Last night I went to see the film ‘The Aeronauts’, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. It is a story inspired by true events. In 1862 James Glaisher undertook a balloon ascent to test his hypotheses concerning weather and his ability to predict it. The story, written by director Tom Harper and Jack Thorne who also wrote the screenplay, is an amalgam the actual facts. Glaisher made several flights and he was not accompanied by Amelia Rennes, played by Felicity Jones, on any of them. Rennes is a fictional character distilled from two real women aeronauts, Sophie Blanchard and Margaret Graham.
Moviemakers do not seem to always feel constrained by fact or even historical accuracy. I think that in general they do try to capture something from history, especially in terms of how their films look. They spend a lot of time either looking for appropriate locations or building expensive sets to achieve a degree of authenticity. As an historical fiction writer, I appreciate the efforts that they go to, especially when they get it right.
Recently, I have noticed a subtle change in the fabric of society as represented in the background of historical dramas. It began with the BBC’s dramatisation of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserable’. Set in France within living memory of Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule the dramatisation differed from the novel in that several characters had their race changed. Police Inspector Javert, the villain Thernardier and one of his daughters, he had two and a son, and also Montparnasse are several of the more important characters who are no longer white. There is no mention of this fact in Hugo’s book, which is a story portraying the suffering of the poor and the injustice that they frequently suffer because of their status. Racism is not mentioned, which seems a little remiss of the author. Then again, that might be because he did not write these characters as being racially different to any of the others in the book.
Director Armando Iannucci recently made a version of Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ with the main role played by Dev Patel. The supporting cast also includes many non-Caucasian actors, although there does not seem to be one in the role of Clara Copperfield, David’s mother.
The ‘Aeronauts’ also features an ethnically diverse representation of middle-class people in 19th century Britain. Is this a trend?
I am very aware how easy it is for this observation to be interpreted as racist, but it is not. In fact, it seems like recent filmmakers are trying to paint a different picture of historic racialism than that that exists in the records of the times. Yes, people of other ethnic origins did live in Britain and France during the 19th century, but they were the exception, not the rule. Mostly, they were to be found amongst the poorer classes. The abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833 did not turn the country into a haven for foreign people of darker skin. Racism was both endemic and institutionalised. Another BBC drama, Poldark, had Kerri McLean playing a black woman, Kitty, married to a white man, Ned Despard, an actual historical character, in the early part of the 19th century. Although somewhat tame compared to more contemporary incidents, Kitty is subjected to several verbal assaults simply for being black, which is at least more realistic.
It might not be true, but it seems as if people are trying to rewrite history to represent racism as something different. Rewriting history is always dangerous, I contend. People have tried to rewrite the holocaust. Some are trying to erase the presence of figures like Sir Francis Galton, who amongst other things systemised eugenics as means of social betterment. Trying to create a golden age in the past where everyone was apparently treated with liberte, egalite, fraternite, even when they clearly were not, is not dealing with the problem of racism today.
I could also argue that it is disingenuous to authors like Dickens and Hugo to use their works to create such a delusion. They did not write those characters in the way that they are being represented. Would any filmmaker countenance casting a white actor in the role of Tom Robinson in a remake of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’? The same could be said for E. R. Braithwaite’s ‘To Sir, With Love’. Both books deal with racism because it is a fact of life, not just today but also in our past. Attempting to change that past because it is disturbing is not laudable, it is at least a disservice to those many people who suffered simply because they were a minority living amongst a hostile majority. Painting a multicultural fabric of the past that suggests tolerance and acceptance in that time makes something of a mockery of the sufferings of the millions of black people sold into slavery. That was how the past was, cruel and vindictive to people of colour or just different. To pretend otherwise is a lie.