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.
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’.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?