History is No Good Reason: History, Historical Drama TV-series and Disney

tempo di lettura: 4 minuti

The recent boom in the re-making of Disney’s most famous cartoons from the past century has ignited many debates on historical accuracy. Among the many arguments against the casting of Halle Bailey as the Little Mermaid, “history” figures as one of the most powerful ones – quite surprisingly considering we are dealing with Disney movies. Similar remarks have been moved against other media products, set in a historical setting and casting black actors for traditionally “white-roles.

For instance, after BBC hired Akemnji Ndifernyan to play Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian online newspaper labelled the choice as a “scempio storico” – which translates most vividly with “historical destruction”, “degradation of history.” In other words, anything representing or re-enacting the past in 2019 which might contend with the principle of historical accuracy is considered an unbearable offence to the past itself. However, hailing to history or historical accuracy when debating about Disney movies or other media products set in the past is inappropriate – at least. History should never be a justification, nor a good reason why a black actor/actress with talent should see his/ her career’s prospects diminished. If we comply with globalisation and accept that a self-defined European can have black skin, then we must accept that Niccolò Machiavelli can be a black man in its 2019 TV-version.

In his essay, “Inventing Traditions” (1983), historian Eric Hobsbawm defined as “tradition” a set of beliefs which opposes innovation and change in the present in order to seek a (pretentious) continuity with the past. Such argument reminds us that, the moment we try to ‘defend’ or ‘restore’ the past against those who seek to ‘fabricate’ it, we are performing something on the present. The past is such because it has already taken place, thus it needs no saving or defending. When we bring “history” (interestingly, not “the past”) in to justify a present action, we are bringing a present construct -history- and not the actual past under the spotlight. To put it simply, history is as much a present-day creation as Machiavelli BBC series, both have a present relevance and are contingent to the present. Every ‘present’ has its own version of the past. However, this does not mean that anyone can ‘make history’ out of the blue, pretending that the Jewish genocide never happened, for example. Denying (or fabricating) evidence is different from considering all pieces of it to draw conclusions. The issue of historical epistemology and narrative has been extensively debated since the very beginning of history. Most recently, Professor Halsall has argued, in one of his blog posts, that history is a way of symbolising the past.

Protesters against diversity in media products with certain historical settings might counter-argue that black-skinned actors are, indeed, a way to fake the past because it is proven that Machiavelli or the Duke of York in The Hollow Crown’s Henry V were white, “there is evidence for it”. Nevertheless, such answer displays a greater consideration for the past over the present: one should not compromise on “what really happened” in the name of diverse representation in the present media, which would reflect societal composition and workings. The protagonist of The Sense of the Past by the American novelist Henry James exemplifies very well the ambiguity and absurdity of such relationship between the past and the present. Its protagonist, Ralph Pendrel, holds that in order to “feel” the past one needs to have a practical, immersive link to it (e.g. antiquarian objects). However, “historical” (or, rather, antiquarian) details do not substantiate THE past. Similarly, it is worth asking whether we should feel so outraged if an actor with black skin plays a historically-white character: not because in 16th-century Italy skin-colour did not make Machiavelli, but because in 2019 skin-colour does not matter in making a good performer.

I have heard fellow history students arguing that because the little mermaid’s story was written by a Danish writer (Hans-Christian Anders), then Ariel’s role should go to a Danish actress or, at least, a white one. If a black person should want to be part of a production, they should participate in productions which deal with “their own culture” -aka, “African”. Otherwise, it would be “historically inappropriate”. However, in many cases, black actors/actresses were born and/or raised in a Western country and identify themselves as “European”, “American”, “Afro-American” etc. Thus, even on the level of personal culture, they should not be prevented from participating in European or American productions just because their skin is perceived as a threat to the story’s truth, its historical milieu or its credibility. Moreover, calling for “historical accuracy” in such folklore stories is more dangerous than ever. Even the versions we know of from Disney’s cartoons are adaptations and products of a very specific historical moment which was most definitely NOT the “original” one. A 12th-century version of the Sleeping Beauty speaks of rape and cannibalism. Not to think of the multiple different versions and endings of the same story in different places and different times. What should we make of “historical accuracy” in such cases? Which is the right version to follow and who is to decide? The Past? History, perhaps? Which version of it?

To conclude, ‘historical accuracy’ and ‘history’ do not count as reasonable arguments against the casting of black performers. The past is no longer, and we have the choice (and duty) to shape our society without impinging on it for justifications. As Professor Halsall argued, in another article, with regards to terrorist attacks in Paris and refugee crisis of 2015, the interpretation of the past is not an answer to the present.

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