Laurence Oliver’s Othello ( 1965)
Although from today we in England can create our own family bubble of different households, it’s still not too late to enter the lockdown confessional. I am not for a moment about to challenge the central aims of Black Lives Matter, or persistent discrimination at work or even what seems to me to be the intractable problem of race as an identifier of knife crime suspects in stop and search. I hope I’m sensitive to patronising and insulting ” micro oppression” (there’s a category term for everything), which resembles the casual anti-semitism in Britain in the years before the Holocaust.
But.. and there is a but..
I understand the case but I’m finding it very hard to absorb the full monte of cultural anti-racism.
Twenty five years or so ago “portrayal” became one of the performance indicators by which the BBC judged itself. It was part of a general movement. It meant that programmes should reflect the society for which they were made. This was not an entirely obvious point. How was that obligation to be discharged when a programme was about a very different society from our own? The solution lay in dismissing it as a problem so defined and adopting the solution to a different problem. Black actors could never achieve equal opportunity in portraying a predominantly white heritage. So women and men of colour ( in the required phrase not “coloured men and women”) routinely began to be cast for Jane Austen or Dickensian roles anachronistically or began to be seen in positions of power and control without anyone batting an eyelid. The BBC‘s recent race reversal drama Noughts and Crosses turned full circle by depicting a Europe conquered by Africans.
Could such a show have been made before Black Panther exploded lazy industry assumptions in 2018? Certainly, some of that film’s Oscar-winning Afrofuturism is evident here, but it’s more than just brilliantly stylish design with political resonance. The Africanised architecture (shot mostly in South Africa), the way black faces feature on all the advertising hoardings and news channels, but especially the way Afrocentric beauty standards are so pervasive that even white characters wear their hair in locs and braids – all this comes together to create an effect that is consistently jolting.. At a time when the absurdity of media “debates” on race reveals this country’s general lack of understanding, a show that so starkly demonstrates structural racism is revolutionary. Because it’s not just about some pink plasters, is it?
“Jolting” perhaps; but we can take it.
On the other hand “portrayal” has meant that Laurence Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s Othello is damned as “blackface “and hasn’t been shown for ages and may never be again. It was controversial even in 1965. The development of language is relevant here. What used to be “blacking up” has been categorised as an ideological pejorative “blackface” and weaponised for struggle. At the same time gender fluidity has become a progressive cause. I’ve just watched an RSC production of Romeo and Juliet in which Mercutio is played by a young woman whose punk femininity is emphasised by her bare midriff and sparkly sports bra. And who could object to Fiona Shaw as Richard 11? In 1995, Patrick Stewart came up with a novel solution with himself as a white Othello amid a cast of African Americans.
I’ve been imagining myself playing Othello and, in a sense, preparing for it, since I was about 14…. When the time came that I was old enough and experienced enough to do it, it was the same time that it no longer became acceptable for a white actor to put on blackface and pretend to be African. One of my hopes for this production is that it will continue to say what a conventional production of Othello would say about racism and prejudice… To replace the black outsider with a white man in a black society will, I hope, encourage a much broader view of the fundamentals of racism.”
Must white men be banned for ever from playing a black Othello or ethnic roles of any kind, while other ethnics are rightly free to choose and are totally accepted in any type of role? Why not think of Olivier’s powerful performance as he did, as a tribute to blackness?
Here’s where I start digging. When as I child I stuck gollywogs on the wall collected from Robertson’s jamjars or watched the Black and White Minstrel show, I never for a moment thought of them as being like real people any more than I thought a doll was a substitute for a child or Dangermouse has anything to do with space exploration or for that matter, mice. “Stereotyping” is another one of those categorising words that is itself a stereotype. The better word here is “caricature,” but is not preferred as it might suggest acceptability.
“Cultural appropriation” is another categorical term that seeks to reserve a cultural characteristic exclusively to its origins.
Sometime during the early 2000s, big, gold, “door-knocker” hoop earrings started to appeal to me, after I’d admired them on girls at school. It didn’t faze me that most of the girls who wore these earrings at my high school in St. Louis were black, unlike me. And while it certainly may have occurred to me that I—a semi-preppy dresser—couldn’t pull them off, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t.
This is taking to high road to cultural apartheid.
What the reasonable advocates are looking for – indeed demanding – is above all respect and equality. Like any powerful movement this one has its rough edges.
Protests like mine are of no avail. Lenny Henry (a fine Othello himself) uses his magnificent register to damn what is widely seen as the racist and demeaning portrayal of ethnicity. Mortal offence is taken at the likes of the Black and White Minstrel Show. But was it really any different from diddly dee Irish or leprechauns – a matter of taste than principle?
Quibbles like mine are confounded. Yet I look forward to the time (although I’ll hardly live long enough to see it) when ethnicity is depicted interchangeably and equally, according to a writer’s fancy and the audience’s appreciation.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London