I have hesitated to venture on these pages into the Jornada del Muerte that is the current landscape of racial identity politics & culture. But venture there I must.
I’d like to think that it’s pretty clear from a decade of content on Frontier Partisans that I am fully supportive of an authentic portrayal of frontier history: one that reckons fully with the inescapable racial issues raised by the expropriation of indigenous inhabitants’ lands and the enslavement of peoples, whether it was by Jamestown tobacco planters in 1619, or Comanche raiders into Mexico in 1830. Simply working that trapline seems to me to be the most generative way of addressing the “racial reckoning” that has been at the forefront of American culture for the past few years.
Lately, though, I’ve felt compelled to address what I consider to be a false trail — that being a fixation on bending history to achieve “representation” in historical and mythic storytelling. Because I think there are better, more authentic, more organic, and more satisfying ways of getting there than race-swapping historical figures and/or shoehorning “diversity” into existing works. Frontier history offers a trove of tales that can make us all culturally richer.
Race-and/or-genre-swapping historical figures strikes me as odd and profoundly silly. Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn? Why? Jodie Turner-Smith is, by all accounts, an extraordinarily charismatic and compelling actress. She doubtless deserves prestige roles. But Anne Boleyn was not a Black woman. She was an English woman raised in France. That seems pretty fundamental to me.
Vikings: Valhalla gave us a Black female Jarl Estrid Haakon.
I’m familiar with all of the rationalizations for this sort of thing, and I don’t buy them. Nor do I believe that anyone who raises an issue about them is a racist troll, which is where the discourse inevitably goes.
The depictions ain’t historical, no matter how much you bend reason and reality to pretend that they are (or could be), and they don’t promote that all-important sense of reckless verisimilitude that carries a historical drama. If you’re going to argue that race and gender “shouldn’t matter” in this context, you’d have to be OK with Mulan being portrayed by Jason Momoa or Shaka Zulu being portrayed by Katheryn Winnick. Ridiculous, right?
But it’s more insidious than that — it’s unnecessary and ultimately destructive of the ends of creating more authentically diverse programing.
Why egregiously alter history when there are GREAT stories to be told that are historical? My beloved Black Sails featured an arc in which the Nassau Pirates found common cause with a colony of Maroons — escaped slaves who had built an isolated Caribbean refuge from the British Empire, then chose to confront that Empire with arms. The two most regal and genuinely worthy people in the world of Black Sails were women of color: the Maroon Madi Scott (Zethu Dlomo) and the magnificent Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy).
Nothing felt forced about this storyline and these characters because it wasn’t forced. The Caribbean Basin of the early 18th century was a polyglot a world. Europeans of various extraction mixed with indigenous peoples, and Africans — both slave and free — and already by 1715 there was a very large population of mixed race.
The events of the show did not play out historically in the manner depicted, but they broadly reflect the realities of the time and place. They certainly offer reckless verisimilitude — and diversity.
The most insidious aspect of casting artificially for diversity is that shoehorning “diverse casting” into stories like Vikings or yet one more drama about the Tudors implies that Eurocentric stories are still the only ones worth telling. And that is a profound disservice to us all. We don’t actually need one more retelling of the sad and sordid life and death of Anne Boleyn. Nor do Black people need to be elevated in Viking lore when there is a warrior heritage that is right in the wheelhouse to explore.
Give us the epic rise and fall of the Zulu Nation in a reboot of Shaka Zulu. Or maybe Mzilikazi’s breakaway to form the Ndebele (Matabele) nation and the epic of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Give us Dahomey Amazons.
Give us the Haitian Revolution.
Give us the tale of Britt Johnson searching for his kidnapped family and bargaining for the release of captives across Comancheria — the inspiration for The Searchers.
Give us a damn Jim Beckwourth mini-series — and cast the man who played him in the Into the Wild Frontier segment. Bring Joe R. Lansdale’s yarns of Nat Love to cinematic life.
Oh, and hats off to David Oyelowo and Taylor Sheridan for committing to finally bringing justice for Bass Reeves.
You get the idea.
My dream show would be a series where Fort Pitt/Pittsburg c. 1774 serves as the locus of drama, just as the Black Hills mining camp did in Deadwood and Nassau did in Black Sails. You want diversity? Here you have Mingo, Shawnee, Delaware, Scots-Irish, Irish, English, Germans, French, escaped Black slaves and freedmen, and every admixture of these elements and more. You’ve got militants of clashing cultures and political factions, men and women who navigate between and among cultures; hunters; traders; speculators; spies…. the storytelling opportunities are endless. And all the “representation” you could ever desire is there, organically, in the historical ore you’re mining.
I’m not going to delve into the tempest surrounding the
East India Co. Amazon Prime The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power. It ain’t hard to find on the interwebs, if you’re interested. For a variety of reasons, I just don’t feel any passion on the subject; it feels very far away to me — except for eager anticipation of Bear McCreary’s music, which I expect to enjoy independently of the show. I’ll mentally transport it to some woodland frontier of Fennario…
I will say this though: There is an alternative to tinkering with an established legendarium to “reflect what the world actually looks like.” Give something else a chance. Adapt Charles Saunders’ Imaro for the screen. I promise you, it would be a hit.
Addendum: This post lured my brother John down multiple sidetrails — which is, , of course, delightful confirmation that I’m on mission. Among other musings in our phone conversation, he noted that Bo Jackson in his prime would have made a kick-ass Imaro.
I absolutely understand the profound importance of “representation.” Of course we want to see heroes who look like us, whose courage, resilience and fortitude we can see ourselves emulating. When I was a kid, I read tales of Conan, and saw the fantastical apotheosis of the Celtic heroes that I admired. I read The Frontiersmen and saw in Simon Kenton everything that a man oughta be. I want some young Black kid to find the same thrill in tales of Imaro or in The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, in frontier heroes that are his own, and look like him. There’s a place around the campfire for Conan and Imaro, for Kenton and Beckwourth.
Oh, what yarns are there to be told. In the 21st Century I want to live in, we can share such tales together around a campfire that truly is inclusive, recognizing that we share one astounding, badass history and mythology together.