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Almost all the Best Picture nominees for BAFTA and the Oscars are about White men, existential angst in toe (à la Joker). The exceptions are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (on Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie) despite the mainly White-male-Cast, and Little Women. Whiteness prevails, irrespective of the gender, and intersectionality continues to be an inconvenient myth. Though, Cynthia Erivo picking up an acting nomination for Harriet has not gone unnoticed. But at this point, throughout the main categories, it just feels like Erivo being nominated is a “you should be grateful” tokenistic handout.” to the Black community “Yes, you can have this one.” One in, one out.
The Oscars did better than BAFTA, but by the skin of their teeth. Whilst BAFTA nominated Parasite for Best Picture, they also nominated Margot Robbie and Scarlett Johansson twice. And like the rest of Britain’s institutions, why shouldn’t BAFTA be bludgeoned with the tag of institutional violence? Why shouldn’t it be whacked with “racist”, “elitist” and “misogynistic?” In a year that gave us Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantic and The Souvenir, there is really no excuse for this level of discrimination.
Racism to British culture is what to America is to apple pie. So, you really don’t have to think very hard why Black British and British Asian talented actors go to Hollywood for better opportunities when their own country treats them abominably. What’s more, Britain is miles behind the States as far as representation is concerned. And in a bold, almost-colonial move of Englishness, BAFTA asked Cynthia Ervio to perform, despite not being nominated for her performance as Harriet Tubman, nor any nominations going to Harriet director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou).
Though, not really impressed with Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and certainly letdown by Joker, I was impressed by The Irishman. Yet, when diversity does not directly impact you, it is possible to have a passive approach to it. i.e White, straight men. When most people in positions of power look like you (and you hire in your own image), it’s not something you notice, nor have to have an interest in. It in fact benefits your sociopolitical power and “whiteness” to not do diversity work.
Britain’s track record of stepping over minority groups is well-documented (i.e Grenfell) and as long BAFTA continues on this path, institutional violence will have a place in British society, no matter if we’re talking about screen media or criminal justice. When whiteness runs fluid, implicit bias cannot be denied and this goes to the very top of all of Britain’s institutions.
This being the seventh year in a row with no women (since Kathryn Bigelow, 2013) confirms that BAFTA is structurally misogynist and racist; and Britain’s national conscience’s denial of its historic and contemporary institutional violence, is just the latest example of why the decolonisation movement is bigger than just the education sector.
After reading a blog by History’s Drew Grey on ‘Racism, Diversity and Contested Histories: Some Reflection on Christmas Just Past’, I began to think about my favourite television genre (by some distance), the Period Costume Drama. Reading his post took me back to when I saw David Olusoga presenting Black and British for the first time on the BBC, but more specifically his monologues about mixed-race families in Georgian Britain. Whilst Drew’s post boasts diversity in the latest adaptation of A Christmas Carol (based on the Charles Dickens story) by Peaky Blinders‘ Stephen Knight, diversity in the Period Drama fanbase is a contentious discussion.
His post reminded me of my dissertation where I was looking at my roots. Finding myself. Lost in my race-identity politics, it feels like a decade ago reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talk to White People About Race for the first time. A text that colleague and blogger @paulaabowles calls “a machine gun,” (with a smirk). It’s simply relentless. However, it was David Oyelowo’s quote in the Radio Times that’s stayed with me ever since.
“We make period dramas [in Britain], but there are almost never any black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years. I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience do not understand.” – David Oyelowo (in Eddo-Lodge, p55)
Oyelowo goes on to say “I thought – OK – you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me.” So, is it any wonder why so many of our Black actors have gone to Hollywood and made it big? Idris Elba made it as Stringer Bell in The Wire before we knew him as DCI John Luther. Oyelowo was Martin Luther King in Selma (as well as his British co-star Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King), and has had roles in The Help, Queen of Katwe and Disney’s Star Wars Rebels. John Boyega was in Star Wars and Daniel Kaluuya slayed as Chris Washington in Get Out.
Whilst many of these works aren’t all costume pieces, the fact that Black actors have to go overseas bothers me. Yet, Black History to British audiences has always been African-American history. To find Black British history, you really have to look for it. So, when we see characters like Kitty Despard (Poldark) or Miss Lambe (Sanditon) or even Dev Patel as David in the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield, it’s in opposition to the histories we think we know, the histories we were taught at school.
So, why is there such a backlash to non-White people in this genre? Is it one more example of Black and brown people being where they shouldn’t? You know Black faces in White spaces? From the streets of Georgian London to Walter Tull mobbed by 20,000 Bristol fans in 1909. Or is it a consequence of a population bludgeoned by historical misinformation? After all, isn’t the best way to have complacent people, to cut them off from knowledge? And if you don’t know your own history, do you know who you really are?
In the same century Charles Dickens was writing about Jacob Marley, Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonnetta was growing up in England wondering the streets of London, as “part of Britain’s imperial project.” It’s the story of Black Victorians, many of which could “only be told through the words of others” (Olusoga, p331).
Whilst these discussion forums, are majorly female, they are some of the most misogynistic places I’ve seen on the internet. There’s one Facebook group where I have been labelled a “troublemaker” for calling out racism and homophobia, as many members are also American, card-carrying Republicans who voted for Donald Trump. And feminism is only White. They see intersectionality as an inconvenient myth and the stories of non-White women in history an afterthought. That’s how White Privilege works.
This culture of hate against non-normative voices is dominant in the Fandom Menace, as I like to call it. The online forums are infested with racism, misogyny and homophobia: from Gentleman Jack to Beecham House, Drew’s descriptions of the backlash to the mixed-race Cratchit family act as a metaphor for a toxic fanbase, and contesting these histories can often be a homophobic act, a racist act, even if it’s born from ignorance.
There is an endemic problem within society, where we allow older generations, including “sweet old ladies” in The Period Drama fanbase to get away with hate speech because that’s “how they are” and they “don’t really know any different.”
What’s more, and what was great about A Christmas Carol was how unapologetic the makers were about their diversity. This family were Black and they were White. This was mixed-race Britain in the 19th century. Moreover, Mary Cratchit and how Black women take on everyone’s emotional labour. Be it modern times or Victorian times, Black women are in the business of saving grown-ass men from their own emotional work!
Mixed-race inclusion is a testament to our history and a thumb bite to Englishness as a synonym for whiteness, and the colonised imperatives that continue to dominant storytelling, as said (but not so bluntly) by Darren Chetty in ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People‘. Due to the inherent whiteness of institutions, they recruit in their own image, and history is no different. What’s that saying about apples and trees?
Certain members of the Period Drama community would like to believe Britain was only White before the 1950s. No, it’s simply the establishment has done a grand job of writing us out of British history books, but Black people have been part of every era of British history. I can tell you that.
BBC’s A Christmas Carol shows why representation matters and that history is not only the responsibility of historians. Artists also carry the load of telling these social histories (that’s what Dickens is) accurately and they can do better when it comes to the spectrum of diversity in the Period Drama.
And due to how History has been taught to every generation at all levels of education, is it surprising I encounter “sweet old ladies” using “historical (in)accuracy,” as a conduit to enable their racist, homophobic and misogynistic views?
Chetty, D. (2017). You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to Be About White People. In: Shukla, N (ed). The Good Immigrant. London: Unbound Publishing, pp. 96 – 107.
Kwakye, C and Ogunbiyi, O. (2019). Taking Up Space. London: Merky Books.
Lodge-Eddo, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Olusoga, D. (2017). Black and British. London: Macmillan.
George Bailey (James Stewart) spent his life giving to The People of Bedford Falls. Overwhelmed by his family business, community responsibilities and life expectations, he feels rooted to a company he had no interest in working for, living a life he never wanted to begin with. As George morphs into a middle-aged man, he sees his life passing him by. Told from the perspective of some angels, he’s met by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.
Most people I know who watch this film every year love it for its warmth, and Victorian themes, what today we’d now call family values. Something that fits Christmas so well. However, my affinity to it is for it’s social commentary. For a Christmas film, it’s quite depressing – which is a contrary opinion to the many that have it as part of their annual traditions.
Released in 1946, Frank Capra’s Christmas cracker dropped right as America left one of the most difficult fifteen years (and a bit) of its history, from the Great Depression in 1929 up to the end of the Second World War in 1945. George Bailey is part of “The Greatest Generation,” the millions that came of age during the Wall Street Crash which ushered in the Depression of the 1930s. The undertones of this film, to me, are in that ruthless Wall Street capitalism via characters like Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Yet, the character of Mr Potter is a reminder for many people of what happened in 1929. Between The Crash and the end of The Second World War sat FDR’s New Deal. Within this time, we had The Banking Act of 1933, which is relevant to the characters of Frank Capra’s film, and the bank run. Whilst Capra’s film was released in 1946, Potter is a reminder of how it used to be before Roosevelt and the Democrats ushered through the New Deal.
Once, communism could have been called anti-greed, anti-corporations, anti-fat-businessmen-with-a-cigar-in-their-mouth-getting-rich off-poor-people-in-slums. It’s a Wonderful Life is a voice for the working classes. It’s the I, Daniel Blake of its time, a stark indictment of a system that eats people below the poverty line for dinner. It comments on class and family values, but also austerity in America. In its time, FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover donned it, (what was the buzz term of the post-war years), “anti-American.”
Watching this film, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with modern Britain, in its themes of class and austerity that laid the backbone for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Manifesto. This is a film that cares about people, the individual working people of America – where the American Dream is just that. A dream. Echoing the thoughts of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Slumlord Potter (Barrymore) describes the poor as “A thrifty working class,” which shows you the measure of the man.
In wake of the recent General Election, I will watch this film once more at Christmas for its straight-at-the-jugular representation of working-class communities. Britain has voted for five more years of austerity (oppression), more likely another decade under the Conservatives. It’s a Wonderful Life shows what happens when the powerful do not care about powerless. But isn’t that how they became powerful in the first place?
For families around the world, watching this film is a yearly tradition. But as long as the powerful step on the powerless, this film’s legacy will endure. Institutional violence plods on. Bailey runs a business that helps poor people onto the property ladder. Played to perfection by James Stewart (Mr Smith Goes to Washington), this is a man who cares what happens to those around him. Potter is out for Bailey, wanting the company to close so he can swoop in, and coerce more residents into living in his slum-level housing.
Potter is a metaphor for power, the controlling state that denies people dignity in their own home. Call him Potter, or Boris, or Trump… every era has their tyrants who stop others from thriving, just because they can.
And as long as man is man, history is the last place he will look for his lessons, as history is written by the victors.