by Ed West
Tuesday, 21
January 2020
Debate
16:26

Casting ethnic minority actors in period roles is political

Margaret of Anjou and Henry 6th in The Hollow Crown

Everyone’s favourite anti-woke bloke Laurence Fox remains at the fore of the news cycle five days after his Question Time appearance, following remarks about diversity casting in the Sam Mendes film 1917.

The actor, appearing on James Delingpole’s podcast, criticised the casting of Sikh actors in the war movie, saying that “There is something institutionally racist about forcing diversity on people in that way.”

Several people have pointed out that there were Sikhs in the war, and indeed huge numbers of Indians fought and died on the western front. Yet there would have been separate regiments for colonial troops and Fox’s argument about it seeming incongruous might still be correct (I should add: I haven’t seen it yet.)

The biggest argument against Fox is the motive one: what kind of person would even notice or care about these things, such that having a brown person on the screen ruins their experience? That social pressure, I think, explains the strange recent trend for recasting British history as multiethnic, often in a far, far more historically inaccurate away than 1917.

I first noticed this with the BBC’s excellent Hollow Crown series in which a number of roles were played by black or mixed race actors. This was not a theatrical production, where Henry V is dressed up in 20th century combat gear or Lear is a corporate executive or whatever; this was a big budget production which had purposefully used realistic scenes and fairly accurate military hardware. They even cast exclusively Geordie actors to play the Percys – yet Richard III’s great-uncle is black and Margaret of Anjou is mixed race.

Both the actors in question were excellent, but it’s still an odd casting choice; because no one would cast a white actor in a role about a historical black figure, the logic relies on what Eric Kaufmann calls “asymmetrical multiculturalism” — that white people are so guilty, or conversely so special, that only their history and culture deserves to be shared.

The Hollow Crown argument is about offering opportunities for non-white actors — after all, the makers aren’t actually suggesting Henry VI’s wife wasn’t white (I don’t think) — but since then pretty much every historical drama shown on the BBC has cast pre-20th century England as multi-ethnic, when such diversity would have been very rare and concentrated in port cities.

Of course, films can’t always be accurate, and artistic licence extends to patterns of speech and all sorts of areas, but this trend has accelerated in an age when filmmakers are otherwise far more assiduous about accuracy; historical movies from the 1950s or 60s usually feature ludicrously inaccurate clothing or hairstyles, or have John Wayne playing Genghis Khan or other such weird casting. Filmmaking has got a lot better; so has history.

But all history is about the era that writes it and recasting England’s past as multiracial is a political statement about the present – and the future – and making everyone feel welcome. But it also feels like it is deliberately daring people into noticing and so challenge the agreed high-status orthodoxy that diversity is good.

Almost no one does, partly because the median person feels more uncomfortable with the sort of person who would care about diversifying history than they do about diversifying history itself, but also because the arts world tends to be quite conformist. It is because of this conformity that our society has developed the practice of shaming people who hold conservative or otherwise unorthodox opinions — which means that only shameless people dare to proclaim them.

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