Lady Macbeth and Color-coordinated casting

I just saw the Lady Macbeth movie, based on a novella by a Russian writer. The movie transfers the action from Siberia to rural (northern?) England in 1865. Spoilers follow so don’t read the rest unless you like to watch movies spoiler free (I don’t mind spoilers myself but to each their own).

The oddest thing about the movie was a decision to use “colorblind casting” but then use that in a very non-colorblind way. A fair amount of modern British TV series and movies have made the decision to project the current racial balance of the UK into the past and into costume dramas. So the 2016 (not very good) TV series Jericho set in 1870’s Yorkshire about the building of a rail aqueduct has no Irish workers (extremely bizarre) but three black members of the cast (with three different accents, American, Caribbean, Yorkshire).

I have no problem with colorblind casting when it really is colorblind. Opera was a leader in this field since the early 1960s when Leontyne Price made her career mostly singing roles that were white (quickly followed by a number of other world class African American classical singers).

An example can be seen here, with Barbara Hendricks simply showing up in the 18th century countryside. This works because Hendricks has the dramatic and vocal ability to carry off the role (she’s actually the only singer I’ve heard who made the rather dull character of Anne Truelove interesting).

But that’s not what’s going on in this movie. The central figure of Catherine is white as are her very unpleasant husband and father-in-law. Her maid is black, her lover is… ambiguous but mostly interpreted as mixed race as is the unfortunate ward of Catherine’s late husband who comes to live with her.

I’m sure there were some (not many) non-whites in the UK in the 1865 but the overwhelming majority of servants were white and the casting here (less colorblind than color-coordinated) replaces the class considerations of the original work (and the real time and place it’s set in) with modern concerns about whites victimizing non-whites. It completely dispenses with class as a concern replacing it with racial exploitation. The three white central characters are all negative (Catherine, her husband and father-in-law) while the non-whites are all manipulated, abused or killed by them.

This is made worse by truncating the story – the end of the original takes palce on a prison convoy and Ekaterina (Catherine) ends up killing herself and a female prisoner that her partner in murder had taken up with.

Here, she gets away with it the final murder by accusing her lover and maid. I understand that the film didn’t have a big budget but it’s a terrible place to end the story.

I hasten to add that I’m not criticising the performers who mostly do good jobs with underwritten roles. I’m not as impressed with Florence Pugh as Catherine as some have been but she does have her moments, she’s at her best with casual throwaway malice, half-drunk and curling up in a chair staring like a snake as the maid takes the blame for one of her transgressions and is humiliated by the beastly father-in-law.

But I think what happened is they realized the script was weak and decided to goose up the buzz with the racialized casting, settling for uproar rather than anything insightful…

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2 Responses to Lady Macbeth and Color-coordinated casting

  1. goldsteinweb says:

    I want to be honest. I take issue with colour-blind casting. Unless make-up does make up for it I don’t want to see a movie in which Martin L King and N Mandela are played by white people, Dschingis Khan and Jesus by black women in wheelchairs and Winnetou by a Chinese actor.

    It is not an attempt to improve sales but to rewrite history. Totalitarians always try to destroy history. It makes me sick.

    • cliff arroyo says:

      For me the question is roughly ‘is race an integral part of the story’? for King or Mandela it very much is. Same with Othello (though there was an opera production with a black soprano singing Desdemona and a white tenor singing Otello).

      When race isn’t part of the story it can work (part of working is that it doesn’t matter to the story) and I don’t care as long as the actor(s) cast can carry off the part. In this movie, race wasn’t part of the original story (and class very much was) but it was shoehorned into the story under the guise of colorblind casting which is also deceptive.

      “not an attempt to improve sales but to rewrite history”

      Everybody’s constantly trying to rewrite history. In terms of art, all art set in the future is really about the present and all art set in the past is really about the present. That’s another reason I dislike race supplanting class in this movie.

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