Why TV Series Anne Boleyn Fell Short of Its Promises To Share An Original Depiction of The Queen & Notes On The Importance Of Colour-Conscious Casting
‘You may know the history, but you don’t know her story.’ (Channel 5, 2020) – Excitement and public outrage had been escalating over the notion of a dark-skinned Black actress (Jodie Turner-Smith) playing the role of Anne Boleyn, and I (a Black female history buff) was enthralled by the idea - the potential that bold storytelling might bring to the surface new facets of Anne’s history; however, I was left disappointed, not by Jodie’s performance, but by the lack of feminism, nuance, and depth the show promised. If anyone was to read a brief history about Anne Boleyn (mostly accumulated by men) they would likely learn of her pride, sexual prowess and ability to make members of the court quake every time she entered the room. Jodie did this, but this is the way Black femininity is usually depicted on screen. Aside from the final episode depicting Anne’s descent into fear, rage, and vulnerability when she is chastised and abandoned by the king (which has been shown in every presentation of the Tudors and expected considering she is aware she may die alone), there was not a significant range of nuance to Anne’s story. What if the range we viewed in Jodie’s last performance was present in earlier episodes? I argue the production relied on Jodie’s skin colour and tone to be the most prolific character but failed to utilise Jodie’s unique position to tell a rarer story, and by not playing with the possibilities of Anne’s character in her early years and/ or during her descent from power the series failed to bear originality. I hope to share some insight on: Anne’s history, discuss possible routes the show could have taken, and how the show presented Black femininity on screen with the problems of “colour-blind casting” (Dinning, 2020). And of course, a poem. Despite public indignation towards diverse casting in period dramas there are many benefits to showing diversity in roles that are uncommonly played by people from marginalised backgrounds. Ralina L. Joseph states, ‘Freeing Black women’s representations from a limited and limiting frame also frees audiences to understand the intersectional identities that are at stake in representation.’ (2018, p.40). Rather than seeing colour and skin-tone as a hinderance to the narrative, there is great potential in redefining characters to expose other facets of the production. For example, a Black woman playing the role of a lady-in-waiting (which was historically accurate for Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife as shown in TV Series The Spanish Princess, 2019-2020) serves as an important reminded that there were Black people in Europe pre- 1600s who were not enslaved and held positions at court, including Scotland. But, understanding how ethnicity can enrich a production is not “colour-blind” casting, it is ‘colour – conscious’ casting. It is important to note that the term “colour-blind” can be considered as a form of ableist language.
I first heard the term ‘colour-conscious casting’ in an article written by Micha Frazer-Carroll for The Guardian (2020), a spokesperson from Talawa Theatre suggested ‘Colour-conscious casting has enabled us to read stories in non-traditional ways and ask questions of society today.’ The statement, “I don’t see skin colour” is usually spoken a priori from people who desire inclusivity without addressing the burdensome connotations associated with the Black person or person of colour and at the same time ignores the rich cultural heritage Black people or people of colour can also be associated with. The true story of Anne Boleyn carries a profuse number of topics which are yet to be explored in-depth on-screen including classism, intersectional feminism and xenophobia, perhaps had diverse casting been “conscious” these roles might have been better utilised to tell interesting phases of Anne's story.
Eustace Chapuys, played by Phoenix Di Sebastiani, was Charles V’s ambassador in England. Charles V was the Holy Roman Emperor and Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. Catherine of Aragon’s parents Isabella I and King Ferdinand of Aragon are known for banishing Muslims and Jews in Spain and financing Christopher Columbus. Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first wife. When I discovered Jodie Turner-Smith was playing the woman who dethroned the woman whose parents financed Christopher Columbus and partly responsible for the expulsion of Moorish and Jewish inhabitants, I was fascinated by how this might play out on screen. I had never seen this before and a part of my child-self felt a little emotional. I am aware Anne Boleyn was not of African descent, but Chapuys was deeply committed to protecting Catherine of Aragon and was known to have despised Anne Boleyn who he often referred to as ‘whore’. But alas even though Anne Boleyn was a shrewd diplomat there was little interaction between the characters on-screen, although there are multiple historical records of Chapuys’ reports on the deterioration of Anne’s relationship with the king. I admit, it is unfair to project my ideal scenarios onto the writer’s vision, but the notion of “colour-blind” casting in historical biopics is problematic and cannot be compared to casting fictional characters in popular culture. Colour conscious casting is necessary because even if this part of history was not a priority in the production, it still happened; every fact in history is relevant and I argue the relevance is exasperated by whoever plays the character. By making details like this known they would have added new and interesting dynamics to the characters while still sharing a true history.
Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, was a successful diplomat, and as a child Anne was invited to stay at the court of Margaret of Austria, the first female regent of the Netherlands. She was later then maid of honour to Henry VIII’s sister who married Louis XII and stayed at the French court to continue her education. Anne was therefore surrounded by successful women, and despite Anne commonly being depicted as someone who was cruel to other women it is likely that sisterhood played an important role in her life. This would also have been an intriguing route to explore.
It was also at the French court were Anne learned the art of flirting, debating and developed her charisma. Anne Boleyn is infamously known as a seductress, but from a feminist perspective she could also have found freedom in expressing her sexuality. Disappointingly, the sexual deviant archetype in the show was presented more as erotic fantasy then a deep critique of sexuality. And worse, being played by a dark-skinned Black woman, those involved in the show failed to acknowledge how undeveloped moments of sexual activity might translate on screen. In the show, Jodie Turner-Smith kisses Lola Petticrew playing Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s third wife), an open-mouthed kiss. Regardless of how much time is allocated to a show, it is highly problematic when queerness is shown as a quick raunchy scandalous moment to arouse the audience. A kiss between two women is not a critical engagement on queer theory in the early 1500s, the gesture appeared to be more an assertion of power. During a scene where the queen is reading the Bible, there is possible sexual tension or a power dynamic between Anne and Jane, which could have represented a conflict between religious doctrines and sexuality, but there was not enough content to sustain this idea. I found the portrayal of Anne’s sexuality lazy, clumsy and too reliant on the stereotypes of dark- skinned Black femininity to show sexual power and emasculation. Even though the writers of the show Eve Hedderwick Turner and director Lynsey Miller, focused solely on the final months of Anne’s life, there was no lack of potential stories to help “reinvent” Anne’s image. In his essay Rethinking The Fall of Anne Boleyn (2002) Greg Walker brings to the surface compelling evidence that the overwhelming allegations against Anne were too ‘haphazard’ to have been a long and prudently orchestrated plot. The court was overflowing with gossip, from wild accusations about witchcraft, but also solidarity towards Anne. There were members of the court who believe Anne was wronged and alluded to her ambition as the reason for her fall. By addressing these conversations through the servants, the women of court and even diplomats this could have been an opportunity to share how easy it was to debase a woman’s reputation and expose classism in British history. Walker explains that Mark Smeaton, a court musician accused of sleeping with Anne, might have been arrested, tortured, and later beheaded, because he was an easy person to criminate due to his lowly rank. This is not far-fetched considering noble birth rights had long been an issue in the English court for centuries. Even Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith who became chief minister to Henry VIII, was unpopular partly due to his humble beginnings. Despite his role in the English Reformation, he also lost his head from falling out of favour with the king. Anne Boleyn was of course born into a wealthy family, but by suffering the same fate as commoners surely a connection between femininity and class could have be addressed. And all victims suffered at the mercy of male fragility. Walker expresses the ‘king could not be associated with the paternity of the foetus’ (2002, p.15) due to rumours of Anne’s still-born baby being deformed. What would the show look like if there were discussions of disability, masculinity and femininity, and actors were shown sharing the pressures of living up to idealistic standards? If the show was meant to be “modern”, “fresh” and “bold” could these other viewpoints and scenes not have been shared?
When bigots were frantically declaring war on Jodie Turner-Smith they were unaware of the irony that white supremacy made Jodie technically perfect to play the role of Anne Boleyn, whose demise from being viewed as an intelligent woman to being branded and humiliated as a sexual deviant, is a story many Black women would be familiar with. I would even go as far as to say that had Jodie played Jane Seymour, who was presented as soft, gentle & humble – this would have been a greater challenge for a white British audience. It is questionable how much the producers challenged the historically sexist and basic readings of Henry’s wives. What was new about the characters? And how can we delve into feminism if women are only expected to play one type of woman? Historians, (mostly men) have traditionally pitted Anne Boylen and Jane Seymour against each other as evil vs good/ powerful vs pathetic, but wasn’t the point of the show to show a different side of Anne? However, the most unexpected, sincere, and profound moment for me was when Anne picked at her scab. Suddenly the regal demeanour decomposed on screen, and we saw a glimpse of a piteous woman. She became human. Presenting a range of character archetypes when presenting a historical biopic and/ or rounded representation of a leading character is an important step towards challenging common historical viewpoints.
Overall, the actors did a fantastic job with what they were provided. Anne’s costuming was a little too modest, considering she was known for having lavishly adorned gowns and influenced fashion at court - with her French styling including heavy silks, velvets, furs and satins. The hair and make-up department did a great job. I am pleased to live in a time where it is unforgiveable for Black people to look like ghosts with atrocious hair, unless they are playing ghosts with atrocious hair. The choreography was well done. However, it was naïve and presumptive for those controlling the narrative to rely on the weight of dark – skinned Black femininity to carry the story, rather than taking more time to explore Anne’s complex narrative with a rich script and addressing intersectionality. According to History Extra Director Lynsey Miller, expressed it was ‘incredibly freeing, not to be bound by physical preconceptions’, but it is the subconscious bias of colourism that led to the decision to have Jodie-Turner Smith display characteristics which lean more towards crude portrayals of Anne. When I read the statement ‘the role came naturally to her’ I asked myself why the term “colour-blindness” was being used at all. Without addressing how a diverse cast can expand on historical biopics, the erasure of cultural histories is still likely to occur.
Here is a poem: Ant had i grown cursed deformed fingers i could reach nay scratch so worldly bites these joints have been in every mouth in my bed in my privy what ails thy king to make a wench my lord sends jest from whence hail ye ant who hunts near dried bosom pale without male babe what sayest thou to this my troth no more maiden God will not save this queen from my itch this ant begs to drown by sweat of left lump come abroach thy noon and eat this crown
I am writing a poetry collection which unites dance, womanism & history called ‘The Inheritance’ (Out-Spoken Press). Feel free to subscribe to my newsletter and follow me on Instagram and/or Twitter to stay updated on my movements. Bibliography Dinning, R., (2020) Jodie Turner - Smith as Anne Boleyn: colour-blind casting and historical accuracy. History Extra [Online] 2nd June. Frazer-Carroll, M., (2020) ‘It’s dangerous not to see race’: is colour-blind casting all it’s cracked up to be’. The Guardian [Online] 11th August.
Joseph, R, L., (2018). Postracial Resistance: Black Women, Media, and the Uses of Strategic Ambiguity. NYU Press. Walker, G., (2002). Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn. The Historical Journal,45(1), 1-29.