Why Race in a Historical Context is Important

Back in November 2019 I wrote a piece on now racism in Historical Dramas appears to be in the process of being erased from both cinema and television screens <link>. I recently got into an argument about this very subject again. I made a comment about Armando Iannucci’s latest version of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. In this version the title role is played by Dev Patel and I pointed out that the book was not about a young Asian man’s life experiences in 19th century England.

My basic point is about race; it matters, but not in the way that most people seem to presume I mean when I make this point to them. It is not a white supremacist statement.

This 2019 version of David Copperfield is part of a recent trend in which the question of race in a historical context is being discounted. ‘Colour-blind casting’ as they call it. There is a problem, however, and it is connected to the term historical; this is not how history was.

From 1525 to 1866 it is estimated that 12.5 million people were enslaved in Africa and transported to the New World. This inhuman trade influenced how European societies perceived black people and it was not positive. The presentation of 19th century European countries like Britain as lands of multi-cultural equality and freedom is a dangerous fantasy.

In response some have argued that changing the ethnicity of characters in books for television or cinema adaptations is acceptable, but I do not agree. Hattie McDaniel was the first coloured actor to receive an Oscar for her role as Mammy in the film Gone with the Wind. Mammy was a black slave. The role should never be played by a non-black actor. If colour-blind casting had been used in 1939 then Hattie McDaniel’s achievement probably would never have happened. That achievement is important to black people in America.

When David Copperfield was published in 1850 its portrayal of child workers led to a series of social reforms. Charles Dickens frequently wrote about social injustice, especially how it impacted upon the poor. The non-white people who lived in London at that time were found amongst that social group, not the affluent middle-class as portrayed in Iannucci’s film. In a society governed by a strict class system racism was prevalent and endemic. The Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 did not succeed because Britain had become an egalitarian society that opened itself up to ethnic minorities, it was passed for economic reasons; slavery was no longer profitable. Prejudice against non-white people would continue from the 19th century right up to today, where it is still a fact of life.

Charles Dickens did not write about racism because he wrote mostly white characters. In all of his works there are only three characters that I know of who do not fit his usual profile. The first is Fagen, who was Jewish, and appears in Oliver Twist. The other two are the twins Neville and Helena Landless who were born in Ceylon, then a British colony. They appear in his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens never establishes their exact ethnic origin in the six chapters that he wrote, however.

Currently, it seems an adherence to the facts and the context in which authors like Charles Dickens wrote are nothing but inconveniences for film-makers. However, what they are doing is misrepresenting history. They appear to be painting over the uncomfortable truths to create some idyllic notion of a golden age when all peoples lived together as one. History, for those who do not read it, is in danger of becoming a fantasy, as ludicrous as it is inaccurate. At a time when politics seems to be more fractious than ever it seems wrong to be presenting the past as ideal when we should be concentrating on making the future better than what our previous history has really been.

One thought on “Why Race in a Historical Context is Important

  1. Pingback: Fake History is as bad as Fake News | Peter C Whitaker

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