I’m a history student. I won’t pretend to be a particularly good one, or an intensely knowledgeable one that can spiel names, dates and famous speeches verbatim, but I do have a deep passion for learning about the past. I love tracing our social and cultural paths – I want to know how we got here, I want to soak up the moral lessons and behavioural patterns that emerge from the dusty archives, I want to hear the ghostly voices from years gone by that chime with words of wisdom, hope and despair. I’ve always found that in opening a history book we unlock a window to the past that exposes both the best and worst aspects of humanity, and although it can sometimes incense my sense of misanthropy, it also gives me comfort to see that there was, and is, a lot of good amongst all the bad we’ve done.
However, the word ‘history’ itself is misleading. It creates an idea that everything we see, read and hear from the past is something belonging to a world long since gone. We look at history, and we comfort ourselves with the idea that we’ve moved on. We tell ourselves we’re rational and enlightened, we’re educated, and we’ll never repeat our past mistakes. We’ll move forward and we’ll grow, and our modernity will stop us from committing the same sins again and again.
Alas, history proves that this isn’t so – who would’ve thought that a second World War would come a mere twenty one years after the closing of the first? Who would’ve thought genocides and mass killings could be committed in a world post-Holocaust? It beggars belief, and yet here we are – stuck in the same trap we always seem to sink in to. It’s a truly depressing and sobering thought, but one well worth thinking about when you consider everything that has happened in Ferguson of late.
The cast of Selma highlighting the similarities between past and present at the New York premiere of the film.
At school I would peruse the worn pages of our standardised, easy-to-swallow history textbooks, sighing to myself with relief when I looked at the pages covering slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Thank god it’s no longer like this, I’d think, thank god Black people no longer have to worry about this kind of violence – it’s history, it’s in the past.
Of course, as we all know, this point of view was completely misguided. My young age, idealistic naivety and somewhat sheltered Scottish upbringing blinded me to the world beyond my own personal scope. I’m about as white as they come (I become something of a spectacle when I travel abroad given my complete inability to tan), and the lack of diversity in my community meant I had very few opportunities to engage in any kind of meaningful racial discussion. When there are few examples of abject racism taking place before your very eyes, it becomes all too easy to believe that the world truly is a better place.
My very pale, very Scottish siblings and I.
I certainly wasn’t naïve enough to believe that racism was no longer a problem, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t reconcile the violent and distressing images in my textbooks with the world presented onscreen. But then, when I thought about it harder, I realised that actually there were very few people of colour on any screens. Where were they? Why did they not appear in the same volume as White people, why did they not inhabit similar media roles?
And therein lies the rub: I believed that race issues were consigned to history, because the media would have me believe it were so. The criminal lack of representation of racial and ethnic minorities allowed me to believe that popular racism was long gone, whilst also completely reinforcing racist attitudes itself. For a young kid that believed in film and television’s faithful reflection of real life and all its struggles, it was a bit of a shock. Kind of like when an old, trusted family dog suddenly turns around and bites you. The mirror of the world that the media presents is fractured and fragmented, and I hadn’t even realised it.
You’d have thought that by 2015 we’d have figured it out, but in film, theatre and television there still exists a distinct racial divide. Hollywood continues to throw whitewashed characters at us at an alarming rate, and yet the issue of whitewashing remains overlooked, dismissed and even endorsed.
In The Hunger Games, book Katniss Everdeen is a woman with olive skin and dark hair, but she is played in the movies by the white skinned and naturally blonde Jennifer Lawrence. In the new Peter Pan prequel movie set for release this year, the role of the Native American princess Tiger Lily is filled by Rooney Mara, a move that consciously eliminates any trace of ethnicity from a character that is distinctly marginalised in our society. Both roles could have helped to launch the career of minority actresses, and yet by default these kinds of roles are almost always filled by white Caucasians.
Perhaps the most recent and shocking example of cast-wide whitewashing is Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a film set in ancient Egypt but with a cast consisting almost entirely of white actors. What makes it worse is Scott’s unrepentant and offensive response to criticism aimed towards his film; he defended his decision by claiming that he would not be able to make the film with a “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” in any of the leading roles due to a lack of funding.
The point he makes about the lack of monetary support channelled into minority actors is of course very true, but to pin the blame purely on studio bosses overlooks the racism that is found in every aspect of filmmaking. Besides, someone clearly never told him that box office success is possible with both unknown and minority actors at the helm – Pacific Rim, anyone? What about 12 Years a Slave?
The main cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings – need I say more?
However it is not just film that is guilty of ignoring racial minorities – it’s also television and theatre. The U.K. has been increasingly criticised for its omission of actors of colour from its screens, with prominent performers, such as David Oyelowo and Lenny Henry, loudly voicing their frustrations. This argument was also highlighted by Idris Elba (you know, that guy who can’t possibly be the next James Bond, because he’s black and a black Bond would be sacrilege), who cited that his move to America was sparked by a lack of funding and opportunities for actors from ethnic minorities.
I suppose I should pause for a moment in my angry rant to offer a glimmer of hope, to show that it’s not all doom and gloom for people of colour in the performing arts. In theatre there has been a noticeable surge in colour blind casting – Norm Lewis, for example, was named as the first Black Phantom in Broadway history in 2014, and his run was met with both popular and critical acclaim. In television, the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards was also hugely successful for a number of racial and ethnic minority actors. Viola Davis was the recipient of the award for ‘Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series’ for her work in How to Get Away with Murder, and she used her speech to thank the writers and casting team for allowing a Black actress to be portrayed in a manner that went above and beyond the normal representation that is usually afforded to minority actresses. Uzo Aduba – recognised for her work in Orange Is The New Black – also used her moment in the spotlight to thank writer Jenji Kohan for using the show to portray and represent ethnically diverse women in a positive and complex way.
The raw talent, successful audience reception and critical acceptance of these actors highlights the ways in which positive representation is possible, if only media bosses and creative industries allow it.
Queen Viola, hitting the nail of representation right on its head.
So, media moguls, here’s my proposition – have a good, long think about your questionable choices in regards to racial representation. To ignore the need for racial diversity in all aspects of the media is to omit, ignore and marginalise the voices of millions around the world, which in turn creates a false projection of what it means to be normal. It also reinforces stereotypes, which can be incredibly harmful.
If you continue to repress the views of people based upon their colour and race, you continue to project the idea that anyone who is not white belongs in the category of the ‘other’, and suggests to others that people of colour should be feared, suspected and maligned. Even if you honestly believe that you’re modern, enlightened, and inclusive when it comes to race, anyone with eyes can tell you that that simply isn’t the case. There is something intrinsically wrong with how film, theatre and television deals with issues of racial equality, and this desperately needs to be addressed.
Norm Lewis making Broadway and theatre history alongside Sierra Boggess in The Phantom of the Opera .
Now, a quick address to white people – yes, all us lot. In order for this to work, it requires a team effort, a real discussion. I’ll admit that I was terrified of writing this article – I felt that I was out of my depth, that I was in no position to pass judgement on a kind of oppression that I will never personally experience or understand. I had sleepless nights thinking of people sneering at me, the silly white girl, who spoke of race while sat on her high horse as if she had some kind of authority on the matter.
However, as time has worn on, it has occurred to me that it is exactly this reluctance and fear to engage in the debate that allows a lack of representation to continue. It’s all very well and good for ethnic minorities to cry out about their rights (as they bloody well should), but their rights won’t advance very far if they aren’t given a receptive ear, or a chance to express and represent themselves in the way that they deserve. Therefore, here is my proposition to you – question your rights. Question your privilege. Question even the smallest prejudices you may have, and question the ways in which you may be a part of a wider problem. And above all, give your support to those who need it more desperately than you.
We all have a voice, privileged and oppressed alike. Don’t let that voice go to waste.
Although I have been somewhat cynical on the subject, I do truly believe that we are capable of escaping the trappings of history, if we really think long and hard about the future we all need and deserve. When historians of the future look back on us and our media representation, let it be with satisfaction at the fact that finally, finally, we did something right.
Melanie Christie is the Deputy Editor of FILM, THEATRE & TV at PTL. She uses this fact as an excuse to devote her life to Netflix. When Mel actually leaves her flat, she studies English Literature and History chez Edinburgh. She enjoys long walks, good company, and has a profound weakness for chocolate, tea and coffee. Ply her with any of these things, and you will buy her friendship.
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