Watching the new Netflix adaptation of Persuasion is like seeing a boorish dinner guest spill chicken gravy all over the delicate lace tablecloth you inherited from mother. But I am not going to review what is frankly a puerile rendition of Jane Austen’s last and possibly most nuanced novel; several withering memes and reviews are already doing the rounds. And they have all noted how this adaptation trivialises the work of one of English literature’s finest writers of complex, layered and understated narrative.
What was more disturbing was to see this film too adopt the now popular practice of faux ‘inclusiveness’ whereby a few black or Asian actors are randomly inserted into a period drama in implausible roles.
Colour-blind casting, well-intentioned no doubt, became popular with that other hit Netflix show, Bridgerton, also set in England in the 1800s. It’s a band-aid solution, seen as a way of diversifying the inevitably all-white period drama, the remakes of which have always had wide appeal in English language cinema and television traditions. Producers clearly hope mixed race casting will draw in mixed audiences as well. The director of the new Persuasion, Carrie Cracknell, said in an interview that she wanted “a really diverse group of people to be able to access this story and feel drawn into it.”
Not only is the premise absurd — that you have to see people who look like you in order to be drawn into a film — but worse, it is historically dishonest and culturally insulting to pretend that a British lord or lady in the Regency era could be Asian or black. Persuasion’s story is set in 1814. Slavery would have been abolished in Britain only seven years ago, in 1807, and the country’s biggest landowners then would have made their money from the slave trade or from colonial loot. One does not expect Austen, a product of her times, to have written black people into her books but adding black people to the cast posthumously does not, as is popularly argued, suddenly allow the classics to “belong to everyone”. The only thing it does is create a fantasy about black people in Regency England enjoying power or equality, which whitewashes history for a whole new generation of viewers who might possibly encounter Austen’s era only via these “accessible” remakes.
Social historian Christopher Lasch in his book, The Culture of Narcissism, described a denial of the past as “superficially progressive and optimistic” — and mixed-race casting is just that. To become truly inclusive, filmmakers cannot simplistically recast the past but must recall it accurately in all its pain and horror. Toni Morrison wrote of how the American literary canon has a “ghost in the machine”, the missing black American voice, language, music, and culture. So Morrison wrote the black protagonist into the modern canon. Cinema has to do that too. Which is what the 2013 film Belle does — it tells the real story of an illegitimate biracial child, the tension and humiliation inherent in her upbringing in white society by her great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who would later as Chief Justice of Britain influence the passing of the anti-slavery bill.
When stories of a bygone era are retrofitted with woke aspects, they falter in terms of cultural depth and resonance. If one must modernise a classic, it is best to overhaul it entirely, like the 2012 TV series Elementary. The series is set in New York, Sherlock Holmes is a former Yard consultant and recovering addict, and Dr. Watson is an Asian woman.
Blacks, aboriginal tribes, Dalits, indigenous people have all been systematically thrust outside the margins of mainstream literature and cinema. If remakes want to bring them back in by being unfaithful to the source material, they must ensure their stories are told, something the 2017 Netflix show, Anne with an E, did reasonably well, not by casting a Mi’kmaq as Anne’s best friend, but by acknowledging the presence of indigenous people on the fringes of white Canada in the 1890s and tracing their exploitation, aspects absent in the 1908 original.
Sanitising historical novels to make them more palatable to modern sensitivities is to run the risk of erasing racism from cultural memory and making a false peace with the past. Those uneasy hollows and empty spaces must remain, bear witness. Instead of this continuous exhuming of the past and remaking it in the modern-day ideal, one would like to see more contemporary narratives that are genuinely diverse, like Black Panther, which created within the superhero genre a black universe that is organic and sovereign.
But let’s go back to 1814, the year in which the new Persuasion presents heroine Anne’s confidante Lady Russell as an imperious black woman in stylish Empire waist dresses. In 1895, London’s famous Crystal Palace would advertise an ‘African Exhibition’ in the Times. The exhibition would not display paintings or sculptures but African people, placed within enclosures, a ‘human zoo’. To know this history and to still play dress-up with period dramas seems doubly barbaric.
British historian David Olusoga has written of how slavery has been “airbrushed” out of British history. He has pointed to how heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former slave traders as West India merchants. Olusoga calls it a successful act of “collective forgetting”. The fake racial bonhomie depicted in these millennial remakes seems very much inclined to continue the amnesia.
The writer is the editor of Frontline.