In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and recent films like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt (in which Egyptian mythology—a quick reminder, Egyptians are African—is playacted by a cast of almost entirely white actors), I wanted to revisit an article I wrote over a year ago: “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.” In it, I discussed the trend of whiteness on our screens that has finally been brought to the forefront of the way we engage with film and television, and brought it into a specific focus: period pieces. It seems that year after year we are faced with Regency and Elizabethan dramas, shows and stories that are rooted in whiteness and imperialism, even if those implications are ignored.
I touched on a few shows: Downton Abbey has since ended, and in its six-season run included exactly one Black character, for four episodes. Conquistadors, a proposed FX series about the last days of the Inca Empire, never made it to production. In the time since, the trend has continued in much the same way. Two television shows about the American Revolution, Turn: Washington’s Spies and Sons of Liberty, bore no focus on PoC, despite the obvious presence of Black people in colonial times. Shows involving European history (Vikings, Outlander) continue to be produced while shows that focus on other parts of the world are passed over. Even a quick look at what’s to come is disheartening: another Tolstoy novel comes to us in a minseries based on War and Peace, as well as Taboo—which will star Tom Hardy as an adventurer who returns to London and faces off against the East India Company. Enough said.
Why is media so desperate to pretend history is white? Is it because in order to successfully create a deep and meaningful story, white writers, producers, and viewers must confront their own privilege and places in history? It might be a tall order, but it’s a necessary one—especially in an industry where PoC are systematically shut out of creating anything of their own. Even acclaimed director Steve McQueen’s recent television project, an HBO drama about a Black man entering high society in New York, has been quietly brushed aside.
I can count on one hand the number of confirmed historical dramas centering on PoC that are either airing currently or are set to premier: two. Underground (which is executive produced by John Legend, who is also in charge of music on the show) has been described as a prison-break drama in Antebellum Georgia. It centers on Noah, wrongfully branded a runaway slave, and his attempt to break free with the help of the other slaves on the plantation. It’s uncompromising and fresh, and definitely deserves viewership as a bright point in the usual (overdone) period dramas that grace our screen. The second is Marco Polo, a Netflix drama chronicling the titular explorer’s years in Kublai Khan’s court, during the Mongol Empire. It has been renewed for a second season, set to premiere later this year. The show’s settings and the characters are almost entirely non-white, yet it has come under fire for inaccuracy, having only one Mongolian actor in a leading role, and damaging portrayals of Mongolian history.
I wanted this article to be rife with new content, yet I see a trend that has not changed in the time since. Still, #OscarsSoWhite has prompted a massive call to action that has already seen results. It’s entirely possible that when I revisit this article again, we’ll have seen change. Until then, we can only continue to make our voices and needs heard, and support the content we want to see, and try to create our own. I’ll be watching Underground, that’s for certain.