The new film Mary Queen of Scots employs black and Asian actors and actresses to play white roles, while missing an opportunity to show England’s historic 16th Century diversity.
Written by Beau Willimon, directed by Josie Rourke, and based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy, Mary Queen of Scots recounts the struggle between Mary I of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I over the throne of England, which they both claimed. The film takes place between Mary’s return to Scotland in 1561 and her execution (sorry, spoiler) in 1587.
From what I can tell, the film is largely historically accurate, depending on the source. However, several black actors and one actress of Chinese decent appear in prominent roles, particularly Mary Seton (Izuka Hoyle), Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester), Bess of Hardwick (Gemma Chan), Andrew Ker of Fawdonside (Nathan East), and the English Ambassador to Scotland, George Dalgleish (Adrian Derrick-Palmer). Being either English or Scottish in the 1500s, of course, all of these people were pasty white.
Director Josie Rourke declared she wasn’t going to make another “all-white period film,” but did she have to throw historic accuracy out the window to do so? Not at all. Elizabethan England was quite diverse (relatively speaking).
There are records of African musicians in the courts of England and Scotland as far back as the late 15th Century. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a small community of African traders, musicians, entertainers, and domestic servants grew up in London. Elizabeth herself was said to have employed a black servant, musician, and dancer.
In 1578, Elizabeth sent an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and signed a commerce treaty two years later. Elizabeth and Sultan Murad III exchanged envoys and correspondence. The Queen also sought relations with Morocco and the Barbary States (where trade had previously been established), accepting Ambassador Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud to her court in 1600.
Most interestingly, men from the New World visited Elizabethan England as well. There is a record of a Native American child who was baptized in 1588 and died in the royal court a year later. In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh brought two Algonquian Indians, Wanchese and Manteo, to London.
Early Modern England wasn’t a beacon of tolerance, necessarily. Jews were still banned from the kingdom under Elizabeth I, and in the 1590s she sought the removal of “blackmoors brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here too many… Her majesty’s pleasure therefore is that those kind of people should be sent forth of the land.”
Director Josie Rourke’s explanation for why she chose nonwhite actors to play historically white roles is ridiculous. “Rourke told TheWrap that colorblind casting a period drama was important to her, because of the many years black and other people of color were left out of such portrayals and films.” Huh? It doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to explain why white actors would be cast to play people who were, well, white in historical dramas about England.
Rourke had an opportunity to both include actors and actresses of color and be historically accurate, by showing the roles Africans and Middle Easterners actually played in Elizabethan England. Film can be a great window into the past. A chance for people to look back in time at our best estimation of how our ancestors lived. It is, unfortunately, how most people are exposed to history. When we artificially impose our contemporary values onto the past, we perpetuate falsehoods and historical ignorance that can remain in popular culture for decades.