Talking to Actresses About Racist Roles in Period Pieces

Only one kind of role exists for women of colour in the “uncomplicated, guilt-free entertainment” of historical fiction: subordination.

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May 11 2017, 2:16pm

Screencap via Django Unchained

The need for more complicated and human roles for women of colour in today's film and television is pretty obvious—but for historical accuracy in period pieces, diversity is conveniently not a concern.

Period pieces are a great way to tell stories about past times and to see what life was like for those who came before us. It also happens to be the only genre that can credit women of colour as "Slave Girl", "Field Slave (Big Daddys [sic] house)", or "Negro Woman" without scrutiny. By virtue of being set in violently racist times so different than ours, period pieces unearth antiquated, deplorable race relations in which white people are powerful and other, non-white people are not.

The historical fiction powers that be seem to think it is imperative that women of colour are represented as subordinates, according to several actors I spoke to about this story.

"Everybody is intent on staying true to the era. We can't have a black person in this particular region at this particular time in history playing something other than a disenfranchised person because that isn't true to the history we know," Jenny*, a Toronto actress, told me.

"The role I went out for [in Murdoch Mysteries] was a character who is a black woman that wants to be a doctor and so she's having a conversation with a white woman doctor who was all surprised like, 'You can read?'" she told VICE, about an audition for Stephen Harper's favourite show. "It felt like The Blind Side but it took place in the 1900s."

Actresses of colour who must play racialized roles in period pieces are also frustrated that some realities can be rewritten but others—like, say, their dignity—cannot. "I had an audition for a recurring role on a show where Jason Momoa was the lead. I thought it'd be like a kick-ass, Fast and Furious type show or something like that but then I read the breakdown and it was for a period piece set in the 1800s and I was auditioning for the role of the housemaid," says Naomi, another Toronto actress. "They were willing to suspend their beliefs that a guy like Jason Momoa, with his size, could exist in the 1800s and I couldn't not be a housemaid—like, there wasn't even Creatine back then!"

Aba Amuquandoh, a U of T Drama student and actress is also exasperated by the unnecessary housemaid roles available to her. "I have seen [casting calls] for, like, Othello and all the female characters won't be white or anything but then if they're casting for the maid it's like, 'black.' Like, what the fuck? You're telling me she couldn't have a white maid?"

Period pieces do not only simplify and reduce black characters of the past, they also enable insidious implications in contemporary pieces. The white entertainment industry which casts black people in historical roles still perpetuates images of racial subordination, which normalize and make digestible angered, black, enslaved women within contemporary versions of such stereotypes. Naomi says she once "auditioned for a role called 'Cynthia/Negro woman'"; Aba is "often cast as the more mature, wise kind of maternal character"; and directors have instructed Jenny to be "more sassy" or "put more swagga' into it."

"It's nice they're trying to include a character that isn't white into these shows and movies, but it's always very forced and stereotypical. Couldn't they just spend that time just creating a more interesting story?" asks Jenny.

If period pieces do purport to create diverse narratives, they certainly do not do so for non-black people of colour—who, according to Hollywood, still don't even seem to exist today. "I don't go out for [casting calls for period pieces]," says actress Isabel Kanaan. She has been encouraged to become acquainted with all kinds of casting agents but not to bother with the ones who work on period pieces like Reign or Murdoch Mysteries. To her, period pieces are "an excuse for Hollywood—or whichever company—to keep using the same actors that they always have. And there are [no roles] for Filipino women for some reason."

Jenny says, "It's a fantasy in which people do not have to consider anybody else. They fantasize about living in a romanticized Southern era, where they own slaves and sip Juleps. It was a simpler time where [white people] are the norm and they don't have to question it. It's uncomplicated, guilt-free entertainment."

Everyone can agree that women of colour need better representation today, but in film and television history, with the exception of Jason Momoa's enormous biceps, there's no room for rewriting roles. In period pieces, actresses of colour must play their parts––even if it is "Cynthia/Negro Woman".

Interviews have been edited for clarity and some names have been changed to protect identities so they can work.

Follow Celeste Yim on Twitter.

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