How actors of colour are reclaiming British period drama
Naomi Ackie’s audition for the new film Lady Macbeth unfolded as auditions sometimes do. The actress, a young Londoner, arrived feeling nervous. She left convinced the whole thing had been a disaster. She spent money on clothes she couldn’t afford, found a pub and burst into tears. Meanwhile, the film’s director William Oldroyd and casting director Shaheen Baig were discussing how good she had been. Two weeks later, her phone rang.
In another respect Ackie’s audition was a rarity. Lady Macbeth is a British period drama, and Ackie is a black woman. And whether the source is Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy or lately Julian Fellowes, period dramas — staples of the British film and TV industries — are not spaces with room for actors of colour. Or at least they haven’t been until now, when a possible fix to an enduring problem is offered by Oldroyd’s film, which relocates the 19th-century Russian novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov to 1860s Northumberland, in the north of England.
Ackie auditioned for the part of Anna, housemaid to Katherine, a violent young bride. “When I saw the script, I thought: ‘There must have been a mistake — this is the 19th century!’ But my agent told me to read it anyway. So although Anna’s race wasn’t specified, I began to see her as a black woman and there was something so vivid about that idea, the constant self-awareness she must have had in Victorian England,” she says. “But still, part of me thought: ‘Is this definitely not a mistake?’ ”
The crack in the glass came earlier, as Oldroyd and his production team researched the 19th-century north-east of England. Poring over old photos, something curious struck him. “There was so much more diversity than I expected,” he says. “Picture after picture of black families, and not only working-class families but an aspirant middle class as well.” In response, he and Baig opened every role in the film to actors of all backgrounds — introducing “colour-blind casting” to this old-fangled genre. “The aim was to cast the best actors irrespective of race, but if we did need to justify involving black actors, we knew history would vouch for us.”
The result is a film whose cast is mostly white — the fast-rising Florence Pugh plays anti-heroine Katherine — but actors of colour take pivotal roles. Alongside Ackie is the respected theatre actress Golda Rosheuvel.
Since making the film, Oldroyd found himself glued to David Olusoga’s BBC TV series Black and British: A Forgotten History, with its accounts of black life in the UK dating back to the building of Hadrian’s Wall. Still, taking Lady Macbeth around the country for Q&A sessions, Oldroyd says audience members have accused him of misrepresenting the past. “But when you say, ‘How do you know?’ it turns out their reference points are other period dramas.”
For Rosheuvel, who came to England from her father’s home country, Guyana, in 1975, the film was the realisation of a dream. “I’d always wanted to be in one of those beautiful British period dramas. I was brought up on them,” she says. Yet for all her success on stage and in TV series set in the present day, the chance never came. “With TV period stories, I wonder if it’s the intimacy of an actor going into people’s homes, and you not being allowed there because of the colour of your skin. It’s odd, and sad.”
Until now, provincial families like those in Oldroyd’s photos have been airbrushed from the picture, just as Dickensian London is always pure white in film and TV. “Nineteenth-century London was filled with black people,” Rosheuvel says, “but when do those nuggets of history appear on screen?” In 2011, director Andrea Arnold did make a bristling version of Wuthering Heights that took a cue from Emily Brontë’s description of a “dark-skinned gypsy” and “little Lascar” (the contemporary term for Indian sailors) to cast black actor James Howson as Heathcliff. But the film met a hesitant critical response, and clearly had no influence on British film’s next big-ticket period production, a comically luxe Far from the Madding Crowd starring Carey Mulligan that joined the explosion of post-Downtown Abbey period TV, from Call the Midwife to The Crown, all of it starkly mono-racial.
While Britain has occasionally adopted an airy tone about the diversity crisis in American movies, its own house is some way from orderly. For a young actress of colour like Ackie, chances in a small industry are already limited. “It can be like, ‘OK, which role is it today, Twerking Girlfriend or Attitudey Single Mum?’ ” And when the country’s most popular genre in effect closes the door on you, the only choice can be the airport. Last month, British actress Thandie Newton publicly explained how, despite wanting to stay in her own country, she felt she had to work in the US. “[In Britain] there just seems to be a desire for stuff about the royal family, stuff from the past,” she said. “Which is understandable but it makes it slim pickings for people of colour.”
The irony is that period dramas are made the way they are not just to appeal to Britain’s self-image but also to international — mostly US — audiences; they offer familiar shortbread-tin versions of British history as lavish, windswept and white. The result is a sad tangle of unintended consequences, with British actors of colour leaving for the very place whose market dominance fuels the lack of roles at home.
Newton’s remarks echoed similar comments made by David Oyelowo in 2015, after relocating from London to the US and starring as Martin Luther King in the acclaimed Selma. For Oyelowo, the British period drama denied black actors work — and helped whitewash the stuff of British identity.
“A lot of it is down to us having had an empire,” Ackie says. “It made us want to present an image of our past to the world without acknowledging who was there to help build it. But any black actress will struggle with the sense of history going missing.”
Last year, Oyelowo returned to British cinema with A United Kingdom, a sturdy film about the postwar marriage of Seretse Khama, the first president of independent Botswana, and white London office worker Ruth Williams. Its director Amma Asante also made Belle, the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, 18th-century daughter of a British Naval officer and an enslaved African woman, raised in London’s Kenwood House. These were films that picked out extraordinary black lives. Now Lady Macbeth will surely be another landmark, with black characters in the very grain of all kinds of historical stories.
“What I love,” Ackie says, “is that the script doesn’t pause to explain why Anna is there. It doesn’t have to. There were people of colour here, in Britain, in that moment, visibly. Anyway, it’s too late to turn back the clock now. This is already happening.”
‘Lady Macbeth’ is released in the UK on April 28, and in the US on July 14