Casting Ethics: “Anne Boleyn” And Discriminatory Double Standards

Ann Boleyn series

That’s Anne Boleyn on the photo above. No, really, it is. Well, okay, it’s really British actress Jodie Turner-Smith portraying King Henry the VIII’s doomed second wife, whom most people don’t realize was black. That is, of course, because she wasn’t black, just like Martin Luther King wasn’t Chinese and Genghis Kahn wasn’t a Hassidic Jew. However, a new TV mini-series, which premiered last week in Great Britain, cast Turner-Smith because no white actresses were available to play the role. No, that can’t be right. No white British actress were qualified to play an English historical figure? That can’t be true either. What’s going on here?

“It is the first time a Black actress has portrayed the Tudor queen onscreen,” the New York Times helpfully informs us. Really! The factoids we get from the Times! Why not, I wonder? Wait, wait, don’t tell me: has a man ever played Anne Boleyn in a serious historical drama? How about an octogenarian? An actress in a wheelchair? A dwarf? How about a moose? A block of cheese?

“We wanted to find someone who could really inhabit her but also be surprising to an audience,” Faye Ward, one of the show’s executive producers, said in an interview. Surprising, or confusing? Surprising is a piece of cake, as another doomed queen, but from France, would have said. Casting Woody Allen as Anne would be surprising. What’s the objective here?

The Times feature rapidly descends into a hybrid of Authentic Frontier Gibberish crossed with Wokish.

“Although race does not figure overtly in the show’s plot, the program makers adopted an approach known as “identity-conscious casting,” which allows actors to bring “all those factors of yourself to a role,” Ward said. For Turner-Smith, that meant connecting her experiences with the ways in which Anne, who was raised in the French court, was an outsider and suffered at Henry’s court.“As a Black woman, I can understand being marginalized. I have a lived experience of what limitation and marginalization feel like,” Turner-Smith, 34, said in an interview. “I thought it was interesting to bring the freshness of a Black body telling that story.”

Interesting! I bet it was interesting, since she got a plumb role without any of the usual qualifications an actress would normally require for the role (except for that little race thing, she’s also 30% older than Anne was when she died). Inhabiting the role and revealing the figure’s emotions as “an outsider” is called, if I recall, “acting.” Saying that one must, or needs to be a member of a historically marginalized group to play a real life woman who felt “marginalized” for a completely different reason is nothing but weak rationalizating. Be honest.

It’s stunt casting, that’s all. Just admit it. The idea is to cause buzz and publicity, yes, and controversy. That’s all! Mission accomplished! The casting will be defensible if the show works, which is theater-speak for “justifies its existence by entertaining the audience and makes money.”

I’m not concerned about historical accuracy. It’s not as if there aren’t too many films and TV series about Anne Boleyn to count where she is not portrayed as a historical anomaly. Is this stunt an oblique reference to Ms. Markle? If so, cheap,cheap, cheap, but again, if it works, it’s A-OK with me!

Except for one little thing. In The United States and Great Britain, white actors and actresses are being told that they can’t even be cartoon voices for white fictional characters (See: “The Simpsons”). Directors are being told by activists that autistic actors have to be cast as fictional autistic characters, and white actors can’t play Ko-Ko in “The Mikado,” and American Naomi Watts was whitewashing when she played a real life Spanish woman in “The Impossible.” But a black actress is cast as Anne Boleyn as the New York Times fawns, and actors “of color” are cheered for playing Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.”

Nope. Uh-uh, sorry, can’t have it both ways. Unethical, like all double standards. Ethics Foul.

Either any actor of any set of characteristics can be justifiably cast as any character, real or fictional, if the casting works, or the once inclusive and creative concept of non-traditional casting has become one more of the rapidly multiplying ways to discriminate against men and whites.

If the actors whose careers and livelihoods are threatened by this discrimination disguised as “antiracism” meekly accept it, they are not just fools, they are incompetent citizens.

The same is true of audiences.

22 thoughts on “Casting Ethics: “Anne Boleyn” And Discriminatory Double Standards

    • Hit post too soon.
      The fundamental problem as I see it is that people accept authentic frontier gibberish as intellectual thought.
      The verbal skills of Americans have deteriorated so badly that most cannot comprehend the BS they are reading. If it looks like it is consistent with their own viewpoint it is accepted as true and if not it is false.

  1. I like Robert Redford as Martin Luther King.

    This is so ridiculous that I really have nothing material to say. We are off the boards here: when will the pendulum swing back to sanity?

  2. Gee, seems like the producers missed a bet here. For Full Wokeism, Anne Boleyn shouldn’t just be Black – she should have been lynched by the ignorant rubes of London (at the subtle urging of the merchant class), rather than sentenced to burn at the stake (to later have her sentence commuted to beheading at the behest of the sovereign).

    Ah, well… wokeism is still in its infancy. It hasn’t reached Peak Stupid yet.

    • But there’s nothing about Annie that requires a particular race.She could be anything.That’s an easy one: casting a black Annie is no more daring than casting an Annie with eyeballs.

    • I was amused when they did that black Annie thing thinking it would get people all riled up and get tons of free publicity from the “controversy”. Hilariously, they forgot it isn’t 1940 anymore and literally nobody on Earth cares that much about the character of Little Orphan Annie to get all het up she’s black, Japanese, or a domestic longhair cat. They might as well have been flogging a black version of Hop Harrigan or Chick Carter, Boy Detective for all anyone cared. At least those adaptations would have made critics work a little harder to zing the movie instead of just making a lazy “it’s a hard knock life watching this” jape.

  3. Literally two minutes after reading this post, I saw that Katori Hall had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play The Hot Wing King. I don’t know the play—its Off-Broadway run was cut short by COVID, and as far as I can tell it hasn’t been published.
    I do, however, recognize her name as the playwright of The Mountaintop, in which the two characters are Martin Luther King, Jr. and an employee of the Memphis hotel in which he is spending what he doesn’t know is his last night on earth. (Spoiler alert: she’s really an angel preparing him for what is to come.) It is a good, borderline great, play: by turns moving, humorous, and incisive. But what comes immediately to mind is the production by a student group at Kent State University, in which a white actor was cast as King. The director, of course, claimed the casting decision wasn’t a gimmick. (Newsflash: it was a gimmick.)
    The original idea was to alternate the role between a white and a black actor to be, in the director’s words, “a true exploration of King’s wish that we all be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin.” The black actor had to drop out of the production, and the white one played the role throughout the run.
    Anyway, Ms. Hall rightfully objected to the casting decision and said she would not allow future productions with similar casting. MLK was black, and it matters. Anne Boleyn was white, and it matters… perhaps less than in the case of The Mountaintop, but it still matters in that it distracts the viewer’s attention from what the storyline is (or at least should be) about.
    I should explain that as a director in university theatre for over 40 years, I have not infrequently cast a black actor in a role that was obviously first played by a white one. I have never done so because of their race, but for many roles the best available actor is the best available actor.
    The style of the play is the primary consideration. The director has a lot more leeway in non-realism (or pre-realism). Hence, I have cast a black Macbeth, a black “Husband” opposite a white wife in Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias, etc. I cast a black woman as the Broadway producer in The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, which is set in the year mentioned in the title. Were there a lot of (or any?) black women in such positions at that time? I doubt it. But there weren’t many white female producers, either, and, more importantly, the play is a farce. No one in the audience could possibly think that all those events, all those coincidences, could possibly represent the real world.
    Things get more complicated in realism. I should note here that the definition of realism is rather specific in my field. So, just as I have a musicologist friend who cringes every time someone describes Tchaikovsky a “classical” composer, I adopt a specialist’s definition: realism requires only that there is an attempt to create what Mordecai Gorelik called “outer reality”: the language of the play takes the form of conversation (e.g., not in verse), the characters are psychologically motivated (e.g., not allegorical figures), and the events make sense within the fictive world. Thus, for example, the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings series of films are “realistic” in these terms.
    In realism, and both The Mountaintop and virtually all film qualify, sometimes race matters and sometimes it doesn’t. There weren’t a lot of black people in early 20th century Russia, but in my production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters I cast a black man as Kulygin. He’s the husband of one of the title characters: a bit of a stretch, to be sure, but sometimes needs must, and we just didn’t have a lot to choose from that semester. But I didn’t consider that actor for Andrei, the brother, as that would have been the proverbial bridge too far. (I hasten to add that the actor in question was very good; my hesitancy in casting him had nothing to do with his skill-set.)
    Particularly interesting to me was a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm I saw in London a couple of years ago. There was only one black actor in the central cast (not a lot of black people in late 19th century Norway, either). He was excellent, but he played the hero’s brother-in-law, an ultra-conservative representative of what might be called the old order. Had that actor played the visionary but derelict philosopher, the vindictive journalist, or the romantic central character, it would have worked. But surely a society as sexist as the one his character represents would also have shunned him, at least to the point of not allowing him to be their spokesperson. Or maybe that was the point, and I was just too dim-witted to understand its profundity.
    Of course, playing around with historical fact is a well-established trope in film-making. The Cate Blanchett “Elizabeth,” for example, was so historically inaccurate that my basic knowledge (hardly expertise, but probably a better than average understanding) of that period in English history was actually a detriment. I tend to be fine with conjecture—”this could have happened, and it would make a better story”—but I’m not a fan of presenting in historical dramas what could not have happened as if it did. I note the irony of my saying this as someone who learned far too much history from Shakespeare, only to have to re-learn it all.
    Ultimately, this casting is a gimmick. But it’s not as if a lot of viewers are going to say to themselves “I didn’t know Anne Boleyn was black.” (Yes, I know, some will, alas.) There’s nothing per se wrong with gimmicks, I’ve used more than a few in my day, some of which even worked. But the argument for casting Ms. Turner-Smith sounds like a rationale I’ve used when there was literally no good option available. I strongly suspect there are hundreds of age-appropriate, talented, white British actresses who’d be very interested in playing that role. Casting a black woman has nothing to do with exploring the character, any more than a white MLK does. It’s about hype. You got it. Move on.
    Speaking of age-appropriate: I do need to correct one thing, Jack. Jodie Turner-Smith is 34. Although some historians say Anne never saw her 30th birthday, most argue that she was about 32 when she married Henry, 35 when she was executed. The age is at least arguably right even if the race isn’t.

    • I think the photo above is best described as “jarring.” Why jar an audience for no legitimate artistic effect? My guiding principle in writing fiction is never, ever do anything that could possibly cause the reader to put the book down and not pick it up again. Why jar, confuse and distract a playgoer? They may already be on the verge of walking out or day dreaming or going to sleep for some other valid reason.

    • Isn’t it an aim of any fiction (and that would include historical pieces…they’re not the real event) to keep the audience engaged by supporting the suspension of disbelief? Clumsy attempts at trying to force some sort of lesson on an audience seem inherently self defeating.

    • Thanks, Curmie. This is obviously a COTD, and I’m posting it as such right now. I have a lot to add, but I’ll reserve that for the post.

      I’d do a whole blog on this area and related topics if I could.

  4. Since dystopian fantasies are the genres de jour in literature and cinema. This ludicrous choice makes some sense, because of its dystopic fantasy. No longer do the producers of today’s ‘”entertainment ” ennoble the human condition, or reveal its dark side for what it is. Rather, the human condition and human history are being forced into categories to justify the dystopian fantasy. Truth is trumped by delusion.

  5. And how about that high concentration of woke gibberish? What do any of these terms mean?

    identity-conscious casting
    her experiences
    suffered
    marginalized
    a lived experience
    feel like
    a Black body

    Ding, ding, ding! The production’s PR firm rang the bell.

  6. Why not have Jodie Turner-Smith as Henry the VIII and Woody Allen as Anne? And also Warwick Davis as Catherine of Aragon. After all anyone should be able to play anyone, right?

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