton-on-broadway/ — bec. even tho I’m obsessed w/the soundtrack, I’ve had zero luck getting tix to see it :) And in general, theater productions in the past, oh, 10 years have had a better run of casting without regards to race, both in the U.K. & U.S. The big problem really is with film & TV, and, of course, those mediums have far wider reach, so that means the problem is worse.

      • MoHub

        Opera has done color-blind casting for decades. Unfortunately, however, current political correctness has resulted in objections to casting non-Asians in The Mikado—which G. K. Chesterton correctly identified as having no jokes fitting the Japanese but all the jokes fitting the English—and for some reason, transplanted the locale to Renaissance Milan.

        I fear for the next productions of Madama Butterfly and Turandot.

        • Maven

          “Turandot” in particular has extremely demanding lead soprano requirements, so they’re going to have to go for the voice no matter what she looks like or where she comes from. (And that goes double for Calaf!.) And besides, it’s basically a fairy tale with a weak ending – Puccini didn’t live to finish it and the last 15 minutes or so were cobbled together from his scratch notes.

          The original story seems to have involved a Tatar princess who could out-wrestle any man and required prospective suitors to put up 100 horses as a stake in a wrestling match. Pretty soon she had a whole lotta horses (“10,000” may be stretching it, or not) and no husband, That’s when the nasty gossip started about her getting it on with her dad – so she dropped the wrestling gig and picked out a nice good-looking dude to get married to.

          By the time the story reached the West, it had been spun into the familiar “Three riddles, and if you lose, you forfeit your head” form. This was obviously much easier to stage….

  23. M.E. Lawrence

    Thanks, Trystan–good article. I agree with Idris Elba: “You tend to see stories about well-to-do Victorians and not the stories outside London, the history of Bradford, Birmingham, Newcastle.” Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting beyond the standard story–or leaving behind the standard casting: I was startled when someone on this very Web site referred to Sophie Okonedo as “a black chick” who had been unaccountably cast as Margaret of Anjou in the BBC series “The Hollow Crown.” I don’t imagine she meant to be nasty, but I can’t see that casting a black actress as Margaret is any weirder than casting a pretty and slender female as the stout and rather homely Victoria.

    (Did anyone see the BBC’s “A Respectable Trade,” based on a Philippa Gregory novel about the 18th-century British slave trade, set in Bristol? Am not a Gregory fan these days, but she used to write decent historical novels, and this one is a story that gets away from the standard Tudor, Regency and Victorian motifs.)

  24. Jessica

    This is much more related to historical costuming than casting roles, but anywho, I even see the “How could they include black people in European history?” comments on some of the most asinine things that I can’t believe anyone would get worked up about. 2012 Olympics opening ceremony for example? It’s a diverse crowd of dancers/actors during the “pastoral days through the Industrial revolution” bit near the beginning (which was also my favourite part), they’re all volunteers who wanted to be in such a cool once-in-a-lifetime event and added bonus, they were all dressed pretty darn accurately for the time periods being represented. It’s a cool spectacle and a great production. And yet I hear some idiots go “WTF A BLACK GUY COULDN’T BE RICH AND WELL-DRESSED IN THE 1800’S”…
    Except yes, just *look* at some photos from the 1800’s, 1900’s and historical portraits from before the days of photography. LOTS of examples of fashionably-dressed POCs in both Europe, the US and Canada and quite a few African/Asian colonial examples, especially in the 1800’s and early 1900’s when almost everybody could afford to get a photograph taken. As both a cosplay and a historical costuming nut I feel seriously bad when I see POC people saying “I can’t do European/American historical costumes, I’m black/Asian/Latino” (and probably getting that opinion because of seeing all those historical dramas…). Fortunately I can always link them up to many, many images from numerous time periods to show them that YES, you CAN wear a big fancy crinoline, or a bustle, or an Edwardian dress (and an aside, I envy the black ladies who can so easily get that fabulous Gibson girl hair! My thin, fine hair means full-on-wig required for everything historical that doesn’t completely conceal my hair and that’s way more annoying than the clothes), or a Tudor outfit, or panniers, without a single worry about “if it actually happened”. And hell, even if didn’t/no evidence to prove it? It’s clothing! If you’re shaped like a human, you can still go enjoy wearing it and haters be damned.

    • Maven

      The SCA’s East Kingdom has never had a problem with that – they wouldn’t dare, with one of their founding members being (the late, alas) Master El of the Two Knives (Elliot K. Shorter, who strongly resembled Rosey Grier), and another prominent member being Duchess Isabella of York, who rocks the Tudor/Elizabethan look like you wouldn’t believe. (There was also a black Norseman called Sven, and we had some fun figuring out just how far down the coast of Africa his Norse father would have had to go to carry off his mother…yes, Norsemen took their wives (and concubines) from wherever they could find them.)

  25. StillGingerSpeaks

    The CW show Legends of Tomorrow does a really good job with this… Slight spoiler alert that isn’t even that big of a deal to the overall plot, but there are a few really interesting and thought-provoking scenes because one of the main heroes is a POC, (they have multiple in their team!! And strong women!!) and they’re time travelers. They go to the Civil War era South, and actually two of the POC leads get really upset and push against their treatment as POC, and then they interact with the slaves of the time and it’s a really interesting dynamic. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this blog! I am eternally known as the person who will go into detail as to why exactly shows and movies aren’t historically accurate (princess seams are the devil), and it’s great to find examples of where things are at least somewhat right, and the facts behind it all. Merci beaucoup!

    • Mary

      It shouldn’t matter whether the characters are so called “people of color” or not. I don’t mind if they are black, white, brown, green, yellow, etc, just as long as their characters are good.

  26. Samantha Reckford

    Yes yes yes!

    This is theatre, and we all know they are way ahead of film and TV in terms of race-blind casting (check out the 2016 Oscars vs Tony’s for the most dramatic expression of this gulf possible) but check out: Denée Benton as Natasha Rostova in “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”


    Natasha is THE archetypical ingenue: young, bubbly, innocent, and everyone who meets her falls desperately in love on first sight. She’s been played by charmers like Audrey Hepburn and (most recently) Lily James, our own modern Cinderella. The role personifies so many things which have traditionally been associated with idealized white womanhood- Natasha is pure, kind-hearted, naive, and incredibly desirable. Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this character as written, and Tolstoy is really showing his 1800’s bias. But it’s very clearly the sort of role that has so far only been accessible to white women, both in fiction and modern media portrayal (missing white girl syndrome and all that jazz).

    And there is Denée, a dark-skinned black woman from Florida, knocking it OUT OF THE PARK. This isn’t a ‘modern’ or ‘updated’ take on the character, either- not a gritty reboot or a reimagining. She plays Natasha in all of her princesssy, dream-girl sparkle. It’s not a feminist role at all, but I think it’s a fantastic example to demonstrate that talented POC actors can take on ANY ROLE and kill it, never mind whether a black countess in Imperial Russia makes any ‘historical’ sense.

    There are also 90’s style punk circus acts in that show, but… Natasha is played totally straight, not as an anachronism at all.

  27. laania

    I realise this post is a few weeks old now, but the director of “12 Years a Slave” is not African-American. Steve McQueen (no, not THAT Steve McQueen!) is English.

  28. Grace Burson

    Ooooooooohhhhh you know what I want, now that Outlander is a mega-hit? An adaptation of Sara Donati’s “Into the Wilderness” series, which is basically Outlander meets the Last of the Mohicans, with a multi-racial/multicultural clan of Europeans, Africans and Kan’yenkehaka in late 18th and early 19th century New York, New Orleans, and various locations in between. Lots of strong women, interracial relationships, healers/wise women types, etc., but it’s reasonably historically accurate. There are six books, I think, and it’s sooooooo good.

  29. kepod

    I’d also love portrayals of Spain and Portugal with Moorish populations and works on the Byzantine Empire and all the different groups present and interacting with it.

    Let’s have more Arabic-speaking mathematicians and scientists interacting with the Mediterranean and Western Europe!

  30. Margot

    Could it be that, with the exception of a few, they aren’t in demand? If the POC population shows that they love action films and Next Friday type comedies, why would Hollywood spend any money on a historical drama that no one wants to watch?!?!? Trust me, Hollywood likes money. They want to make money. If they thought they could, they would.

    • Susan Pola Staples

      One or two of the best things about the live action Beauty and the Beast was the casting on Tony winner Audra McDowell as Madame de Garderobe and Gugu Mbatha Raw from Belle as Plumette. Ms McDowell is a mega awesome singer. Her vocal rep extends from pop, Broadway and jazz to classical and opera. Ms Mbatha Raw is simply TALENTED (Not shout but since I cannot use bold face or italics…). I would enjoy seeing more of these talents in movies. Say a biopic on Leontyne Price & Marian Anderson.

  31. Mary

    I agree with having more diversity, in terms of race, in more historical films and tv shows, or just more films and tv shows that don’t take place in the West, not that I don’t mind already, but it’d be interesting. It’s just I don’t agree with having non white characters just for the sake of them being non white, sorry I don’t use the PC term POC, as it’s actually offensive. They should have a purpose and not be used as quotas or “hey we have a non white character”. That’s forced diversity to me, not true diversity. Also, it shouldn’t matter what color they are period. Same if a character is gay, transgender, or overweight, etc. It may be different, which is good, but their personality and the content of their character should be accounted for as it’s more important than their outer appearance or sexual orientation, etc.
    FYI don’t attack me for my opinion or view on this subject by calling me racist or anything. I’m not whatsoever, I’m just commenting how I feel.

  32. Brandy Loutherback

    What’s the difference between cultural appropriation and representation? I mean I’m a white person, so what right do I have to depict a culture/race that I was never apart of. I’m sure some filmmakers/writers feel the same way.