Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn: What happens when a Black actor plays a historical white woman?

Nii Ntreh Feb 12, 2021 at 10:00am

February 12, 2021 at 10:00 am | Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

February 12, 2021 at 10:00 am | Opinions & Features

Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen Anne Boleyn, the 15th century second wife of King Henry VIII. Photo Credit: Fable Pictures

Sociological researchers have noted in the last two decades that American and British societies have undergone tremendous degrees of social liberalism as well as far-reaching sensitization on the rights and dignities of previously under-recognized gender, sexual and racial minorities.

Liberal values have arguably become the benchmark for public morality. This is a consequence forced not only by popular movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too but also by corporations that have felt the weight of demographics using the free-market to express ambitions and tastes.

There has been pushback, as is to be expected, seen in the rise of conservative provocateurs and far-right parties and platforms. Those in this corner have campaigned against immigration policies that embrace multiculturalism, the future of women in the workplace, LGBTQ+ representation, and the celebration of the lives and achievements of racial minorities, most especially, Black people.

The hitherto norm where white actors take on cinematic roles conceived by and according to non-white Euro-American culture is being shamed into obscurity. More and more Black people, for instance, are being given a place in front and behind cameras and an opportunity to play their own on-screen. Cinema is a powerful vehicle for sociopolitical mainstreaming and big-timers such as Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey have used several occasions in the last five years alone to point this out.

So what happens when a Black actor agrees to play a 15th-century English queen who was very much a white woman? Why would she do that? Are the rules unfair? And do white people have the right to be aggrieved?

Jodie Turner-Smith, the British model and actress of Jamaican descent, is going to appear as Queen Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated wife of King Henry VIII, in a three-part series. The report that accompanied the first photos from the series also noted that Turner-Smith’s Boleyn would be the subject of a psychological thriller rather than simply playing in another period drama. Natalie Portman most recently played Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl.

Turner-Smith was quoted by Vogue saying of the woman she is portraying: “There’s so much about her story that feels modern. It’s one I can relate to as a Black woman, and it shows how little has changed in terms of our desire to tear down powerful women, to not let them live in their truth.”

The response that has greeted the announcement of Turner-Smith’s role has not matched anything compared to what would have been the case had Cate Blanchett agreed to play a contemporary of Boleyn’s, Queen Amina of Zaria. The little disagreement that has been registered falls many decibels short of a furor. One would be forgiven if they were to say white people do not seem to care about Turner-Smith’s portrayal of a white woman. It is after all not the first time a Black actor is playing historical white British nobility and that appearance barely registered on the controversy scale. (Sophie Okonedo, the Nigerian-British actress Queen Margaret in Hollow Crown).

The non-controversy has been intriguing seeing that Will Smith’s portrayal of a Nigerian doctor was chided before and after the release of the film Concussion. We also saw Cynthia Erivo, the English actress of Nigerian descent, slammed for playing American abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

But are we to judge the rightness of these calls from whether they elicit brouhaha and controversy? There is a serious moral debate to be had about measuring justice from consequence and not from duty – a duty to stay faithful to historical contexts. Blackness and whiteness were after all concepts under construction in the 15th century, yet they were discernible from each other.

One cannot pretend to speak for the white people who are not protesting on top of their lungs right now. However, one can fear for what this means for those who have asked for equity for the longest time. The mainstreaming of Black humanity and dignity is an ongoing project that requires prudential public relations management. If the sense that emanates from Turner-Smith’s role or any other similar kind is that Black people are unwilling to hold their end of the bargain, this will blow in our faces. The quest to even earn a right to be given the benefit of doubt has taken centuries.

Some would argue that Boleyn’s story does not occur in the realm of race relations but that is frankly a poor response. She was a white woman who lived and is part of British history. Casting Turner-Smith as Boleyn essentially adds to the “we don’t see color” body of inadequate argumentations.

Conclusively, Black people committed to utilizing cinema and the arts for the purpose bettering opportunities for our kind as well as improving race relations, find themselves on the precipice of the trickiest century yet in humanity’s evolution. The choices we support today will guide a generation’s appreciation of challenges tomorrow.

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