Netflix and others, the BBC, for one, and a film which starred Dev Patel as Dickens’ David Copperfield have served up, in recent years, somewhat modernised versions of old tales. In these modern approaches to historical stories one aspect above all others has stood out. Race.
Race is what everything’s about, it appears. We’ve got Dev Patel playing David Copperfield, along with a bevy of actors from different races playing various characters of whom Dickens never indicated that they were anything but white.
It’s impossible to ascertain, due to a of lack of data, what percentage of the British population was non-white, further, what percentage was Asian, black, or anything else. The lack of data, however, has not prevented people from developing theories which have, in turn, become accepted as truth. As a result, we can now read that there was, in fact, a plethora of ethnicities living side-by-side in Britain from Victorian times, at the very least.
That, of course, remains open to debate. Certainly, that’s not what we were taught when we were growing up. Nor, perhaps more tellingly is it what we saw when we were growing up. Perhaps the racist educational system of the 1970s and 1980s deliberately hid a glut of ethnicities in British society from Victorian times on, but that only accounts for part of the problem. If there were so many diverse ethnic groups, from such an early age, why weren’t they more visible?
Even without the knot, we still have plenty to consider – namely the reasons behind the casting of non-white actors in Dickens and the reasons for the introduction of a black Queen Charlotte in Netflix’s Bridgerton series. It’s either promoting colour-blindness, or it’s a desire to tippex out certain unsavoury facts. With the Netflix production, the desire was to promote a certain, potentially confusing world view. This world view seeks to place race at the centre of social interaction. The idea was to attempt to level the playing field regarding the ethnicity of who should be cast in an English period drama.
There are problems with this approach. Children will now learn that not only was Britain a multicultural melting pot with elements from every ethnic group in existence jollying along together, but that the introduction of mixed-race Meghan Markle into (and now out of) the royal family, is not in fact an introduction, but a reintroduction, given that, according to the Gods of television, Queen Charlotte was a mixed-race queen of African descent.
The only problem with that theory, however, is that it’s based on wishful thinking rather than anything more solid. The theory that Charlotte was black was published online by a Portuguese historian, and remains disputed. Evidence is scant. Queen Charlotte’s physician described her as having “a true mulatto face” at birth, but unfortunately for the tale’s credibility, the physician was born 43 years after the Queen.
There is, in essence, nothing to back up Netflix’s decision to have a black queen and depict a society where black people were the equal of whites. It might be a nice ideal, but it’s decidedly a false idea.
There’s no way that this argument stands. There may have been black people in the UK at the time of King George III – we can’t tell that being this far removed from that time. What we can state with 100% certainty is that if there were, they were on anything but an equal footing with white people.
So what we’re witnessing here is a deliberate attempt to misrepresent history. Now, I’m not suggesting that this is being done for anything other than the most noble of reasons. I have no idea of what the reasoning behind the decision to cast black actors into English period drama might be. For all I know, this might be an attempt to raise the profile of black actors on Netflix. But, it’s an uncomfortably awkward process that we can see happening more and more in the world of entertainment.
Casting non-white actors to play white characters written by Dickens may make people feel better, may make modern audiences more appreciative of the work that is created, but it’s a fool’s paradise. Dickens wrote white characters. Dickens lived in a Britain that was, essentially, all white. Dickens, further, can potentially be viewed as expressing racist ideas. He spoke disparagingly about Indians, the Irish, the Chinese, and Aborigines, amongst others. But, once again, we should surely not allow ourselves to be cajoled into viewing historical society through the ‘woke’ spectacles that many wear today. That would be grossly misleading. Start off down that path, and where are you likely to stop?
The work of Dickens either appeals to you or it doesn’t, surely it’s a bit unusual to consider the worth of a piece of art based on the political and sociological views of the artist, viewed through the contact lenses we’re wearing today, isn’t it? What would that do for our understanding of the history of art? Of course, we can’t know...there are no records on what Caravaggio thought about inter-racial relationships as far as I can find, for a start. And that leads, or should lead us, at least, to the obvious conclusion: we should leave the past as it is. Even if we wanted to, we cannot change our history. At most, all we can hope to achieve is the unmitigated confusion of a number of generations. And that’s not a particularly worthy goal, is it?
To start down this path, the path of re-telling history so that it better fits the sensibilities of today is a true Pandora’s box. Where do you start? Where do you finish? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you then explain societal development, having removed all evidence of strife and woe that people fought to change? The thread that runs through this line of thinking is racism. Statues have been destroyed as a result of differing opinions within society then and now. How is that not a dangerous precedent? By denying what our history consists of, are we not automatically denying society’s progress?
What these people seem to forget is that the world was racist at the time when these people are accused of having racist views. Tearing down history and embarking on a process which teaches that people of every ethnicity imaginable were accepted as equals all through history seems short-sighted to say the very least. The chances of there having been a black queen seem to be extremely, extremely thin. The chances of non-white people being treated as equals in Dickens’ time falls into the same category. But these are not the criteria we should use when considering history, or entertainment based on stories of the past. Whatever Netflix might like to think, history is anything but modern. And we should be very wary of removing history’s warts.