Which Queens Matter? How Colorblind Casting Centers White Stories

Why are we still so invested in the Anglocentric story of British royals when there are other royals—nonwhite in particular—whose histories are equally deserving of our attention?

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Jodie Turner-Smith faced backlash from critics who objected to a woman of color portraying the white Tudor queen. (Channel 5)

Ever since the announcement that Afro-British actor Jodie Turner-Smith would portray the historical English queen Anne Boleyn, much was made about this “colorblind” casting, which culminated in the recent airing of the historical drama Anne Boleyn on British television’s Channel 5. This is the tragic story of a woman who inspired her eventual husband King Henry VIII to sever from the Catholic Church and form the protestant Church of England so he could divorce his first wife—only for Anne to later be accused (some say falsely) of adultery and subsequently beheaded when she failed to give the king a son, although she did give him a daughter who would go on to reign nearly 50 years as Queen Elizabeth I.

Some see this casting as racial progress in which actors can transcend race, ethnicity and nationality in imaginative retellings of history. Others balk at the “inauthentic” presentation—even posing comparisons to how communities of color may feel if white actors were cast to play Black historical figures such as, say, Harriet Tubman or Nelson Mandela.

Given how some African Americans expressed outrage that Afro-British actor Cynthia Erivo—a Black woman—portrayed the quintessential African American hero Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet (2019), we cannot pretend the latter scenario would not invite controversy. However, this places the Black British actor in the difficult conundrum of being too “British” to play “authentically” African American roles and too “Black” to play “authentically” British roles (read: white).

Turner-Smith, who had already landed a starring role as an African American lawyer on the run in a police shooting in Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim (2019), has received praise on her portrayal of the English queen, and it is edifying to see a dark-skinned woman offered diverse roles that allow her to flex her acting prowess. However, I cannot help but wonder how equally impressive the svelte and elegant Turner-Smith would be if she were portraying ancient African monarchs such as the Egyptian queen Nefertiti or the more gender-bending pharaoh Hatshepsut. Or even warrior rulers, such as first-century Amanirenas (in present-day Sudan) who defeated the Roman empire or the fifteenth-century Queen Amina (in present-day Nigeria) or the seventeenth-century gender nonbinary Nzinga Mbande (in present-day Angola) who saved her people from the transatlantic slave trade.

Where are those roles? Outside of African cinema, there is not one Hollywood film or TV show featuring these African queens compared to dozens of British films and television dramas about Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth I.

When it comes to racial diversity, which queens matter? And why should we feel “progress” has been made because a dark-skinned Black actor portrayed the mother of a future queen who facilitated England’s entry into the transatlantic slave trade that had devastating consequences on the African continent?

Does Turner-Smith’s blackness prevent us from scrutinizing these political racial dynamics or even more personal ones—such as the harmful practice among elite English women during this era of poisonous skin bleaching to achieve the effect of a porcelain-white complexion? And if previous dramas did not showcase such historical investments in whiteness, does “colorblind” casting do a disservice to our understandings of race?

This was an issue scholar Marlene L. Daut raised about Shonda Rhimes’s popular and diversely cast series Bridgerton on Netflix. That show also faced criticism for portraying an “inauthentically” multiracial community set during the era of Regency England in 1813, while others praised it for its racially diverse casting. However, Daut rightly questions why the show relied on the rumored African ancestry of Queen Charlotte (played by light-skinned Black actor Golda Rosheuvel) as an entry point to imagine an aristocracy filled with people of African descent when a visibly Black queen, such as the Haitian Queen Marie-Louise Christophe who was exiled in England, was in existence at that very same time.

More to her point, why are we still so invested in the Anglocentric story of British royals when there are other royals, nonwhite in particular, whose histories are equally deserving of our attention? Why, Daut asks, do we not have dramatizations of the Kingdom of Haiti in existence during this era? Where is our Haitian Revolution movie for that matter?

I myself was more concerned with non-royal histories that were subsequently erased, such as the history of Sara Baartman, the Khoisan native from South Africa who was infamously on exhibit in London and the English countryside in a racist and dehumanizing portrayal as the “Hottentot Venus” during the exact same year Bridgerton takes place. She could not possibly exist in the same universe as this idyllic multiracial presentation of England. Through colorblind casting, these racial issues are ironically “whitewashed.”

To be fair, Bridgerton aired months before the controversial interview Oprah with Meghan and Harry, which countered the racial unity so meticulously detailed in the interracial couple’s royal wedding in 2018 that inspired these fictionalized depictions of racial harmony among the elite. It is difficult now to imagine Bridgerton creating such a race-neutral portrayal of aristocracy in the wake of that interview.

If anything, these colorblind choices in storytelling remind us of the very whiteness of popular history that most audiences take for granted until a Black actor upends expectations. However, as Viola Davis reminded her live and televised audience when she became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series back in 2015: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are not there.” Diversity and inclusion create new possibilities and new ways of thinking about casting. Such inclusivity must nonetheless exist behind the camera and not just in front of it.

Let us rely less on historical England and more on other histories, where there are many more queens to depict. Moreover, there are many women who were not royals and living their lives in fascinating and complex ways. Even within England, apart from the Black Tudors, there were legends like Lucy Negro, a brothel madam who was rumored to be the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

This is an exciting time for Black historical storytelling in film and television: from Steve McQueen’s visceral Small Axe series to Barry Jenkins’s hauntingly beautiful The Underground Railroad, and future developments are in the works, including Cynthia Erivo’s film about Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the Nigerian princess who became Queen Victoria’s goddaughter in 19th century England. And while that project continues with the interest in British royal history, there are other anti-imperialist African stories, as Viola Davis is poised to produce and star in The Woman King about the women warriors of Dahomey in what is present-day Benin.

There is no need to recast white historical figures to expand on racial diversity when there are other historical figures in other geographical locations whose lives are worth exploring on-screen.

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About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of the forthcoming When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination.