Race Against Time: The Question of Race in Period Pieces

Race against time… get it? Wordplay! Okay, for serious, my interest in writing a post about race in period pieces is something that branches directly off of my review of the Penny Dreadful premiere. Well, the first season of Penny Dreadful has come and gone, concluding last week, and while it was a great horror show, the iffy race issues from the premiere never went away. Speaking of race, the finale even had a few brief scenes with a one-shot Native American character, rounding out the variety of ethnic minorities barely acknowledged on the show. However, despite it being mentioned that this man had been forcibly acculturated by white, Christian schools and society (something that totally happened historically), he still had stereotypically long “Indian” hair and at one point, when the protagonist gets away from their clutches, the Native American’s companion actually says to him, “You’re Apache, track him!” #MagicIndianSkills

Slight spoiler alert for Penny Dreadful‘s first season to follow.

In a deleted scene, Mr. Kidd (far left) teaches Ethan how to grow maize.

In a deleted scene, Mr. Kidd (far left) teaches Ethan how to grow maize.

There was a “main” character of color in Sembene, an African transplant to Britain… and house servant to the explorer Sir Malcolm Murray. I use “main” in quotations because despite being featured in promotional materials, he was extremely underdeveloped. My prediction was that, being in an urban fantasy/horror show, Sembene would be a trope-y “Magical Negro”, but he wasn’t even developed/interesting enough to really qualify. Literally all he did was open doors and serve as an extra hand/muscle/blade in the fight scenes against spooky vampires. Frankly, I think it was rather misleading at best—and insulting at worst—to feature him so prominently in promotional materials and then not bother to develop him at all. “Ooh look,” producers could say, pointing at a poster for the show, “we’re so inclusive!” No, you do not get any bonus points just for having a character of color in the background of some scenes.

One of these characters is not like the others; i.e. he is really boring

One of these characters is not like the others; i.e. he is really boring.

My main objection to Sembene as a character was not that he was a servant, but rather that he was so dull. Including main characters of color in a period piece is bound to be problematic because race was extremely problematic back then (not that it’s all smiles and roses now). In these times and places in the past, the first introduction of non-European people was the direct result of colonization and conquest, not free-will emigration. Including a Black servant is one, though not the only, historically reasonable way to include a character of color, but for the love of the Goddess, it is no excuse to make him the most boring character on the whole show. There was maybe one line that hinted at his backstory, that he and Sir Malcolm had met in Africa and one had saved the other’s life, but other than that, his part could have been played by a cardboard box. The writers could have made him interesting or witty or could have given him special skills, or he even could have been super wise and full of advice (as trope-tastic as that would’ve been), but nope, he was just there.

Sembene, in his characteristic "opening a door" pose

Sembene, in his classic “opening a door” pose.

Ignatius Sancho: composer, actor, writer, Briton, all around bad-ass of the 1700s

Ignatius Sancho: composer, actor, writer, Briton, all around badass of the 1700s

Taking a closer look at history shows us another important fact: by the Victorian era, Europe (the U.K. in particular for the scope of this article) were not as white as one may imagine. Penny Dreadful takes place in the very last years of the 1890s, not in, say, the 1200s. This quick overview shows that a sizeable population of African descent had been calling London home for quite some time before the 1890s; British abolitionism, for instance, was in full swing more than a century before the times depicted in Penny Dreadful. Another group suspiciously absent is Britons of South Asian descent, whose history in Britain is equally lengthy and well-documented. These are just two of many non-white groups living in Victorian England, not to mention the people of color (and therefore potential characters on a TV show) who came over to Europe around this time from that new-fangled country, The United States of America. Any number of characters on the show, including American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler, could have been people of color. Now that’s historical accuracy.

Ms. Dido Elizabeth Belle with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (any relation to Malcolm and Mina?!)

Ms. Dido Elizabeth Belle with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (any relation to Malcolm and Mina?!)

Some might rightfully object that the only main character of color we saw was a house servant (albeit one who was also useful in melee combat), and not say, the team physician. To quote myself from my review, “Any character of color working in a field denied to them in a particular historic era would require some explaining, but hey, writers are smart people; they already have to create and explain their own take on the supernatural, I’m sure they could come up with something.” I think another possible idea to be more inclusive while maintaining historicity would be the inclusion of more multi-racial characters. Creolization was a very real part of European colonization, and being of mixed descent had the possibility of sometimes, depending on specific situations, allowing some white privilege to be passed onto offspring, opening doors that may have been completely sealed off to non-white peoples in certain times and places, particularly in educational or professional spheres. The 2013 film Belle is an example of one such instance of a mixed descent woman living in the “white” aristocratic world of 18th century Britain.

The other major issue is that period pieces on TV networks are hella Eurocentric. Penny Dreadful, Vikings, The Tudors, Da Vinci’s Demons, Reign, Downton Abbey—these all take place in Western Europe. But what about the rest of the world? There was all kinds of human civilization and story going on literally all over the globe in the periods of history before direct European colonization: Aztec, Incan, and other Mesoamerican empires in Central and South America, all sorts of African kingdoms and empires, the Near and Far East were famed for technological advances, and so forth. (Okay, maybe there was no human presence in Antarctica, but you better believe I would so totally watch a show about the lives of 16th century penguins.)

How many of us learned about any of these civilizations south or west of Egypt?

How many of us learned about any of these civilizations south or west of Egypt?

Where are these civilizations and their peoples’ stories on the silver screen? Where are these shows with casts that would be mostly, if not entirely, comprised of people of color? Do television producers think that audiences would not go for a show with little to no white characters? When these other civilizations are brought up in pop culture media, it is frequently only the portion of their history in which European contact was made, as if their history and stories can only be interesting and appealing to Western audiences if European-types are involved.

Sorry, Sembene, not even your super dapper hat could save you from lack of character development. Writing failll

Sorry, Sembene, not even your super dapper hat could save you from lack of character development. Writing failll

In summation, Penny Dreadful was just one instance of one general problem: writers of TV shows often don’t know how to handle race in period pieces. At the end of the day, if your characters are battling vampires, perhaps historicity doesn’t need to be as strict as if it were just a historical drama. On the other hand, there are plenty of ways to include characters of color in ways that would be more historically plausible, from Creole characters, to creating shows and stories based out of any of hundreds of historical empires that existed outside of Europe. Even characters who are fulfilling stereotypical professions or societal roles don’t have to be entirely stock characters; it is the writer’s duty to make an individual character unique and interesting in their own way from a storytelling and character development point of view, no matter what their socio-historical situation may be.

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8 thoughts on “Race Against Time: The Question of Race in Period Pieces

  1. Oh, don’t get me started with Da Vinci’s Demons depiction of incan culture! the shame…

    • oh man, I haven’t actually gotten around to watching it, but it’s on my “to-watch” list. one of my parents is from an Andean country so yayyy can’t wait to see how horribly they portray the Incas -__-

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