In the United States, an ideological war has been raging for decades between white supremacists and advocates of multiculturalism. The social movement favoring marginalized racial minorities has met strong resistance from nativists, who fear being displaced in their own country by dark-skinned immigrants with high birth rates.
Twenty-first century fascism is spreading like gangrene on social media, where censorship is almost nonexistent or easy to circumvent — and on Fox News. Egalitarian liberals have a more powerful propaganda apparatus: They hold the reins of power in Hollywood, on internet platforms and on most TV newscasts. However, half the U.S. population remains rabidly nativist. The doctrine of political correctness has made little or no dent, perhaps because its spokespeople are more interested in abiding by dogma than by persuasion.
The most popular formula for defending racial equality in the entertainment industry is to increase the presence of Black or Hispanic characters in movies and television series where Black bosses of white employees abound, in contrast to the sad reality of the American workplace, where very few Black people have access to managerial positions in companies or public institutions. By reiterating a pious lie until it becomes a rule of civility, committed filmmakers have succeeded so far only in disguising social tensions.
Stubborn in their error, or in their lack of imagination, it is no longer enough for them to include prominent Black characters in contemporary fiction: now they also shoehorn them into historical fiction.
On the Disney platform, I just watched the musical comedy “Hamilton,” the story of one of the fathers of Yankee independence. In real life, its protagonist was whiter than milk, but in the Broadway musical he is played by a brown-skinned actor (the comedy’s own author, Lin-Manuel Miranda) and several of the founding fathers around him are Black (Aaron Burr, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington himself). Miranda sacrificed verisimilitude for the sake of ideological belligerence, to counter, I suppose, the jingoistic rhetoric of supremacism.
The example has spread and now there is a proliferation of period films that take the same license. One of them, “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” tells the story of wealthy heir Jeremy Malcolm, played by handsome Black hunk Sope Dirisu, desired by all the marriageable girls of high society. In the salons of the aristocrats and in the most exclusive clubs of London, Malcolm has the luxury of rejecting countless girls for the sin of being silly or simply being interested. Of course, in the early 19th century, no Black man would have enjoyed such privileges. Slavery was not abolished in England until 1833, and at the time of the story, Malcolm would have frequented only the kitchens of opulent mansions. But in order to contend that handsome Black men have long since deserved the obeisance of white women, director Emma Holly Jones set the action in a happy world, free of racism.
The followers of this trend are not distinguished by their originality; several filmmakers at once are involved in identical anachronisms. So it is with Joe Wright, director of “Cyrano,” a new film adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s classic, in which the leading man who conquers the protagonist’s beloved is played by Black heartthrob Kelvin Harrison Jr. In 17th century France, such a flirtation would have to have been clandestine, since no one had yet even dreamed of interracial marriages. For his trampling of historical truth, Wright was awarded an achievement award. His efforts to champion noble causes will undoubtedly earn him an Oscar nomination.
The musical comedy and the two films mentioned above are aimed at mass audiences whom they are likely to mislead. If Black people forged the independence of the United States, if in the 19th century English high society held parades for them, and if in France they married white ladies a long time ago, more than one ignorant person will think that they suffered no discrimination whatsoever.
In other times, period films sought to fill the cultural gaps of the audience. The committed filmmakers of yesteryear traced and exhibited the historical roots of racism in the United States and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, their emulators today believe that racial discrimination can be erased from history by denying it in fiction. White supremacists are overjoyed at the gift they have been given.