Does the diverse casting of shows like Bridgerton and Hamilton do enough to improve BAME representation?
A lack of on-screen racial diversity is not a new phenomenon — White actors are too often the ‘go to’ for casting directors, and characters of colour (when included at all) are often relegated to the background.
“Colour-blind” casting, an approach in which race is not taken into account, has increasingly gained traction as a means of tackling this lack of diversity. Of course, this approach does not always have positive connotations. Casting decisions like Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan, and the baffling lack of any Egyptian actors in Exodus: Gods and Kings all reflect the colour-blind narrative of “the best one for the job” being used to exclude performers of colour. Yet colour-blind casting — exemplified in Netflix’s Bridgerton, as well as the musical Hamilton — is increasingly used to actively include actors and characters from BAME backgrounds, crucially by recasting White characters as non-White.
Naturally, any adaptation that recasts traditionally-White characters seems destined to be met with criticism, often for the crime of “wokeness” at the expense of remaining faithful to the source material. The casting of Halle Bailey in the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, as well as the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, are high-profile examples of this kind of nostalgic anger.
It is historical productions, however, such as period dramas or adaptations of real historical events, that are met with the most vitriol; they are criticised — often in racially-charged ways — for being historically inaccurate. Bridgerton in particular has had to navigate the uncomfortable relationship between race and ‘Britishness’, faced with arguments that Regency-era England wasn’t ethnically diverse (which, for the record, isn’t true).
Does “historical accuracy” matter? For the creators of shows like Bridgerton and Hamilton, apparently not. Whilst, yes, the British aristocracy in the 1800s wasn’t as diverse as Bridgerton portrays — and the Founding Fathers of the USA were certainly all White — this doesn’t mean that Bridgerton and Hamilton can’t reimagine history. Creative license can be immensely positive in that it enables us to integrate diverse faces into fictional contexts from which they would usually be excluded. Colour-blind casting not only provides opportunities for BAME actors but enables them to play characters whose racial struggles aren’t centred. Thandiwe Newton has previously stated that her race means she is either excluded from the period drama genre or made to play “someone who’s being racially abused”; in contrast, Bridgerton has been praised for diverging from the depiction of Black faces solely as servants. BAME viewers can see themselves represented in every context, rather than as tokens or stereotypes. Race isn’t a central storyline — BAME characters are simply ‘there’.
However, colour-blind casting has been criticised for failing to taken the implications of diversity into account. It has been accused of embodying an “I don’t see race” approach that “sprinkles in” people of colour without acknowledging the impact of race on the characters’ lives, and therefore on the stories they inhabit. Whilst often praised for their diverse reimaginings of history, period dramas have also been criticised for erasing the importance of race. Hamilton completely neglects the role of slavery in the founding of the USA because it doesn’t ‘fit’ its colourblind reimagining. Similarly, critics have questioned how Bridgerton’s post-racial Regency England can be reconciled with the role of slavery and colonialism in creating the world in which Bridgerton’s characters live.
The idea of “colour-conscious” casting has been suggested as an alternative to colour-blindness, an approach which actively acknowledges the role of race. Rather than inserting actors of colour into White stories, this approach requires creators to reconsider how a more diverse casting may change those stories. This doesn’t mean that the story has to be about racism — you don’t need to make the characters racist to acknowledge race — but acknowledging the role of race can be the dividing line in what Bridgerton actor Regé-Jean Page calls the difference between “showing brown skin onscreen and representing brown people onscreen”. What would the impact of race be on the characters’ navigation of interracial relationships, or their experiences as people of colour in a still predominantly-White aristocracy? As one critic put it: “Bridgerton did a lot of hinting or winking at race without actually ever going there”.
Does this mean that colour-blind casting is pointless? Arguably, no. It’s a positive first-step which means that BAME viewers can see themselves in contexts they are usually excluded from. However, colour-conscious casting necessitates more than just slotting characters of colour into pre-existing (White) narratives, an approach which increases the visibility of non-white faces, but risks erasing race and racial struggles — and that only does so much for tackling inequality.
At JAN Trust, we understand the importance of representation and empowering BAME voices. Our work empowers BAME women to become active citizens, tackling issues in their communities.