Unwhitewashing History: Why Casting Matters
Netflix is at it again. The streaming service has developed an unfortunate penchant over the past few years for replacing white historical figures with black actors and actresses in its “original” content. The recent announcement that Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington will play Carthaginian general and military genius Hannibal (the Hannibal that marched elephants over the Alps to attack Rome, not the Hannibal who has old friends for dinner) in a Netflix biographical film has already caused a fair bit of controversy in Tunisia, the famous general’s birthplace. Tunisian news outlet La Presse called the casting decision “a historical error,” noting that Hannibal was of Phoenecian descent, not African, even though Carthage is located in Northern Africa.
Referring to the great men of history that his culture produced, Phoenecian history scholar Ildefonse Sarkis once lamented, “[N]ot only do we not honor our great men but even worse, we ignore them. Pity!” The Phoenecian empire, located largely in what is today the country of Lebanon, was home to a host of historical greats, including mathematicians Euclid and Pythagoras and philosophers Zeno and Porphyry.
The Phoenecians founded the city of Carthage in Northern Africa (modern-day Tunisia) roughly 800 years before the birth of Christ, and Carthage grew into a metropolitan and eventually imperial power in its own right over the next five hundred years, culminating in a long and bitter series of wars against the burgeoning Roman Empire. The Carthaginian Empire has been noted by historians for maintaining its hereditary Phoenecian culture, customs, traditions, religion, and even language as it grew into a sprawling world power, encompassing practically the entire African coast along the Mediterranean Sea, as well as several islands and parts of modern-day Spain and Italy. It was into this Empire that Hannibal was born.
The famed military leader was a member of the Barcid family, an oligarchical ruling clan in Carthage which traced its lineage back to the city’s first queen, Dido, who was immortalized centuries later by the Roman poet Virgil in his epic poem “The Aeneid.” Although marble sculptures and gold and bronze coins cannot accurately capture skin tone, they do depict Hannibal with Caucasian facial features, resembling a man from modern-day Sicily. Furthermore, although the Carthaginian political system was largely predicated on wealth rather than heredity, ruling families had to be able to trace their bloodlines to the city’s founders, meaning that Hannibal, as a prominent member of a ruling family, would have been of pure Phoenecian descent. Actors such as Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughan can trace their heritages back to Phoenecia. For all his thespian talent, Denzel Washington cannot.
Of course, Washington is a tremendously gifted actor, having turned in powerful, inspiring, and even terrifying performances in films like “Glory,” “Philadelphia,” “Training Day,” “Man on Fire,” “The Book of Eli,” and countless others. His prowess as an actor is not up for debate. At issue is his casting as a real-life historical figure who was, by all historical and archeological accounts, almost certainly Caucasian. The point is an important one, not simply nitpicking in the name of anti-wokeism; rather, the portrayal of historical figures influences the present-day perception of the Western world’s past, and thus also its future. This is particularly pertinent at a time when historical literacy is on the decline — it’s a prime opportunity for agenda-driven ideologues to subtly revise history according to their own political standards.
Film and television are, of course, media which demand a willing suspension of disbelief, they are endeavors in pretension. It’s obvious that Mel Gibson and William Wallace are not in actuality one and the same person, but Gibson’s portrayal in “Braveheart” offers tribute to the real-life Scottish hero who died almost 700 years before the film’s release. Likewise, for all of his method-acting prowess, Daniel Day-Lewis is not really the 16th U.S. President in “Lincoln,” but his stirring portrayal is a way of honoring the great American.
Hannibal isn’t the only historical figure to be “unwhitewashed” by Hollywood. A recent television series depicting the English Tudors in the 16th century cast a black actress as Anne Boleyn, the famously-white mistress of King Henry VIII. In another period drama, Chinese-heritage actress Gemma Chan was cast as Bess of Hardwick, a chubby English noblewoman who fraternized with the royal Tudor and Stuart families. Idris Elba was cast as the Norse god Heimdall in the Marvel cinematic universe movies, despite the ancient Norsemen being about as far removed from Africa as one could possibly be in the then-known Western world. The popular Netflix show “Bridgerton” relies on debunked claims regarding Queen Consort Charlotte’s heritage to make almost the entire Regency-era aristocracy of Britain black. The whimsical British science-fiction series “Doctor Who” recently cast an Indian actor as famed physicist Sir Isaac Newton.
Perhaps the most jarring example of this “unwhitewashing” is the casting of black actor David Harewood as conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. in the recent play “Best of Enemies,” inspired by the televised 1968 debates between Buckley and left-wing author Gore Vidal. A popular television personality, Buckley was notably a white man and was at various times — as it seems must be the case with all conservative figures — accused of racism. He did initially support racial segregation in the south and was a prominent early opponent of civil rights legislation, although his position quickly softened and he was instrumental in distancing the modern American conservative movement from racist sects. In fact, Buckley’s position on race is a recurring theme in “Best of Enemies” and the character discusses his views with other political, literary, and cultural intellectuals of the time.
Such a superlative degree of cognitive dissonance must be taxing on an audience: watching a black actor pretend to be a white historical figure who died less than 20 years ago and vocally advocate, in conversation with a characterization of black author James Baldwin, for keeping black men and white men segregated.
It is worth noting that there is a distinct difference between casting traditionally-Caucasian fictional characters as other races (or vice-versa) and casting non-white actors or actresses as verifiably-white real-life historical figures. The first noted instance of this trend occurred in 1997, when veteran Shakespearean actor Sir Patrick Stewart swapped the races of nearly every character in the play “Othello” so that he might play the titular role.
For those familiar with the play, race features prominently in “Othello.” The eponymous protagonist is a black man, a Moorish military commander, whose trusted friend and servant is the jealous, scheming white Spaniard Iago. Stewart later recalled that by the time he felt he had the theatrical skill to play Othello, such practices as dressing in blackface were verboten, so he decided to simply reverse the races of the play’s characters. Works of fiction are more malleable than historical facts.
And that’s rather the point. Once again, film and television require a willing suspension of disbelief, but period dramas, historical epics, and (more precisely) biographical films are not rooted in the creative fancies of a writer but in unchanging, unchangeable fact. The “unwhitewashing” of white historical figures in film and television goes beyond the simple pretension needed to tell a real-life individual’s story in a compelling and immersive way, it becomes knowing and blatant revisionism — in short, it becomes a lie.
The principle is not unique to race. In Ridley Scott’s recent movie “Napoleon,” the director shows the French military genius firing cannons at the famous pyramids of Giza as his soldiers storm the sand dunes. Scott quipped, “I don’t know if he did that, but it was a fast way of saying he took Egypt.” In actual fact, Napoleon treated the Egyptian monuments with great respect and preserved countless ancient artifacts — perhaps most notably the Rosetta Stone, which, thanks to the French Emperor’s efforts, has made the study of language a much easier affair than ever before. Scott evinced a total disdain for historical accuracy with the film, even telling one skeptical historian to “Get a life.”
The key question is, of course, why does any of this matter? The answer is because history matters: how we perceive history dictates how we will respond to it and what we will learn from it, and lies which distort the truths of history further distort not only our perceptions of it but how we respond to it and what we learn from it. Napoleon Bonaparte was a man who aspired to greatness, a man who was spurred to great heights by an innate drive to succeed. Such men have long been the makers and shapers of the Western world. But to most who watch Ridley Scott’s film, the military genius will simply be seen as self-obsessed, needlessly destructive, and dangerously immature. The next time a man of great ambition, high ideals, and lofty goals presents himself, viewers will recognize in him not a potential historical great, but the emotionally-stunted caricature Scott’s movie presented them.
Just so, to portray Hannibal of Carthage as a black man would be to rob the Phoenecians (and their descendants, the Lebanese) of one of their people’s greatest contributors to the Western world. Imagine, if you will, the outrage that would ensure if Robert Duvall were cast as Frederick Douglass or if Christian Bale were cast as Barack Obama or if Ryan Gosling were cast as Martin Luther King, Jr. At the very least, the studios responsible for those decisions would face boycotts. The cry would be one of indignation: that black people are being cheated of their history and heritage.
Such a cry would be justifiable. Yet if white people were to issue a similar cry, they would be — and in fact have been — branded bigots and racists. So we stand by idly while movie studios rob us of our history and heritage, spinning lies that will be remembered far more vividly than drab passages from skimmed history textbooks.
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.