• Tanweer Dar

Representation in Media

A black actress playing Anne Boleyn caused quote a furore recently, and Elon Musk has publicly mocked Netflix for being too woke and blamed its subscription decline on this (ignoring, of course, the squeeze on finances that many people are currently facing - but then the richest man in the world probably hasn't noticed that).

The entire discourse around this irks me, and I want to take a little bit of time to explain why.

As a non-white child growing up, I watched the same TV and films as my white peers. I won't say it was next to impossible, because it was literally impossible, to find someone who looked like me playing any sort of lead role in any TV show or film or even cartoon. And most of the time, people who looked like me were always the villains (from medieval Saracens in crusading epics to terrorists in thrillers and dramas). The best I could hope for was someone who looked like me to play an inconsequential foil, a mock one-dimensional character along for the ride.

The only exception which stood out to me strongly was the character of Azeem played by Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He was an inspiration for quite some time to little me. That felt like a bit of a watershed moment.

Western, in particular American, media and culture dominates the world. Hollywood films and TV series are broadcast and viewed around the globe. It might surprise some people, but the majority of people in the world aren't white.

I can't imagine the experience of diverse audiences around the globe have been much different to mine in previous decades.

Moreover, what becomes of children who aspire to play historical characters like Anne Boleyn, or Julius Caesar, or Leonardo Da Vinci, but who are the wrong colour? Should they be forever prohibited from ever being cast in roles they want to play?

We have certainly come a long way - diverse actors are playing lead roles in both TV and film now in ways that they simply couldn't imagine doing not so long ago. Many might not understand just how important this is. A young black boy that I was teaching was so visibly excited by Black Panther that I could not help but be overwhelmed by his joy (despite not being a Black Panther , or Marvel, fan personally). The fact that there was a superhero, a wise and brave king, who looked like him clearly meant the world to this child.

Never having had this myself as a child, I could completely understand and appreciate his sentiment.

This kind of inspiration will lead to more diversity in acting, to greater aspiration to act and to be involved in drama, and theatre and art which have, traditionally, been preserves of white privilege.

If a black actress cannot play Anne Boleyn because she is black, I cannot see how that is anything other than blatant racism. If people of colour have the same training, the same talent, as their white peers, but are barred from playing white roles, then a glass ceiling and an impediment to equal opportunity still exists.

I have no problem with a black actress playing Anne Boleyn (and I have a degree in Ancient & Medieval History), or actors originating from the Indian subcontinent starring in Bridgerton. What I see is the joy, the aspiration, the pleasure, watching such diversity on screen is eliciting in diverse young people. Those trying to stand in the way need to stop and think about exactly what it is that they are opposing...

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