Discussion Point

Mr Worms and I have had several discussions over the last couple of years about re-casting of famous Marvel characters or of Dr Who of or James Bond as black or female. Given those characters are completely fictional and the worlds they live in are completely fictional, I am open to the idea that we can rethink them.

Recently I watched a Netflix production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion in which Lady Russell was a black woman and William Elliot was of Asian descent. It was a fantastic production – very different to others I have watched – and the parts were all brilliantly played. So I don’t argue with the casting in that sense.

But Jane Austen wrote about the England she lived in. As did George Elliot (note the masculine appellation there). So in that sense, although they wrote fiction, I don’t think it’s the same kind of fiction as James Bond or Dr Who. And so I wonder if, in Jane Austen’s time (1775 – 1817), having a black titled person was a likely scenario? I heard a movie producer (Emma Holly Jones – producer of Mr Malcolm’s List – a movie I hope to see at some point) argue that immigration is not new to Britain and this I can definitely believe. But was there the level of acceptance in those times that would allow people of different cultural backgrounds to be Lords and Ladies?

Now before you accuse me of being racist, hear me out. There are two ways you can look at it. Either my understanding of history has been whitewashed and, much as female scientists and female writers were hidden or suppressed, perhaps too there was happy integration of Black and Asian people into British society that has been, for mysterious reasons, swept under the rug in the intervening centuries. If this is so, then what movie producers are doing is fantastic and I applaud them.

But if it’s not true, is what they are doing good or bad? Seriously, if they are just rewriting history to make it look less awful than it was, is that good or bad? Isn’t it slightly disrespectful? The horrific story of how Alan Turing was treated for being gay is well known. If movies started coming out about openly gay Lords and Ladies in the 1940s, would we be comfortable with that?

I am a middle class white heterosexual woman and I feel I am treading on delicate ground. But I am really curious about different perspectives on this new trend. Anybody’s perspective.

25 thoughts on “Discussion Point

  1. I have had similar thoughts. I don’t like to see films given a modern touch just to be PC. I doubt that there were titled black people in Jane Austen’s England and to suggest there were or that it was common seems like rewriting history to me. We might not like the way we were but we should admit to it otherwise we have a 1984 scenario where history is rewritten to suit the policies of the day.
    If film makers want to tell these stories I wish they would get original scripts rather than changing classic stories.
    I’m afraid my thoughts on Doctor Who, even thought that is science fiction and can be anything is that I wish they had not made The Master and The Doctor female characters. We already knew in the Doctor Who universe that there were female Time Lords. I feel that they only made that decision either to be PC or to get ratings. I’m afraid for me the Doctor will always be a male. If they are considering making James Bond, a character that I dislike for his behaviour towards women, a female, I’m not in favour of that either. Why can’t they make a movie about a female spy who is clever and heroic in her own right. Why does she have to be Bond?
    Sorry, end of rant.

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    1. Yes. Mr Worms has said similar things. I don’t like James Bond’s character and I’m not a huge fan of the movies. I have never seen a single episode of Dr Who so I am not at all invested in these “brands”. But I can imagine that if I were, I would be troubled by the re-writing. And as you say, why can’t we write new stories? If you think about it, it would be jolly weird if Harry Potter was suddenly turned into Harriet Potter, wouldn’t it?

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  2. The whole point of acting is to suspend belief; the actor trying to convince the audience that they are someone else. The audience then believes the actor, and sees the character, for the duration of the performance.

    So, given that an actor is asking for that belief anyway, what does it matter if they are black, white, or yellow with green spots?

    The only reason people insist on black (say) actors for black roles is because they themselves lack the necessary imagination.

    The only reason I might waver on that belief is stereotyping, e.g. a black woman saying “I never played soccer because I never saw any black women soccer stars” but in the current day and age that seems to be bs.

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      1. I don’t see one. They’re still asking for that suspension of belief, whatever they look like,

        You could take this to the n’th degree – so-and-so can’t play William Shakespeare because they are 6 inches taller than he was, or because they have different-coloured hair,,, Utter nonsense.

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      2. I think that’s a straw man argument. Mr Worms was just telling me that there was an American movie made about the recovery of the Enigma Machine in which the heroes were American. Not true but lots of Americans think it is. And there’s an Australian movie called The Dish about the Parkes Telescope and its involvement in the moon landing. Also technically not true. But the Australian telescope that had more to do with the moon landing was in the middle of the bush and was destroyed before the movie was made. So the Parkes Telescope has adopted that history as its own. If I saw a movie about Marie Curie and she was played by a man, I would be shitty. And, if I try to imagine being a black American and seeing a movie in which the struggles of black slaves are misrepresented and downplayed, I would be shitty. History is a real thing. And even if it’s fiction, Othello shouldn’t be played by a white person.

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      3. That’s why I said art as a representation of history. Some art is just entertainment. But some art tells real stories. I know Jane Austen is fiction but her stories are so respected partly because they are a woman’s account of that period. It’s seen as a sort of commentary of the times.

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      4. That’s interesting. Earlier this year we went to the National Museum to see an exhibition about ancient Greece. As we wandered around, it struck me that more than 90% of the exhibits were art/craft of some form. Pottery (and the pictures on it) sculpture, jewellery , etc. It made me realise that I have under valued art. I always thought, while I love poetry and fiction and drawing, that it wasn’t useful or practical and therefore I shouldn’t spend too much time on it. But thos exhibition helped me see that art is valuable aNd what’s more, it is often what survives to represent and teach us about ancient civilisations. It helped me to value art beyond its entertainment value.


      5. But a pot is a pot. It still functions as a pot, whatever you draw on it. If you do draw something, it’s merely decorative.
        Acting, specifically, compared to real life is the equivalent of a piece of visual art compared to a photograph. You don’t see the thing itself, but rather the artist’s impression of it. So even if a novel is considered true to life, it’s still the author’s impression.

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      6. And I forgot to mention references to the Iliad everywhere! The thing is real life doesn’t survive. I suppose if everybody in the world always shares your viewpoint then the stories we tell can represent what they like.and everybody will write them off as nothing more than entertainment. But the pictures on the pots were information to the archaeologists. Maybe in their day they were decoration but not to historians. It’s like a pattern on a jumper is just decoration but to detective solving a crime it is absolutely valuable – a significant clue.

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      7. But that’s fair enough. Real life is present tense, art is future. That’s why we still revere Da Vinci, 500 years on…
        Anyway I think we’re using the wrong word here in “entertainment”. Probably, “culture” is more appropriate.
        Sorry if I’m missing stuff – this thread is really stretching my eyes.

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  3. I think a lot depends on the goals of the work of art and the role. If it’s a role where the race of the character isn’t crucial to the plot, does it matter who plays the part as long it’s well-acted? If it’s a story with some historic elements, again, the goal of the retelling matters a lot. I think it’s fair to say that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a retelling of a true story featuring historical figures, but it’s been retold and reinvented as a song and rap musical and given that, it doesn’t feel odd to me that the non-white actors play characters who were white in real life. In general, there’s a certain amount of disbelief that happens in a musical anyway and when you watch it, and in the case of Hamilton, I was just blown away by the talent of the performances – the racial/ethnic backgrounds of the cast did not feel like it took me out of the story. If the story is more of a “what if”/alt history/speculative, casting actors who don’t resemble their characters might still make sense. However, if it’s meant to be a historically accurate, faithful retelling of an incident in history with realistic portrayal of particular people, there’s an argument for finding talent that more closely resembles the historical figure. I will say though that this isn’t a matter on which I have particularly strong opinions – I don’t expect my art to have perfect historical accuracy not perfect representation. But I think this is an interesting question for discussion.

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    1. Thanks, JYP. I think in general you’re saying similar stuff to Mr Bump but somehow your method of saying it gives me a better idea of why he was saying it. A podcast I listen to has gone on and on and on and on and on about how wonderful Hamilton is but i haven’t seen it. Mr W hates musicals and COVID has made it hard anyway. Perhaps my attitude is symbolic of my failure to keep up with the times. My mental ageing (in the sense of understanding the world around me) is becoming more and more apparent. And maybe it’s because (other than this blog) I don’t participate in social media.

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      1. Get Disney+ and watch Hamilton yourself then – it’s amazing!

        I don’t think it’s you/your own mental aging. The standards for representation, sensitivity, and political correctness seem to be rapidly changing and wildly inconsistent. This isn’t a subject that I have overall strong opinions on, but the current standard seems to have become where say LGBTQ actors can play straight characters, but straight characters should no longer play LGBTQ characters. Whitewashing and blackface are now rightfully recognized as offensive practice, but has the pendulum swung so far that now actors must be perfectly representative of their characters in order to play them (keep in mind that acting is supposed to be about playing someone else)?

        As I said before, I don’t expect the movies/TV/musicals/etc. I watch to be all that representative or all that historically accurate because 1) I primarily watch media to be entertained not educated and 2) I’m cynical enough to believe that no matter what the director says about their goals, the primary goal was 100% to make money and not about being historically accurate or representative. So I’m not that personally vested, but I do think these are interesting questions, and I don’t think that the current “bar” of politically correct acceptability is quite in the right place.

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  4. What an interesting discussion. Mind if I join in? I would say having a person of colour as titled in Jane Austen’s time was definitely not a likely scenario at all. But because we live in a time where actors would and should be cast fairly according to talent and ability, and the very nature of acting means their colour shouldn’t come into it.

    I think movies have made more concerted efforts in recent years to cast more actors of colour because so often you’ll have a majority white cast with only one or two actors of colour (or “other” ethnicity) and there can often be a typecastness that goes with that, and they never play the lead role. For example, the funny black guy who’s the best friend of the main guy (who is white), or the Asian character who’s a computer whizz and plays the sidekick. There is the cliche thing that the black guy always dies first in a lot of movies. When someone pointed this out to me once, I suddenly noticed it in every film it happened, and it was far too often for comfort. They’ve only recently stopped doing this. There’ve been more conversations about addressing casting imbalances lately and so more roles have opened up for POC’s and “others” to take on more main roles, as can be seen with a lot of Netflix shows now. Which I’m very glad about because representation is so so important.

    I don’t think there are enough black superheroes. But James Bond, if he were a black guy, would never last that long as a spy because, well, everyone would clock him as soon as he walked in. He’d never slip in and out unnoticed as spies would. Someone would be on his tail at every moment. Trevor Noah the comedian does an excellent sketch about this actually, what would happen if James Bond were a black guy – I highly recommend it, I think you’d appreciate it!

    And when Dr who was cast as a woman (and has now been cast as a young black man) I thought finally! He is, after all, a time travelling alien without an actual gender so it makes sense that he would, after ten or more reboots, finally take on the guise of a female. Plus, they’re a time lord so they should surely move with the times, shouldn’t they? I glaze over whenever I hear a guy go on about how they did the unthinkable there.

    Many apologies, I have written an essay! Ha ha! Excuse me. As a brown woman, race and gender issues are very close to my heart. So I’m very glad you shared this honest post. I love your questions. So many people are afraid to ask questions thinking they’d come across as racist. It’s an opportunity for an enlightening conversation. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you joined in! It all felt a bit theoretical only having “white” voices. And I’m so interested in your perspective because I honestly thought misrepresenting history might be disrespectful. I love the Trevor Noah routine. My friend (who is South African herself) introduced me to Trevor Noah and lent me his autobiography. His childhood was pretty tough! But I love his comedy. He is so gentle and yet still manages to cut right to the heart of issues. I don’t watch much TV but I follow the podcast of the Daily Show. I only like his segments. He’s so good at getting the point across. He made a fabulous point about billionaires not paying tax on their share holdings because it’s “unrealised gains” but being able to use those gains as credit in the purchase of assets. And yet despite the apparently dry topic, he finds humour and casts no aspersions. I really admire him. I am so glad my post wasn’t offensive. And I thank you for your considered and interesting response.

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  5. You are most welcome, Worms! Thank you for opening up a discussion like this, I think it’s great. I adore Trevor Noah! Love his stand ups. They’re on Netflix but the full shows are on YouTube too. Thanks for letting me know about his autobiography, I’ll check it out! He’s had such a singularly interesting life from a multicultural, racially political point of view. I love his podcasts too šŸ˜Š

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  6. There weren’t titled black people in Jane Austen’s England. Full stop. But if we are going to go the colour blind casting route, why not make movies in which the African chief is white, or a bunch of plantation slaves are Asian, or the samurai are, I don’t know, Irish? If you’re going to ignore race as an aspect of history, why not do it with movies in which the main characters are non white?

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    1. I guess because white people have dominated the screens in every respect. The colour blind casting is a movement away from that. When I was at school we watched a BBC production of Othello in which Othello was a white man painted black. It was awful. And that was only the 90s. It’s not that long ago.


      1. I see your point but I don’t think it’s in the spirit of colour blind casting. Recently I won an award in a writing competition run by a Women Writers’ Society. A man suggested that this was positive discrimination – to have women competing only against women. He was a white heterosexual middle class man – among the most privileged groups in society – and I had no sympathy for his viewpoint. And as a white heterosexual middle class woman, I feel I am way too privileged to be suggesting that white people ought to take black roles when the spirit of colour blind casting is to give people of other colours more opportunities. That’s my point of view.


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