Reverse Racebending in Historical Drama and Beyond

If you’ve watched historical dramas, especially those of the clipped speech upper-class British style movies and television series like Masterpiece, you will notice a general lack of people of color. The frequent pushback is that these works are only “being historically accurate.” Oh really? White actors (or those actors who are “read as white”) are able to portray important historical figures from any point in time, but actors of color will not be selected to portray those roles.

The newest film adaptation of Wuthering Heights has Heathcliff portrayed by a Black U.K. actor. This is not accurate to (my view) of the book.* However, I am so glad that this rare bold step was taken. Why? At minimum, Wuthering Heights is the story of two people in love kept apart by difference and (class) prejudice, so why not retell it in a way that makes sense for modern audiences.

Interestingly, Doctor Who took an important step in reinterpreting who could portray characters who are usually portrayed by White actors by having Liz X, the fictional future Queen of the United Kingdom (and thereby a descendent of the present Queen) portrayed by an U.K. Black actor.

And the inclusion of actors of color within a historically accurate context isn’t difficult to do, but it does require thoughfulness — and perhaps a change in focus. In the newer version of Upstairs, Downstairs, one of the main characters is Amanjit Singh, who has just as much backstory and plot focus as other characters. And on the less well-known U.K. show Land Girls, a main focus of the first episode is focused is the treatment of African-American soldiers in the U.K. due to the imposition of segregation by the U.S. military.

And Downton Abbey — the obsession of many Americans — has diversity coming its way in future seasons, after series creator Julian Fellowes said he wants to add Black and Asian characters. Considering she doesn’t even know what a weekend is, the chicken lady is not likely going to be pleased with inclusiveness.

And while there has been controversy about Lucy Liu as Watson in Elementary, the controversy among the fandom has been focused more on her womaness than her Asian-Americaness (or the combination). But generations before have survived varied re-interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, including the other modern reinterpretation that gives the very strong implication that Watson and Sherlock are a romantic couple.

I hope that there will continue to be more diversity in historical dramas. And just as one sign of progress, it would be nice if the next Black woman (or woman of color) who wins an Oscar in a historical drama isn’t portraying a maid.

*There is a very strong implication in the book that Heathcliff and Cathy are siblings. Hence the heightened level of distaste from others regarding their OTP.
**Not sure about what is racebending? Read this!

Comments (5)

I’d like to point to the 1993 version of “Much Ado About Nothing” in which Denzel Washington plays the brother of Keanu Reeves.

I think it’s also interesting how in some of the UK shows they reference going to India or Africa a lot, but you rarely see any representative from those areas.

What’s strange is that because of a black character I started watching Doctor Who. That character was in another British mini-series. She was the only black character there, Tattycoram.

Agyeman is awesome! I’m an old school Dr, Who fan and she is up there in the ranks of Best Companion Ever!

Thanks for your comments! And I agree that Martha is one of the best Doctor Who companions. And thanks for pointing out that Freema Agyeman was in Little Dorrit. This 2008 Guardian article gives more support for the idea of more inclusively diverse casting in British historical dramas:

[…] TLF, we frequently write about the importance of the inclusion of actors of color in more roles, including fantasy, sci-fi, and historical drama. But there still is a great deal of […]

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