A diversity and inclusion moment: AN ACT OF ART
It is not news, but it has become a conversation to have recently. Otto Preminger did it in 1954 with Carmen Jones, an American musical film featuring an all-black cast in a story that originally was written for an all-white cast, based on an opera by Georges Bizet, Carmen. In 1992, Carmen Jones was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
More recently in 2015, Hamilton another american musical (Broadway and soon a film) by Lin-Manuel Miranda, casts non-white actors as the Founding Fathers and other american historical figures. Miranda described Hamilton as about “America then, as told by American now”.
And even more recently in 2021, the series Bridgerton on Netflix is described as “something you’ve never seen before, exciting, interesting, and bringing up a lot of conversation, and some controversy”.
It is called a diversity and inclusion moment, a “strategy that hit costume drama, which reimagines Regency-era England as a place where black people existed as equals with whites”in the case of Bridgerton.
For Hamilton, they are telling the story of old, dead white men but using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.
In 1954 Carmen was just a defiance act by Otto Preminger, an all-black film for mainstream audiences, released during the pre-Civil Rights era. The film was a failure but the message went through and it became a cult movie. Its purpose was clearly to showcase the talent of African-American actors and to testify to America’s discriminatory social history of the fifties, in so doing it also revealed Hollywood’s own political paradigms and cultural prejudices.
In today’s world, it seems rather an act of art. But if one can also see a political statement in Hamilton or Bridgerton (Black Lives Matter), it was more obvious in Carmen Jones due to the Civil Rights Movement that began in 1954 (abruptly ending in 1968 with the passage of federal legislation to abolish institutional racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement throughout the United States).
In the old days like Shakespeare’s day, men played women’s roles as women were not allowed to appear on stage (Mark Rylance in Twelfe Night). Blind casting, race bending, is not a thing of the future, but it does take its roots in the past. Dev Patel’s role as the title character in the movie The Personal History of David Copperfield proved that Dickens adaptations could indeed include race bent casts without changing the fundamental plot and message.
Critics and reviews are not always very kind and keep attacking period dramas for being “too woke” (a term that was stolen from anti-racism activists) for remembering that white people aren’t the only inhabitants of the British Isles, America and Europe, but movies like Carmen Jones, musicals like Hamilton, and series like Bridgerton are here to stay.