December 11, 2020
By choosing a black actress to play the part of Anne Boleyn on a television series about the life of Henry VIII, the production company has, no doubt unwittingly, demonstrated how deeply entrenched racist attitudes are in Britain. The company is also bullying its audience in the name of its own supposed political enlightenment and moral superiority.
When the audience sees the black Anne Boleyn, several contradictory things are required of it at once. It must suppress the thought that the part had been given to the actress simply, or largely, because she was black, and must affect to believe instead that she had been given the part because she was the actress the best suited to it from the point of view of her acting ability. This, however, would be very difficult to believe: It would require that nowhere between Britain and the West Coast of America (where the actress lives) was there an actress as well, or better, suited to the part. My guess is that fifty actresses could be found who would do as well for the role, from the point of view of acting ability alone.
It is demanded of the viewer that he disregard and even fail to notice altogether the obvious historical absurdity of the casting—for do not all human beings regardless of race partake, au fond, of the same human nature, if you prick them do they not bleed, if you tickle them do they not laugh, etc., and should you therefore not even notice superficial differences among them?—while at the same time the viewer must applaud the symbolic magnanimity and political virtue of the gesture of casting a black woman in the role, which requires that he notice it to the point of keeping it constantly in mind.
Thus the viewer’s mind, which is unlikely to be able to resolve the contradictory responses demanded of him, will be made thoroughly uncomfortable. He will find it difficult to judge the performances and the production by the normal criteria of such judgment. Though he might have been disturbed by the historical absurdity, he will feel guilty if he acknowledges it to himself, therefore he must lie to himself, and (if he discusses it) to others. This captures the very essence of totalitarian propaganda, which achieves its end, insofar as it does achieve its end, by violating the mental probity of those at whom it is directed. And, of course, this violence is done in the name of some higher good or principle.
Here, somewhat in the manner of Montaigne, let me put a seemingly contrary experience. I once saw a production of Macbeth in which the role of Macbeth was taken by a black actor, while the rest of the cast was white. This disconcerted me slightly at first, but the actor was so excellent—alas, I cannot remember his name, or that of any of the rest of the cast—that I soon overlooked it. In fact, he was the best Macbeth I have ever seen. It helped that the production was likewise excellent.
This was now a good few years ago, and I daresay contemporary anti-racists would now find it sinister that a black actor should be cast in the role of a man who did such evil, though this thought didn’t even cross my mind or, I should imagine, that of any of the audience, which was highly appreciative of the performance. But to an anti-racist all things are racist, and everything is grist to his ideological mill.
I suppose that if Lady Macbeth and the three witches had been played by black actresses perhaps the charge of racism might have been reasonable, or at least plausible; but the very fact that only Macbeth, incomparably the most important figure in the play, was played by a black actor made it much less disconcerting to the audience. If Duncan or Banquo had been black it would have been far more disconcerting, though their roles are far lesser in the play.
Apropos of nothing, about half a century ago (it might even have been a little more), I saw a production of Macbeth in London performed in Zulu by Zulu actors in Zulu costumes. It is no doubt testimony to the porosity of my memory that I remember almost nothing about it, except that I thought it excellent, and it left me with the conviction that Shakespeare, translated, could cross many cultural boundaries or frontiers—though, to be accurate, this is not quite the claim that he is of universal human significance, only of wide human significance.
But to return, as the French say, to our sheep: Why do I say that the casting of the black actress as Anne Boleyn revealed, and reveals, the deeply impregnated racism of the production company and its milieu?
In productions of Shakespeare by the state-subsidized theater companies, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, there is often a gross disproportion between the number of black actors and actresses, often of no obviously outstanding talent, in the cast, and the proportion of black people in the population. This is another thing that one is supposed to notice and not notice at the same time.
However, my point is this: that you would never know from these productions that the number of people of Indian subcontinental origin in Britain is far greater than the number of blacks, yet they scarcely appear on the stage. It might be said in reply that they have, proportionately, little interest in the stage, but this would make it only the more urgent that such as exist should be found and promoted. Surely a cadre of people of Indian descent, who number several millions in the population, could be found who were interested in appearing on the stage?
But no strenuous effort appears to be made to recruit them—or, for that matter, Chinese, Vietnamese, Iranians, etc. Why not a Chinese or an Indian Anne Boleyn (admittedly there has recently been an Indian David Copperfield, but that is an exception)?
The reason, I suspect (though I cannot prove), is this: that in their heart of hearts, the over-promoters of the black actors and actresses believe that, unlike Indians and Chinese, blacks require administrative and political assistance to succeed, in other words that they, the over-promoters, are deeply, if subliminally, imbued with racist notions. Racism is in many places, but not always where the anti-racists perceive it.
Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris, Mirabeau Press.