Movies, Pop Culture

Why are costume dramas so damn white?

Believe it or not, historical Europe also had people of color. And they weren’t slaves.

Monique Jones’s previous work for Coming of Faith can be found here.

The costume drama genre features tremendous acting, beautiful clothing, and expansive scenery. It’s also extremely white. But there’s a strong audience of people of color who, like me, are die-hard costume drama fans. How is it that, with so many people of color who do watch costume dramas, Hollywood hasn’t yet found it within itself to create costume dramas that appeal to us?

The traditional idea of the costume drama includes several tropes: the story is set in the 18th, 19th or early 20th century Europe, the plot is built around a windswept romance, and the set pieces feature pounds and pounds of sumptuous clothing and hair. There’s also the idea that the only people who mattered during these times were the rich white gentility.

[bctt tweet=”There were more people than just rich white gentry” username=”wearethetempest”]

But many historical records have shown that Britain has been a multicultural place since its ancient Roman occupation. Septimus Severus, one of Roman’s most legendary emperors, was of African origin and was buried in York. Also in York, one of the remains of the bodies of high class ancient Roman citizens was found to belong to a black woman. Even still, movies and television have painted Britain as almost homogeneously white, with the exception of slaves, such as highly decorated page boys, or freedmen who happened to be down on their luck.

[bctt tweet=”Britain has been multicultural since the Romans” username=”wearethetempest”]

In truth, there were homeless freedmen and families, but there were also freed black and Asian (specifically South Asian) citizens who ran shops and worked as sailors. Some, like 18th century figures Olaudah Equiano and Ingatius Sancho, become notable influences in society as well as social activists. A number of people of color also made names for themselves in politics, like Dadabhai Naoroji, who in the late 1800s became the first Liberal MP for North London’s Finsbury Central.

Just as the discovery of the Roman black woman suggests, there were also black members of the gentry, like Dido Elizabeth Belle, the niece of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (and Lord Chief Justice, whose role in influential slavery cases helped end the practice of slavery in Britain). There’s also Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George, whose virtuoso violinist and composing skills earned him the title of “the black Mozart.” Before racism from members of the opera made him give up his position, he was appointed to direct the Royal Opera of Louis XVI. And let’s not forget Queen Charlotte, the wife of the British King George III. Queen Charlotte is a direct descendant from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, the black branch of the Portuguese Royal House, and members of her family were models for the black Magi found in 15th century Flemish paintings.

There are many people I haven’t mentioned at length, like Alexandre Dumas and his father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a general in the French Revolution. But the point here is that people of color existed. Yet, somehow, they’re rarely featured in costume dramas – unless, of course, in a subservient role. Even worse, characters of color are sometimes whitewashed in major productions.

While the classic “Wuthering Heights” character Heathcliff is renowned as one of the best examples of a tall, dark and handsome leading man, he’s typically portrayed as an Anglo-Saxon man. That’s at odds with Emily Brontë’s description of Heathcliff – “dark skinned” and “a little lascar,” an out-of-date term for a person of South Asian origin. James Howson is the only actor of color who has portrayed Heathcliff in a film adaptation of “Wuthering Heights”; his appearance comes in the 2011 interpretation by Andrea Arnold. “The Count of Monte Cristo” focuses on Edmond Dantes, a character who is directly inspired by Dumas’ legendary father. Yet many adaptations of the film, including the 2002 version starring Jim Caviezel, feature white actors as Dantes.

There are a few notable examples of people of color in costume dramas, like Howson in “Wuthering Heights” and the “Belle,” the 2013 film about Dido Elizabeth Belle starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw. There’s also the promise of the film adaptation of Tom Reiss’ book on Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo,” which will be produced by John Legend and written and directed by Cary Fukunaga.

But there aren’t enough. There need to be more examples of the diversity that did exist in times gone by. Seeing characters on screen who represent the non-white experience provides validation to those members of the audience that want to see themselves on screen. Non-white people have a past that must be given the same legitimacy afforded to the wide berth of white characters onscreen.

[bctt tweet=”There needs to be more examples of diversity in period pieces ” username=”wearethetempest”]