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Modern interpretation vs. historical whiteness

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1359975.  Wed Oct 07, 2020 10:18 am Reply with quote

With movies like Hamilton, Enola Holmes, and Copperfield, being unafraid to have cast members who might be considered to be of the wrong ethnic group or gender for the very white cultures they depict, are we now passing the point where race is an important characteristic for those portraying historical characters, whether real or not? There is still a lot of outcry when white actors play non-white characters, and even when Asian races play characters of a different Asian race, but there do seem to be a lot more brave choices in casting than ever before. Historical Europe, in which you'd expect to be almost entirely white male characters in power, now seems to be having what would be considered an over-representation of minorities for the time period.

This kind of thing has come up before in the niche culture of board games about somewhere in medieval Europe, which you'd expect to be entirely white male characters in power. Should people of other cultures and genders be represented because they are the general population these days, even if they weren't in the time period in which they are set?
I think that this is a good thing, it doesn't affect my enjoyment of a show/game if Lestrade is played by someone of Pakistani ethnicity, or Hamilton by a Puerto Rican, or David Copperfield by an Indian-Kenyan. Why not let this kind of thing spread.

1359978.  Wed Oct 07, 2020 10:53 am Reply with quote

There isnít really any problem with fictional characters being played by anyone David Copperfield For example could just as easily be portrayed as Davina Copperfield with too much effect on the story.
Iím not so sure it works the same with ďreal peopleĒ could Martin Luther King he portrayed be Leonardo DiCaprio for example? Iím not sure it would work in the same way

1359986.  Wed Oct 07, 2020 11:47 am Reply with quote

When Peter Ustinov played Charlie Chan there were complaints from the Asian community about his casting - Ustinov replied with 'I quite agree - just as Hamlet should only be played by a Dane of royal blood.'

Last edited by Celebaelin on Wed Oct 07, 2020 12:00 pm; edited 1 time in total

1359988.  Wed Oct 07, 2020 11:56 am Reply with quote

I think the only thing that would raise eyebrows now about the Ustinov portayal would be the accent used - which honestly would rate just below Dick Van Dyke's excellent cokkerny redition in Mary Poppins (the original - I understand he was more natural in the remake)

1359994.  Wed Oct 07, 2020 1:07 pm Reply with quote

I think it's all about context.

Regardless of whether someone is fictional or not, the race, or even sex of the actor doesn't really matter because it's portrayal.

However, if the story in question is with regards to race, as would be any story about MLK, then using an actor from a different racial background would harm the story itself.

Similarly, if a character is being played by someone from a different racial background, then putting on makeup to make yourself look like a different race, or putting on a caricature accent or mannerism, seems pointless to the story, so doesn't make sense either.

The examples used include Peter Ustinov, who not only wore make up to look Oriental, but took up an accent and mannerisms that were a caricature of a character he was meant to play. Was that necessary at all?

On the other side you have Adeel Akhtar playing Lestrade, he didn't put on white makeup, or used an accent or mannerism that stood out as a white person, so he was simply an actor playing a character, and he happens to have an Asian background.

One could argue that Ustinov was playing his character in a comedy, which allows other actors to poke fun at the caricatures of some people (I think Ali G is a good example), but in Curse of the Dragon there doesn't seem to be any suggestion this is a send up of the caricature of Asian people.

I think one of the films I'm always caught in between is Murder by Death, because of Peter Sellers playing Sidney Wang with a ridiculous caricature. If you only looked at that character in the film you might miss that this is a send up, but when you look at how other characters are defined it's quite obvious and funny, but I sometimes wonder if Sellers himself realised it at the time.

Alexander Howard
1360000.  Wed Oct 07, 2020 2:21 pm Reply with quote

There was a recent film version of Peter Pan, and a loud fuss was made by some that Tiger Lily should have been played by a Native American - but the point of the story, at least as I have taken it, is that these were all lost children forever in their childhood: Tiger Lily was a girl playing at being a Red Indian.

1360008.  Wed Oct 07, 2020 3:21 pm Reply with quote

Has anyone ever complained that ITV gave the role of Poirot (a Belgian) to David Suchet rather than Jean-Claude van Damme??

One piece of casting which did impress me was Peter Dinklage in the lead role of the post-apocalyptic film "I think we're alone now". It impressed me because there is nothing about the character which requires a dwarf - it is entirely incidental to the story. As far as I can see they cast Dinklage simply because of his approach to the part.


1360020.  Thu Oct 08, 2020 4:41 am Reply with quote

Even historical dramas that claim to portray real events are not terribly realistic. Take, for instance, the 2018 film about Mary Queen of Scots. Everybody in the film were perfectly coiffured and wore 21st century make up to ensure they looked good on the big screen. Nobody was showing any outward signs of the many diseases that were rife at the time. Everything was neat and clean and not at all 16th century.

Given that nobody complains about these historical inaccuracies, it seems slightly absurd to me that people should object to the casting of minority ethnic actors on the basis of historical accuracy.

Also witness countless films happy to portray figures such as Cleopatra or Jesus as white Europeans.

1360022.  Thu Oct 08, 2020 5:01 am Reply with quote

And then there are documentaries like Braveheart whose accurate portrayal of early Scottish history is voiced largely by non-Scottish actors...


No one complained when Michael Caine played the aristocratic fop in Zulu, and I still remember Patrick Stewert in Channel 4's much missed 1980s sunday-afternoon series "Shakespeare Masterclass" demonstrating how the Shylock character could be played as jewish or non-jewish with equal power and validity (he was showing that the text wasn't anti-semitic, but the actor/director could choose to make it so*). Or Anthony Sher's brilliant portrayal of Richard the 3rd as a cripple when he was actually extremely able-bodied.

"Acting" is, after all, the practice of impersonating a character different to your own, is it not?



1360027.  Thu Oct 08, 2020 5:59 am Reply with quote

dr.bob wrote:
Also witness countless films happy to portray figures such as Cleopatra or Jesus as white Europeans.

Cleopatra is a difficult one as her ancestry is very much European, the Ptolemies all descend from Macedonian Greek followers of Alexande the great. Given the Ptolemies habit of marrying within the family there probably wasn't much native Egyptian genes in her

Alexander Howard
1360036.  Thu Oct 08, 2020 7:26 am Reply with quote

The stage and cinema are different places. I have seen several Shakespeare productions with black actors in parts that would be naturally white, and it was no problem at all. There was a Taming of the Shrew where the two sisters were played by actresses of different races and it barely merited a blink of an eyelid.

Cinema tries to be more realistic with attention to detail, so it does stand out. Morgan Freeman as one of Robin Hood's merry men or Edric Connor in The Vikings ("he was captured on a raid on the African coast" - yeah, so why's he not a Berber?) There is such a thing as 'too fussy' even so.

For many, most, characters of course it does not matter at all.

1360037.  Thu Oct 08, 2020 7:35 am Reply with quote

Many of the versions of the Robin hood story include a Moorish character brought back from the crusades - Freeman was clearly portraying a Moslem from those parts.


1360049.  Thu Oct 08, 2020 10:45 am Reply with quote

That one also bothered me a bit because he's the only non white main actor in the film and he therefore has to play the moor. I'm not really having a go at the film, rather the general depiction of Moors in art from the last couple of centuries (so paintings as well as films).

If the story is indeed set during the crusades (or just after), then black Berbers were not yet aligned with the Caliphate, so the Moors would have been fairly light skinned.

If you look at medievel art Moors are often depicted as being of similar colour to Europeans, and it's only from the Renaissance onwards that they are almost always depicted dark skinned or black.

So it's not that the film chose a black man to play the character that I mind, it's that this is based on a false notion that Moors were black.

1360054.  Thu Oct 08, 2020 11:50 am Reply with quote

Willie wrote:
Cleopatra is a difficult one as her ancestry is very much European, the Ptolemies all descend from Macedonian Greek followers of Alexande the great. Given the Ptolemies habit of marrying within the family there probably wasn't much native Egyptian genes in her

This is interesting, actually. For a start, and as you say, the Ptolemies were Greek - and so they probably "looked Greek".

But is "looking Greek" actually all that different from "looking Egyptian" anyway, especially in an era before first the Sassanids (from what are now Iran and Iraq) and then the Arabs invaded Egypt in the seventh century CE?

While modern Egypt identifies as an Arab nation, DNA analyses (Genographic Project, 2017) have shown that Egyptian DNA is about two thirds Imazighen (Berber) - and it was probably rather more than two thirds two thousand years ago. Most Imazighen people today would not be considered "white", largely because of mixing with Arabs and to a lesser extent black Africans - but there are still pockets in remoter parts of Morocco and Mauritania where blond(e) Imazighen with blue eyes are to be found.

Zinedine Zidane is an Amazigh, born in Marseille to Algerian parents. M Zidane is not blond, but if you met him without knowing who he was he would "pass" for a white Frenchman.

So in fact, both Cleopatra and the "oridinary Egyptian" of her time were probably rather closer to "white" than is the Egyptian of today.

CB27 wrote:
So it's not that the film chose a black man to play the character that I mind, it's that this is based on a false notion that Moors were black.

This false notion probably has a lot to do with Othello.

It has been conventional for Shakespeare's Othello - the Moor of Venice - to be portrayed as black, but in fact the play makes more sense if he was an Arab. We've done that topic a few times before on these forums, but only rarely has he been portrayed as an Arab.

Alexander Howard
1360058.  Thu Oct 08, 2020 2:52 pm Reply with quote

Those superhero films: in the X-Men, was Jennifer Lawrence not ashamed at putting on blueface?

In the DC-superhero films (which i have not watched), they have an Israeli actress playing Wonder Woman, who is clearly Greek, and a gentile playing Superman, a character who should obviously be Jewish. Batman I see as robustly Protestant Ė probably a Scots Presbyterian.


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