Fact over Fiction Again

Anne Boleyn was a real person. She was born in 1501 and she died by execution on 17 May 1536.

Anne Boleyn

The Anne Boleyn television series televised in Britain by Channel 5 in 2021 employs actress, Jodie Turner-Smith, to play the role.

Jodie Turner-Smith


Harriet Tubman was a real person. She was born in 1822 and died in 1913.

Harriet Tubman

The movie Harriet, released in 2019, employs the actress, Cynthia Erivo, to play the role.

Cynthia Eviro

Both ‘Anne Boleyn’ and ‘Harriet’ are historical dramas that portray the story of significant women. It is usual for people who enjoy history and, by extension, historical dramas, to value accuracy. Of course, in both the film and television world, this is not always as high an aspiration as it should be, that said, it would probably be unacceptable to many people for an actress who was not black to play Harriet Tubman, and I agree with that. Harriet was born a slave who became an abolitionist and political activist, even risking her own life to help other slaves escape from the Confederacy during the American Civil War. She was brave, intelligent, and became a true icon of courage and freedom to her people. For a white actress to play this role would be disrespectful to the history of coloured people in America, which leads to me questioning why a black actress would be chosen to play Anne Boleyn?

We do not know absolutely everything about the life of Anne Boleyn but, compared to other late medieval monarchs, we do know a significant amount, including that there is nothing in her family history that supports the notion that she was not white. The fact is that the choice of Jodie Turner-Smith is more related to fulfilling a modern-day social agenda than striving, or even caring, for historical accuracy. It is termed colour-blind casting and it is justified by some as offering a fresh take on an old story and paving the way for new approaches to historical drama. That is a very weak justification. By its very definition history is an old story, but previously ‘fresh takes’ upon it were achieved through the discovery of new facts that gave rise to new insights. History is a subject that values facts. Paving the way for new approaches to historical dramas was previously apparent in so called ‘re-imaginings’ of popular classical works of literature, such as ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘David Copperfield’, but they were works of literature and the authors, being dead, were not able to protest at the inaccurate treatment of their works. Such re-imaginings tended not be as successful as more honest adaptations, however, probably because they seemed too much like plagiarism.

As I have previously noted, historical dramas have been moving away from accuracy and more towards fantasy to achieve an unrelated objective. This move, however, creates a problem. If it is valid that an actress of authenticity should play an historical character like Harriet Tubman, then it cannot be argued that it is also valid for an actress lacking ethnic accuracy should play an historical character like Anne Boleyn; that is just hypocrisy.

There are those who argue that race should not matter, and, in most areas of life, I would agree with that statement, but not in all. When it comes to the representation of historical personages it most certainly does matter. The history of a people is part of their culture and for some it is a very significant aspect. It is something that should be respected, even though history itself shows us that this has frequently failed to happen, but then that is why the accuracy of history is, and should always be, important to us today. Social activists might find that history uncomfortable, but it is better to be true to even the worst facts of our past than attempt to change them to something more acceptable to people today. That is a dangerous path to follow. On its own, casting Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn might seem unimportant but, put into a growing context of constant manipulation of the past to suit an agenda being pursued today, it only adds to a trend that we should all be concerned about. One thing that history does teach us is that when a group discovers that it can change one facet of history to be better suit itself then they will go on to change others too. Soon, what you are left with is not a history based on fact but a minority groups interpretation of it only. It is not a question of race; it is a question of accuracy in a genre where accuracy should matter.

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