Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 15, 2022
The death of nuance

I would like to point out that in the latest "woke vs. racist" battle, about the life version of the Little Mermaid, I am all for having a black mermaid. If that surprises you, it is probably because of the exhausting tendency of the culture wars to lose all nuance. I put "woke vs. racist" in quotation marks because that is the extreme version which the media often project. They pretend that there are only 2 camps, and you are either in the one or in the other. There is no middle ground. It isn't even possible for somebody to like or dislike a film with a black actor for other reasons than being either woke or racist. I find that extremely poor reasoning.

Note that I also am all for black hobbits. Having seen more of it, I still think that The Rings of Power is an extremely poor product given the $1 billion production cost. The character of Galadriel combines a bad script with bad acting to create one of the worst "heroes" I have ever seen in fiction. But I am obviously not upset that Galadriel is a woman. Nor does it upset me that the series has a woman as a main character. I just believe that somebody should have the right to say that this isn't very good television, without being directly put into the "racist" drawer of a "woke vs. racist" dispute. And I think there is some evidence that Amazon is using a variety of unfair tactics, from buying good reviews to suppressing bad reviews on websites they own to claiming that every bad review comes from a racist / sexist.

I am a strong believer in there being an objective truth. I am a fan of Akiro Kurosawa's Rashomon, so I am very aware that the same objective truth can be perceived very differently by different people involved. But the reason I am open for black mermaids and black hobbits is that mermaids and hobbits are fictional, so objective truth isn't an issue here. Much of human history does have objective truth to it, even if obviously some of that truth has been lost and is now unknown. If people want to argue whether Shakespeare was gay, they can do so, but the answer is probably that we will never know. We do know however what the skin color of nobility in England was during the Regency period; that makes a representation that directly contradicts that objective truth problematic, and at least requires some sort of warning label to tell people that this isn't historical truth that is being shown here. Human history *is* racist, humans have discriminated against other humans on the basis of their origin pretty much universally for as long as we have historic records of. That calls for the rather difficult approach of explaining not only how things were, but also why they were wrong; it would be wrong to take the easier way out and pretend that our past was one in which diversity was always universally welcomed.

But hey, that is far too much nuance for most of the people who are involved in the culture wars. It is so much easier to just classify every work of art as either woke or racist, and every critic of these works of art as respectively racist or woke. Because why would we need more than two opposing concepts to describe the totality of human history, human creativity, and human thought?

" least requires some sort of warning label to tell people that this isn't historical truth that is being shown here"

What? A label other than "fiction", do you mean? Why would that be necessary?

What part of "the type of book or story that is written about imaginary characters and events and not based on real people and facts" (Cambridge Dictionary definition of "fiction".) doesn't already cover all of this? There may or may not be "objective fact" in the historical record (It's not the view I hold - I don't believe any human experience can, by definition, be anything other than subjective. Someone having recorded it as "fact" at some previous moment in time does nothing to change that) but there is incontrovertibly no such thing as "objective fact" in fiction so no other label should be needed.
Any film or TV show based on a Jane Austen novel for example is always fiction. But many of them strive to present the time in a historically accurate manner. Frequently these films start with a scene where “England - 1810” is written on the screen, to let the viewer know where the fictional story plays. Would it be so difficult to change that to “A reimagined England - 1810” when you went out of your way to change history in your representation of it?

The problem is, most people are pretty dumb and believe what they see on screen. Which is why people are understandingly upset about films like Birth of a Nation, which deliberately distorts history. Some people were even upset about Gone with the Wind, and that film now comes with a warning label that it “denies the horrors of slavery”.

Sorry, Bhagpuss Culture Warrior, you can’t have it both ways. If Gone with the Wind requires a warning label beyond the fact that it is fiction, then other attempts of 1984-like “he who controls the past, controls the present” historical representations deserve the same treatment.
I remember when Kingdom Come Deliverance was released it wasn't on my radar to buy, but I was aware of it. Then I saw a number of articles about how it was "racist". I looked into and realized that they were being called racist because they were representing an historical period and location that didn't have much diversity. I was amazed to see people speculate that maybe that was part of the reason that they chose that period - because they were racist. Now knowing more about the game, I decided to buy it and I thought it was great - even if they didn't have representatives of my race in it.

The Internet has given voices to many in society that do not deserve voices because they only seek to denigrate, divide, and destroy others. However, I do believe that over time we as societies will get better - we need time to learn and adjust. It'll just take a long time and be very painful and in the meantime you won't lack subject matter for topics like this.
Would it matter if a black actor is casted to play George Washington if the movie never addressed race?
I think most of us just ignore the kooks. You can find people that will say anything online.
I think most of us just ignore the kooks. You can find people that will say anything online.

True. Unfortunately Amazon spoon-fed that line about Rings of Power being persecuted by racist trolls to the mainstream media, and now that is reported everywhere.

Would it matter if a black actor is casted to play George Washington if the movie never addressed race?

To answer questions like that, just reverse the situation. Would it matter if a white actor is casted to play Frederick Douglass? Lately Hollywood can't even cast a heterosexual man to play a gay role without causing a storm of outrage.

Actually I would love to see a movie about George Washington in which every actor is black, except for the white guys playing the slaves at Mount Vernon. Just to see all those heads explode.
You side stepped the question but the reason I asked is because the reverse has historically been the norm in Hollywood for decades.

It's just odd to me that these questions of historical accuracy from white folks only ever seem to come about when it's white characters being portrayed by other races. When the opposite happens and minorities complain I've often seen either silence or responses like "well maybe they couldn't find an actor of X race or maybe person Y was the best person that applied for the role".

I don't remember seeing a blog post from you about historical accuracy in films when Angelina Jolie played Mariane Pearl in 2007 or when Ben Affleck played Antonio J Mendez in 2012 or Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in 2016.

You seem to be up in arms over the backlash from minorities and ither groups when racial or gay characters are played by whites or straight people but have you ever thought about it from their perspective? I for one think it's completely understandable some people are fed up at seeing characters white washed for decades. So yes if someone who is gay wants to rage if a straight person is cast in a role of a gay character, I get it. And frankly the excuse of "oh but you wouldn't like it if we did the reverse" is a cop out because the reverse has already been the norm for decades and still happens all the time. Why does it bother you so much that others cause a "storm of outrage" when Hollywood tries to cast a straight actor as a guy character? How are you personally affected by that to the point it bothers you enough to comment on your blog about it?
@Bigeye You seem to perfectly make my point that any person needs to be either woke or racist. I didn't complain about diverse casting at all. I am complaining about the idea that if you use diverse casting for your film, you get an automatic "woke" get out of jail free pass, and you get to call anybody who doesn't like your film "racist".

I do find it somewhat ironic that the latest film applying for that "you can't criticize me anymore, I got a diverse cast" woke label is the Little Mermaid. Because that is one of the most sexist stories in the whole Disney catalogue, with the fate of the heroine depending on whether a man loves her or not. Really not a good role model for a young girl, regardless of color.
But you do complain about the backlash from out groups who are trying to get more representation. You've complained about works of fiction embracing "wokeness" by their casting decisions. You seem to default to this extremely cynical viewpoint where if a film even casts someone from an out group they are automatically just going for wokeness.

I never said you have to be woke or racist. That is ridiculous.

And yes I get your overall point. The same thing happened with the Disney Star Wars movies. Unfortunately when you have actual racists that DO complain about these properties precisely because of the color of some of the cast and are extremely vocal about it that kind of kills the conversation. When cast members get death threats and vulgar messages on a daily basis Bigeye and Tobold complaining about poorly written plot kind of drops from the focal point of the conversation. Could Amazon and Disney be using that to dodge legitimate criticism? Sure, probably. Are me and you somehow oppressed and in danger because I don't like the new Star Wars and you don't like this LOTR show and we cant effectively complain about them? No. So big deal. I move on.

And just to make my own viewpoint perfectly clear I believe the only times race or sexual orientation of an actor or actress matters is when the work in question is trying to be as historically accurate as possible. In other words it matters for a documentary or similar style project but not for anything else, even for works loosely based on historical events.

It's just funny to me when people trot out the historical inaccuracy stuff as the reason why X out group shouldn't be in Y media despite that never being a problem when white actors replace other groups of people.
As I have been trying to explain, things are a bit more nuanced than that. I have been complaining about Bridgerton not because I can't stand black actors, or don't think they have no place in an interracial romantic comedy. I have been complaining about Bridgerton because it makes it appear as if Britain in the 1810's was a particularly enlightened place with equal rights for colored people, and I don't think Britain deserves such a favorable presentation. In reality, Britain only abolished the slave trade in 1807, and they continued to use slaves in the British Caribbean until 1838. To me, Bridgerton is a lot worse than Gone with the Wind in denying the realities of slavery.

There is something really weird going on here. If Bridgerton played in Atlanta in 1810 and was showing how black people were respected members of the upper crust of society, there would have been an outcry from the left about this lie. But somehow because it plays in London, and the US left not only believes that the US is systematically racist, but also that the US has a monopoly on being racist, they are fine with it. Britain is responsible for 3.4 million slaves, about 50% of the total, shipped from Africa to the Americas between 1662 and 1807. I really don't think they should be getting a free pass on this issue.
I guess it goes back to how we each personally view whether historical accuracy matters in media that's clearly not trying to document history. I don't recall Bridgerton selling itself on being historically accurate so to me it's inaccuracies don't matter. One of the shows creators even stated that the show takes place in a reimagined world.
I would be perfectly okay with Bridgerton getting exactly the same warning label that Gone with the Wind got.
That calls for the rather difficult approach of explaining not only how things were, but also why they were wrong; it would be wrong to take the easier way out and pretend that our past was one in which diversity was always universally welcomed.

No amount of diverse casting is going to trick people into believing diversity was "always" universally welcomed. It's not even universally welcomed now, as demonstrated by wokeness being a pejorative!

In any case, no one has any issue with your criticism of Galadriel or the script of Rings of Power in general. Amazon disabled reviews because they were being objectively review bombed. Whether 100% of the zero-star reviews were from Tolkienian superfans mad about digressions from the source material, or X amount from those triggered by "wokeness," the intent was clearly to game the rating rather than review the product.

But even in the most conspiratorial take - Amazon buying media coverage to cast all negative reviews as racist - what do you imagine is the endgame here? People still have to watch the show. If it's crap, it will still be crap, and no "Get out of jail free pass" exists to motivate people to continue watching a crap show.
Making the Mermaid black could work for me, if they leaned into the reality that even after growing legs, she was visibly different from an ordinary Danish woman. Candidly, it's a childrens film, so I won't see it unless it comes on TV.

The suppression of 'racist' reviews is getting a bit old, though. I recall with Black Panther, there was much outrage at the fact that 11% of reviews gave it 0/10, sight unseen. What rarely got mentioned was that at the same time, 35% gave it 10/10.
A reader sent me a link to a YouTube video with an interesting theory:

What if the controversy is intentional? Making a good movie is hard. Making a controversial movie is easy. And then it doesn't *have* to be good anymore: Critics can be dismissed as trolls, and people will watch for the controversy, not the quality. As Phineas T. Barnum said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity".
Maybe some people want to watch a show generally based in the Regency era and see actors that look like them? Bridgerton is a fantasy show, not historical fiction.

Speaking of fantasy shows, I think Rings of Power is incredible. Infinitely better than the Hobbit movies. The actor playing Galadriel is playing her character perfectly, consistent with the books.
Would you want to work for Galadriel as your boss? Or would you be afraid to be abandoned in the cold, treated with constant disrespect, and never listened to?
"Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."

I think it's far more likely they just created a bad product then intentionally created something for the sake of being controversial.
"Would it matter if a black actor is casted to play George Washington if the movie never addressed race?"

I don't know the answer to that question, but George Washington was played by African-American actor Christopher Jackson in the movie 'Alexander Hamilton' and it seemed to be pretty popular with everyone. However, I don't think a movie (or play) with Vanilla Ice playing Nelson Mandela would fare quite as well?

I only saw one episode of Bridgerton. Are those actors acknowledged in the show (in world) as of African descent? Or are there simply black actors cast in nobility parts. Because a black actor shouldn't be excluded from a role because of their race, the audience should ignore their color, but representing that there were high ranking african-heritage nobles in 1810 europe would be problematic.
There is a backstory that isn’t expanded upon that Queen Charlotte was black, which then led to black nobility. The historical background for that is sketchy. The real Queen Charlotte might or might not have a small part of African ancestry via the Portugese royal house. But she most definitively identified as white. In reality her ancestry was more likely to have caused some nasty rumors at the court, rather than black nobility.

I don’t think a warning label that this isn’t historically accurate and the black nobility shown denies the actual state of slavery in Britain at the time would prevent people of color enjoying the film. I don’t see where the difference is between this and Gone with the Wind, which now has such a warning label.
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