Why colour-blind Cop­per­field works so well

Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s in­ven­tive cast­ing de­ci­sions in his retelling of David Cop­per­field rep­re­sent an imag­i­na­tive cre­ative leap that has been a very long time com­ing

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Acon­ver­sa­tion that be­gan in the the­atre decades ago is fi­nally reg­is­ter­ing on the screen. There was lit­tle clutch­ing of pearls when Ruth Negga played Ham­let at The Gate in 2018. It seems likely that the au­thor had a white male pro­tag­o­nist in mind, but most au­di­ences have grasped that no Shake­speare pro­duc­tion strives for un­fet­tered nat­u­ral­ism. Yes, Negga is a woman of colour. But, in Shake­speare’s time, men played all the fe­male roles. And Ham­let isn’t writ­ten in Dan­ish. So, shut up!

There was, how­ever, some mut­ter­ing in the un­der­growth when David Oyelowo turned up as Javert in the BBC’s re­cent pro­duc­tion of Les Misérables. As part of his ex­haust­ing cam­paign to place all the world’s in­verted com­mas around the word “woke,” ac­tor Lau­rence Fox later noted “the odd­ness in the cast­ing” of a Sikh sol­dier in Sam Men­des’ 1917, be­fore back­ing away to an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic apol­ogy. And last week we got Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s The Per­sonal His­tory of David Cop­per­field. The adap­ta­tion casts Dev Pa­tel, of In­dian de­scent, as the ti­tle char­ac­ter; Bene­dict Wong, whose par­ents are from Hong Kong, as Mr Wick­field and Nikki Amuka-Bird, from Nige­ria, as Mrs Steer­forth. Lit­er­ary adap­ta­tions have ha­bit­u­ally un­der­es­ti­mated the racial di­ver­sity in 19th-cen­tury Eng­land, but Ian­nucci is not aim­ing for his­tor­i­cal cor­rec­tive here (or only partly so). Mrs Steer­forth is black, but her son is white. No one else in David’s fam­ily ap­pears to be from an Asian back­ground. Ian­nucci ex­plained: “When I thought of Dev as David, he said: ‘Do I have an In­dian fa­ther?’ No. Although it’s set in 1840, for the people in the film, it’s the present day. And it’s an ex­cit­ing present.”

That is to say – as with Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s all-con­quer­ing, racially di­verse Hamil­ton – Ian­nucci is not seek­ing to ren­der char­ac­ters as they would have typ­i­cally ap­peared in the story’s orig­i­nal set­ting.

Film and tele­vi­sion seem like more nat­u­ral­is­tic forms, but ar­ti­fice is al­ways at work. It is un­likely that Javert would have been black. It is equally un­likely that Madame Thé­nardier would have spo­ken with Olivia Col­man’s East Mid­lands’ ac­cent. Heck, un­less I’m imag­in­ing it, there was a ver­sion of Les Misérables in which the char­ac­ters sang their lines while an orches­tra boomed in the back­ground. That would never hap­pen!

To be fair, rel­a­tively few ob­jec­tions to Ian­nucci’s strat­egy have sur­faced. Even the Daily Mail’s critic liked it. AN Wil­son’s whinge in the London Times was the clos­est we got to a dropped pince-nez. In­ex­pli­ca­bly ar­gu­ing that the film was “hu­mour­less” – I’ve rarely heard such hoots at a press screen­ing – the Vic­to­riaphile went on to note that Mr Mi­caw­ber was too thin, that Uriah Heep lacked men­ace and, in the form of do­mes­tic na­tional trea­sure Bron­agh Gal­lagher, Mrs Mi­caw­ber was too Ir­ish. It hardly needs to be said that he thought the colour-blind cast­ing reeked of “virtue sig­nalling” (though, in his de­fence, he did avoid “woke” and its with­er­ing in­verted com­mas).

Those who de­mand ut­terly faith­ful adap­ta­tion will not be sat­is­fied un­til ev­ery breath of cin­e­matic life has been ham­mered from the work un­der dis­cus­sion. No lee­way is avail­able to film­mak­ers who fancy ex­per­i­ment­ing with a ver­sion that re­flects the di­ver­sity of con­tem­po­rary life.

Wil­son in his crit­i­cism was, at least, lu­cid. The most com­mon ob­jec­tion on so­cial me­dia in­volved an arch pon­der­ing of whether the di­rec­tor would mind if “Martin Luther King was played by a white man”. Oth­ers ar­gued (with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion) that the same people who en­joy the colour-blind cast­ing in David Cop­per­field ranted about Scar­lett Jo­hans­son blithely tak­ing a role writ­ten for an Asian char­ac­ter in the 2017 movie Ghost in the Shell.

Ob­vi­ously, we don’t wish to en­ter­tain those ren­dered puce in the cheek by this sort of per­for­ma­tive dog whistling. Nonethe­less, it is only fair to ad­dress that ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion. Ac­tors of colour – like those from most other mi­nori­ties – have strug­gled to find roles in film, TV and the­atre. They should thus rea­son­ably ex­pect cast­ing agents to make some ef­fort to place them in roles orig­i­nally con­ceived for their par­tic­u­lar iden­tity. James Bond is a fic­tional con­struct. He’s been Scot­tish, Welsh and Ir­ish. He can, as the series’ pro­ducer Bar­bara Broc­coli re­cently noted, be black (though prob­a­bly not a woman). Martin Luther King was a real per­son whose pub­lic role was de­fined by his race. So, no, @Trump42020, your re­join­der isn’t as clever as you think.

No less an author­ity than Au­gust Wil­son, late lau­re­ate of African-Amer­i­can life, ob­jected to colour-blind cast­ing on the grounds that he wanted black people to de­vise their own sto­ries in­stead. One ap­proach does not pre­clude the other. Adopt that strat­egy and you shut off most of the world’s ac­tors from most of Shake­speare, Dick­ens, Molière, Ib­sen and Tol­stoy. Those writ­ers could surely have made the imag­i­na­tive leap Ian­nucci in­vites in The Per­sonal His­tory of David Cop­per­field. We can too.


As with Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s all-con­quer­ing, racially di­verse Hamil­ton, Ian­nucci is not seek­ing to ren­der char­ac­ters as they would have typ­i­cally ap­peared in the story’s orig­i­nal set­ting


Aneurin Barnard and Dev Pa­tel in The Per­sonal His­tory of David Cop­per­field.

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