Black Actress Plays White Queen

Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

Have you ever watched a period drama and noticed something which shouldn’t be in the film? Some people check every frame looking for the tiniest mistake, while others don’t seem to care. I guess I am somewhere in between; I like things to be right, so a modern street sign in a 17th century scene, for example, would irritate me. Production companies spend many hours and a lot of money ensuring historical details are correct. They have to check costumes, hairstyles, etiquette, transport, buildings, furniture, machines, road markings, phrases used in conversations and the whole chronological order of events. It may be easy to research what type of cars were being driven in 1930s Britain, but I expect it is a lot harder to find out what sort of food was being consumed or what dresses were worn in Tudor England. However, on the whole, most films are fairly accurate, with only the occasional blooper.

So imagine my surprise when I heard that a new three part drama about Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, was to cast a black woman in the star role. Unlike some figures from the past, where race is not obvious, Anne Boleyn was definitely a white English lady, who became the second wife of Henry VIII in 1533. To see a black person in sixteenth century England would have been an uncommon sight, although there were a few, including servants and musicians in the royal court.

The Queen is played by a black British actress and model called Jodie Turner-Smith. Born in the UK to Jamaican parents, she now lives in Los Angeles, USA. Originally a banker, and then a model, she made her acting debut in 2013. After various minor roles in films and music videos, she became more well known after her appearance in the American action drama series, the Last Ship. This was followed by a series called Nightflyers before her most recent role in a film called Queen & Slim.

If Anne Boleyn was a fictional character in some science fiction series, I would not look twice at seeing a black actress. But she is not, she was a real white English lady who married Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. I don’t see the point in getting 99% of the series historically correct, with all the costumes, hairstyles, jewellery, furniture, carriages, old houses and the rest, to then portray the Queen as a black person. To anyone who knows their history, it will seem wrong, and to an uneducated audience it will appear that Anne Boleyn was England’s first black royal. I wonder if the people who think it is ok would also be happy for a white actor such as Daniel Craig to play a black man like Martin Luther King?

Ironically, it was only a month or two ago that I read a similar article, where Gal Gadot, the star of Wonder Woman, was cast to play Cleopatra. This sparked some controversy before filming had even started, with critics tweeting that a white woman should not play a black Queen. However, the case for white-washing was not as clear cut as people first thought. Gal Gadot is a Middle Eastern actress, born in Israel with European Jewish descent. Cleopatra was born in Egypt, but her exact ethnic origin is unclear, and some say she was of mixed race with Macedonian ancestry.

I personally think that documentaries and films based on actual events should be as accurate as possible, including the colour of the people. However, I understand that many black and mixed race people have been played by white actors in the past, so it is hardly surprising that blacks are now being cast to play whites. But two wrongs don’t make it right, as they say. I think half the problem lies in the subject matter; there are not enough productions celebrating famous black people. White Kings, Queens, scientists, explorers, politicians and sports personalities have all been featured in loads of films, some multiple times, but blacks and asians are not highlighted very often. The UK and the USA are both multicultural nations, and they both produce a lot of films and documentaries, so surely it makes sense for them to make programmes which appeal to all their audiences and utilise their actors in the best way possible.

As a middle aged white man, living in one of the least diverse counties in the UK (Cornwall), I am probably a bit old fashioned and not very “woke" (if that is the right expression), but I am not racist, and I apologise if I have offended anyone by my views. The fact that I have just written that sentence shows what a strange world we live in today.

I would be interested to know what other people think, especially if you are an actor.

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