Actress Gemma Chan Responds to Criticism Over Her Role in Mary Queen of Scots

Allure Magazine proclaims: “Gemma Chan Wants to End Whitewashing — In Hollywood and in History Books”

Back in January, I wrote an article criticizing director Josie Rourke’s “colorblind casting” choice in her historical film Mary Queen of Scots. Mary Queen of Scots recounts the sixteenth century struggle between Mary I of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I over the throne of England. 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.

Defenders of this peculiar casting choice have strained logic past the point of credulity, and once again, writers like Allure’s Jessica Chia have fallen back on that tired cliche “Internet trolls” to dismiss criticism of Gemma Chan’s role as Bess of Hardwick in Mary Queen of Scots.

“Why are actors of color, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race?” Chan asked. “In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”

I’ll admit, the idea of John Wayne playing Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan in The Conqueror seems silly, and in fact, that film was a flop and is rated as one of the worst movies of all time. It also came out in 1956, 63 years ago. So not a great example.

She continued: “If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.”

I agree. In my article, I explained how there were some Africans, Moors, and Arabs in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, and even a few at royal court (as ambassadors and entertainers). However, the first Chinese person to immigrate to Britain was William Macao in 1779, 192 years after Mary Queen of Scots died.

There’s no harm in portraying people of all backgrounds in historical films. In fact, I’d argue for more historicity, not less.

But the opposite happened in Mary Queen of Scots. Rather than portraying the past more accurately, it imagined racial diversity where none existed. It’s not “white washing” for white actors and actresses to portray members of the British aristocracy in the 1500s. That argument is literally nonsense.

Films are often the first and only time the general public is exposed to history, and they play an important role in forming public perceptions about the past. What if those perceptions are wildly (or deliberately) inaccurate?

For example, suppose a movie came out about the American Civil War, and in the name of diversity, some Confederate generals were portrayed by black actors. Would the audience walk away with an accurate perception of the role African Americans played in Southern society at the time? No, of course not!

It would be an impossible standard to expect every actor’s physical appearance to perfectly conform to the role he or she plays. But making an effort does help immerse the audience in the story and the time period. Seeing either John Wayne playing Genghis Khan or Gemma Chan playing a sixteenth century British aristocrat is equally jarring and takes you out of the story.

And it’s unnecessary, because we live at a time when there are talented actors and actresses of every race, ethnicity, and background who can be flown to any movie set anywhere in the world to accurately portray their forebearers.

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Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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