Joaquin Phoenix used his Bafta’s speech to highlight industry racism – more than ever, we need stories outside of the uncritical historical films that are sweeping awards season right now
Everybody knows what must be done in order to rehabilitate the film industry, but hardly anybody is doing it. At this week’s Baftas ceremony, shortly after Joaquin Phoenix took aim at the film industry’s racism when receiving a trophy for the racially iffy Joker, the ceremony went on to crown Sam Mendes’s period drama 1917. These twin events crystallise the whole problem. 1917, which is made by a white man, finds one role, a bit part, for an actor of colour.
The truth is that most period dramas are racist, and our appetite for them belongs to an essentially lazy, racist mindset that comforts white people in our importance and lack of political culpability. Making endless films about the World Wars, and about Victorian times, only serves to reinforce retrograde views by confining women and minorities to subordinate roles. Popular series on British television from Poldark to a new adaptation of Vanity Fair, via Cranford and Downton Abbey and War & Peace, propagate this essentialising view, with no roles, or very few, for non-white actors. In fact, in 2016, when asked by the Radio Times why Downton was so popular in the United States, Barry Humphries put it plainly: “Because there are no black people in it”.
In the last year the movies have given us World War Two films from Midway to A Hidden Life, via Darkest Hour and Jojo Rabbit – wholly white casts all round, save for the part-Maori heritage of Taika Waititi, playing Hitler. In recent years we’ve also had British heritage period dramas from The Aeronauts to Peterloo via The Imitation Game. Actors playing royals tend to do well at the Oscars, so in the last decade we’ve seen The King’s Speech, The Favourite, and Young Victoria. It naturally follows that these films will have far fewer roles for John Boyega than they will for Eddie Redmayne. The answer is, clearly, that we need to wean ourselves from a dangerous dependency on revisiting our own history, and from doing so uncritically. 1917, though it stops short of slipping into outright jingoism, still depicts a grotesque war that had British imperial interests at heart, from a strictly English viewpoint. This shows that we are not decolonising our history sufficiently. Indeed, white supremacist blowhard du jour Laurence Fox, upon seeing a lone Sikh soldier in 1917, commented on LBC that the film was ‘forcing diversity’ on people.
Partly, British and Western cinema needs to redress its kneejerk tendency towards casting white – we have seen some steps in this direction recently, with David Oyelowo and Adeel Akhtar cast in the BBC version of Les Miserables, or Dev Patel in Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield. A better understanding of our shared history is needed: people of African descent lived in Victorian Britain; there were as many as 180,000 black soldiers of African origin across all sections of the Armed Forces and a separate West Indies regiment, in World War One. But the makers of our historical films are not investigating these aspects of history.
But more importantly, endlessly adapting Western texts (a new version of Emma is due out soon, hot on the heels of Little Women) and revisiting periods of Western history, is always going to give the film industry a skewed, essentially racist outlook. Harriet and Dolemite Is My Name run counter to these trends, by celebrating African-American icons, but by and large historical films are not going to provide much meat for non-white actors. We need funds for new stories, which can only come if audiences learn to trust the unknown. If producers are leaning on familiar stories so much (classic literary adaptations and historical dramas are, in the end, simply good IP), it’s because they’re spooked that audiences won’t seek out new material: Marvel, with its family of beloved superheroes, and Disney, with its live remakes of beloved cartoons, have producers spooked. Yet audiences will still come out for new stories, as the success of Jordan Peele’s Us showed recently.
The shake-up that is needed consists of putting new faces in power, so that when they tell stories of their grandparents (as Mendes is doing in 1917), we see different people onscreen. The shake-up must reach right the way to film criticism (hi, white critic here), so that we aren’t left with reviewers simply accepting this state of affairs as the norm. Some people, producers, will even have to take a few hits along the way – there is a cost to all of this – and there is labour involved, too.
The world that Joaquin Phoenix is denouncing is, in essence, one that benefits him. Change will not come from simply nominating a few more PoC for awards, but has to come, as he states, from the system itself, in the films we make. Who is willing to take the risk?