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We love that the face of period dramas is longer just white

Colour conscious casting is making refreshing changes where the right actors are being cast for roles, instead of letting race dictate who can play certain (historical) figures
Thu, Dec 02, 2021

When we think about the genre of film and TV that often gets away with a lack of diversity, we easily think of period dramas.

For too long, productions have gotten away with all-white casts on the semblance of being historically accurate. Whether or not, that is 'historically accurate' is a discussion for another day, but changes in the industry have caused us to look at period dramas differently.

British period dramas, in particular, have entered a renaissance. For too long, it felt as if production companies were remaking the same texts over and over with new casts which seemed like carbon copies of the previous versions.

There is still an audience for the updated versions of these classic texts, but there is no reason why the cast of these films cannot be racially diverse, especially if the race of the character does not have anything to do with the characterisation.

In the latest film adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield, the title character is played by Dev Patel, an English actor of Indian descent.

The character of David Copperfield is a genteel-born boy who becomes an orphan and has to live and work in poverty before being taken under his aunt's wing. The character has a sense of innocence, is charming, hopeful, and hungry for knowledge, so much so that Patel fits seamlessly in the role that it feels like he was born to play it.

Patel isn't the only actor of colour in the film, with other main roles being played by Benedict Wong and Rosalind Eleazar, among others. Directed by Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Death of Stalin), the colour-blind or colour conscious aspect of the casting does not feel as much of a gimmick because it feels as if the right actors were in the right roles and they refused to be boxed in or limited by racial constructs.

About the casting of Patel, David Copperfield producer Kevin Loader told The Guardian: "Armando always knew he wanted Dev... Once you realise that, then you’re making a statement about the fact that you're going to cast actors who are capable of embodying the character as perfectly as possible, regardless of their ethnicity.

"I was standing on the side of the set the other day, watching a scene between three of the younger characters. I suddenly realised I was watching three young black British actors in a Dickens adaptation, none of which were written as black characters. And it didn't seem odd. It's just another scene in the film."

David Copperfield is based on a fictional story and even if that were not the case, it is revisionist and naive to think that England in the 1800s did not have ethnicities other than white people – especially in central London. And focusing on historical accuracies opens up a whole range of critiques such as are the costumes historically accurate? The sets? The music? Why simply start and end with the race of the characters?

The casting in David Copperfield does not take away from the story being told. If anything, it enhances it. I believed that Tilda Swinton's Betsey was the aunt of Dev Patel's David, or that Benedict Wong's Mr Wickfield was the father of Rosalind Eleazar's Agnes. The actors are so convincing in their roles that I was swept up in the story with them.

Even in period dramas based on real-life, non-traditional casting has elevated the storytelling. In 2018's Mary, Queen of Scots, Gemma Chan played Bess Hardwick, and Adrian Lester played Lord Randolph, both historical figures who were white. But them being non-white didn't change anything about the story the film was telling.

Similarly, in 2018's Colette, which stars Keira Knightley as the famous French author, Ray Panthaki played Pierre Veber, and Johnny K. Palmer as Paul Héon, also historical figures who were white. Producer Elizabeth Karlsen told The Guardian: "We just wanted to be outside the box like Colette was as a person. And just trying to change things... But we're still in a world where you have to define it as something different. Hopefully one day that won't be the space we're in."

Non-traditional casting allows actors to be more than a stereotype. It allows them to move in spaces and genres that were previously gate-kept and reserved only for certain ethnicities. This new outlook and integration of diverse inputs and ideas has regenerated the period drama genre.

It's exciting to see a David Copperfield played by one of the best young British actors working today, to see Jodie Turner-Smith play Anne Boleyn, to see Daveed Diggs play Thomas Jefferson. We are living in a new age, and our stories should reflect that.

  • The Personal History of David Copperfield is on DStv Catch Up, and Colette is on Showmax