TV Is Unwhitewashing History One Character, Period, and Genre at a Time

From “Les Miserables” and “Harlots” to “The Spanish Princess” and “The Terror,” TV producers are restoring the historical narratives of people of color.
Chantel Riley of "Frankie Drake Mysteries," David Oyelowo of "Les Miserables," and Rosalind Eleazar of "Harlots"
TV Is Unwhitewashing History One Character, Period, & Genre at a Time
TV Is Unwhitewashing History One Character, Period, & Genre at a Time
TV Is Unwhitewashing History One Character, Period, & Genre at a Time
TV Is Unwhitewashing History One Character, Period, & Genre at a Time
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Black characters on a show set in Tudor England would be a “stark anachronism” one consultant told “The Spanish Princess” co-showrunner Emma Frost in no uncertain terms. “Even I knew just from basic research that that wasn’t true,” she said in an interview with IndieWire during a set visit last year.

As TV shows seek out more inclusive storytelling, many producers are looking to the past to find new ways to freshen old stories. And while historical records and artwork have shown plenty of black, brown, and Asian faces through centuries of Western history, that same diversity has been largely absent in history class and on the screen unless it takes place after the 1950s. This dearth has affected the types of roles offered and even considered by actors of color.

Mandip Gill, who plays a British police officer of South Asian descent on “Doctor Who,” has only performed in contemporary projects. “I have always said I won’t be in a period drama. I just don’t see it happening,” she said. “I can’t even imagine it. When I’ve written down what types I like to play or where I would like to push the boundaries, it’s not with period dramas. I don’t watch them because I can’t relate to them.”

Danny Sapiani has had a better track record for landing period roles — such as Will North in “Harlots” and Sambene in “Penny Dreadful” — but that wasn’t always the case. “Period drama on screen was not a consideration when I began my professional career. Most film and tv roles were confined to the modern era, post-1950s, ghetto-ized in nature or victims of oppression,” he said.

David Oyelowo, who stars as Inspector Javert in the upcoming PBS-BBC adaptation of “Les Miserables,” agrees. “That was the case for me. And having grown up in the UK, and more specifically, on period drama, I had just resigned myself to the fact that, ‘Okay, those amazing shows are going to be shows I love, but they’re never going to have folks like me in it.’”

Dominic West and David Oyelowo, "Les Miserables"
Dominic West and David Oyelowo, “Les Miserables”PBS/BBC

Sites like The Public Medievalist and historians like Onyeka have worked to challenge the narrative of the pure-white Western history that’s been widely accepted, even by people of color. Now actors and producers are following their example to restore the place of marginalized people on screen and into the public consciousness.

“The excuse has been used that it’s not historically accurate, and that’s just not true,” said Oyelowo. “If you are an actual genuine student of history — and not just coming from an ignorant kind of purely white lens in relation to European history — you’d know that people of color have been in France, in the UK, all over Europe, for centuries, and not just as slaves.”

Sapiani points to the discoveries and documentation available for anyone to research about the existence of people of color in Europe for centuries.

“As evidenced by the discovery of Cheddar Man, the first complete skeleton found in a gorge in Somerset, the first modern Britons who arrived on the island 10,000 years ago had black to brown skin, blue eyes and dark wavy hair. It is from these earliest arrivals that the inhabitants of Britain derive their origins,” he said.

“In fact, there are very few periods in history where people of color do not feature, not only in Britain — the setting of most costume dramas — but across the entire European continent. The census notes 20,000 blacks living in Britain in 1780, the century we focus on in ‘Harlots,’ more than half that number living in London, which is where ‘Harlots’ is set. Even though this was during the height of the slave trade, not all those people were slaves or victims of white racism. Fascinating characters like Will North, spanned social and class boundaries, often, though not always, against incredible odds.”

Danny Sapiani and Samantha Morton, "Harlots"
Danny Sapiani and Samantha Morton, “Harlots”Hulu

Hulu’s “Harlots,” about the war between two brothels in Georgian London, not only features the free man Will North, but also several black harlots, one of whom ran her own brothel.

“There were tens of thousands of people of color living in London in the 1760s. We have found stories of musicians, estate managers, fencing masters, actresses, grocers, prize fighters, haberdashers, soldiers, poets, activists, librarians and clerks,” said “Harlots” co-creator Moira Buffini.

“Some were clearly people of means, like the ‘black lady covered in finery,’ spotted by Hester Thrale at the opera. ‘Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies’ has entries for several women of color who were making their living in the sex trade and The Nocturnal Revels tells us of ‘Black Harriot,’ a very successful courtesan who ran a popular ‘house of exotics.’ All our stories are about people trying to find agency when society gives them none — and this seems in especially sharp relief for our characters of color. Violet is a street whore and pickpocket but from her perspective, society is the thief. Her mother was stolen. Violet, in her own eyes, is neither victim nor criminal. She has a raw integrity and a personal truth that others find both intimidating and irresistible.”

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