Blackwashing History

Can you imagine casting Daniel Craig as Nelson Mandela in a made for TV Serial on the South African’s life? How about casting Dame Judi Dench in a TV biog on the life and times of soul chanteuse Aretha Franklin? No? OK, how about casting Gary Oldman as Martin Luther King Jnr? Still no? Why? Well, it’s simply ridiculous, right? Ok, but why is it ridiculous? Well, the historical record is clear on the ethnicity of these important and iconic figures and to “whitewash” them by having Caucasian actors play the roles is both in accurate and insulting. It would be just wrong. Furthermore, if anyone tried to do that the outrage would be palpable and it simply would not fly.

So, why is ‘blackwashing” deemed ok and indeed why is fashionable? Let me give you three examples of this and then let’s reflect on what is going on.

The famous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, was of noted Greek/Macedonian heritage and Egyptian authorities state they have documentary evidence of this. So, they were outraged when Netflix cast a black actress, Adele James, in the eponymous role. Interestingly, when challenged on the lack of authenticity of her casting, James dismissed any such claims and denied there was any such thing as “blackwashing.” In fact, she went one further and suggested that it was racist to even criticise her casting as Queen Cleopatra.

If Egyptian history is a bit too distant for you, how about you try Tudor history? Channel 5 produced a series of Ann Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of Henry the 8th. History records her as being born in Norfolk as the daughter of the veteran diplomat Sir Thomas Boleyn and his wife Elizabeth Howard. Channel 5 produced a three episode on her life and cast, yes, a black actress Jodie Turner Smith in the lead role. In addition to this, and because this is Channel 5 after all, it also cast Paapa Essiedu as her brother George Boleyn and Thalissa Teixeira as Henry VIII’s mistress Madge Shelton.

When challenged on the lack of authenticity, the producers claimed that they were not bound by the “casting constraints historically adopted within period dramas,” and that his approach gave them the freedom to tell Anne Boleyn’s story in a way that will “resonate broadly with a contemporary audience”. Even if it completely distorted reality!

My final example of overt “blackwashing” occurs in the popular Netflix TV series “Bridgerton”. Now this a fictional series, but it contains a historical figure in the form of Queen Charlotte who was married to King George III. She was the first English Queen to live in Buckingham palace, bought for her by her husband the King.  Guess what, they cast India Amarteifio, in the lead role. She is clearly of black ethnicity unlike Queen Charlotte.

So, the question is why is this happening? Is it to make people of ethnic minority origin feel better about themselves by implying that they have great historical antecedents? Isn’t this both patronising and profoundly insulting? Rewriting aspects of our history to create a false impression of ethnicity is wrong. I believe “white washing” is wrong and I believe the same applies to “black washing”. Being colour blind is one thing, but erasing reality is something else.

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