Violence to History the Mob Will Love

The inescapable problem of “period pieces,” i.e. movies set in the past, is that much of the past has been lost. History is incomplete and some of it is highly debated. So, there will likely be a fair amount of invention in your average period piece. Certainly, the dialog between historical persons is apt to be invented, created out of whole cloth. Given that, the trick in a period piece would seem to be in balancing the demands of ticket buyers who want an engaging drama with the imperative to not inflict violence on known history.

On the cable recently, I screened the 2018 movie Mary Queen of Scots. This flick would surely qualify as a period piece, a biopic. It’s about the woman who may have had a stronger claim to the English throne than did Elizabeth I. But the film makes so many errors in history that it may make hardcore history buffs highly irritated.

In your average historical drama, this viewer can forgive certain inventions and even some departures from what is known as long as we have a compelling story. But this Mary flick features one deviation from history that is so blatant and so unnecessary that it may make one want to relegate the film to the dustbin of, well, history. That error is in casting.

The film’s casting decisions don’t merely fill in the blanks for facts which have been lost; they are deliberate choices to rewrite history, and they make what could have been an enjoyable drama into some multicultural propaganda piece.

The main miscast roles were for Lord Thomas Randolph, Bess of Hardwick, and David Rizzio. These were all white folks, kids, yet were played by non-whites. In addition, a number of supernumerary roles were played by non-whites.

Our Mary here was directed by one Josie Rourke in her film debut. Ms. Rourke’s other directing has been for the theatre, for which she has an impressive number of credits. Since Rourke was new to cinema, much of the blame for the miscasting in her film debut must be directed at the studio execs that allowed her to pull such a stunt.

On December 10, 2018, Refinery29 ran “Why Mary Queen Of Scots Isn't Another All-White Biopic” by Rebecca Farley (brackets in the original):

“We know that the characters that Gemma and Adrian and Ismael Cruz Cordova [play] were white,” Rourke told Refinery29. “So those are people of color playing those who were historically not people of color.”

Rourke added, “That is very influenced by my theater background, where that sort of thing is done. When I sat down with [the studio] early, before we got down to a lot of stuff, I said to them, ‘Just so you know, I’m not going to direct an all-white period drama. That’s not something I’m going to do.’ And they were really hugely supportive of that.”

So, it turns out the studio execs were to blame for loosing this ahistorical period piece on an unsuspecting public. If the top studio negotiator had had any judgment, he’d have put on his best John Wayne voice and told Josie: Seems to me you don’t want to work with us, little missy.

When Laurence Olivier played Othello in 1965, he took pains to look the part. Lord Larry also smeared himself with dark makeup for Khartoum, in which he played the Mahdi. The same was true for Jon Vickers when he sang Verdi’s Otello at the Met, which included a big afro. But no concessions to verisimilitude are demanded by director Rourke; her actors don’t apply pancake and narrow noses to look like the people they play. (Rather than Olivier and Vickers’ honoring of Othello’s black countenance, maybe Rourke thinks them guilty of blackface.)

Like Olivier, Orson Welles in 1951 also played the Moor on film and made an effort to look the part, although not with the same zeal as Olivier. Moreover, in 1936 Welles staged “the Scottish play” with an all-black cast. The production acquired the nickname “The Voodoo Macbeth.” That’s because Welles switched the setting from Scotland to the Caribbean. (Click on the Voodoo link to discover how the federal government was involved with Welles’ production.)

Imagine how black folks would feel were some “creative” Hollywood director to cast a white boy as MLK or Nelson Mandela. They’d be miffed, to say the least. But even if a white actor took pains to look the part, some blacks would still disapprove; they’d want a black to play a black. If, however, all the historical blacks in such a film were played by whites and all the historical whites were played by blacks, then we might have something no one could object to.

Rourke said of her film that it is “absolutely a restorative piece… the past becomes the present.” Sheer cant! Of what, exactly, is this film “restorative”? This movie lover actually feels sorry for Rourke’s minority actors; she’s seems to be using them to further some pet idea about equality or inclusion or diversity. But Rourke is also “using” history. It’s doubtful that many African-Americans would plunk down good Yankee dollars just to see folks who look like them in the Court of Queen Elizabeth I.

It’s a pity that the studio didn’t rein in Rourke’s excesses, because some aspects of the film are not without merit. She might have created a fine film, even with the ahistorical business of the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary. Actually, more than 200 years ago Friedrich Schiller incorporated such a meeting between the two monarchs into his play Mary Stuart. And that play formed the basis for Donizetti’s opera Maria Stuarda, which retained the meeting. But again, there seems to be no evidence that such a meeting occurred.

One aspect of the times that Rourke does well is the friction between Mary and John Knox. The Calvinist clergyman believed women particularly sinful and comes off as quite the misogynist. The film’s beginning, which is of Mary’s beheading, is also done quite nicely. When she goes to the chopping block, her attendants yank off her cloak to reveal Mary all dressed up for her last moments on Earth in a vivid red gown. (I’m a sucker for such dramatic touches.)

Why is this casting of minority actors, including very dark ones, such a big mistake? It’s because it’s jarring. It’s distracting. It puts the audience off the scent of the real issues Mary was facing. Had the studio any sense, they would have informed their fledgling director that what works in the theatre often doesn’t translate to the silver screen: (We do cinema here, Josie, not live theatre. Movies last forever, whereas live plays are quickly lost in the mists of time. So, kiddo, we need to give these roles to white actors. But we do think you’re on to something. So here’s the drill: let’s cast only Mary as a black. We think we can get Whoopi Goldberg to play this Mary Queen of the Scots gal, or maybe even Oprah.)

Would the casting of an all-white cast to play white historical characters have been so monstrous, so “racist”? Of course, it would; just about everything is racist nowadays. The only Americans who aren’t racist are the “woke” mobs tearing down statues of abolitionists.

Aren’t we all getting a little tired of hearing about race all the time? Frankly, m’dear, I’m sick to death of race. Maybe Josie should have pulled an Orson: made the entire cast black and set her film in the Caribbean. Or maybe she could have tried to work up a little reverence for the past.

Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.

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