Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for AACTA
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From a black James Bond to a female Sherlock, diverse casting isn’t PC gone mad – it makes stories better

There was a bit more to Agincourt than a dozen Rada graduates standing around between two curtains.

“James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming. He was white and Scottish. Period,” said Rush Limbaugh just before Christmas, apparently not having seen any of the films after Sean Connery’s. And without knowing that Fleming came up with the Scottish backstory only after Connery was cast in Dr No.

What prompted the blowhard radio host’s outburst? He was decrying the suggestion – made by the Sony film executive Amy Pascal in emails leaked by hackers – that Idris Elba might play 007 once Daniel Craig shuffles off to the Great Budgie Smuggler in the Sky. As it happens, I agree that Idris Elba shouldn’t play James Bond. But not because he’s black – it’s because his strength as an actor is a brooding physicality at odds with my idea of Bond as a smooth psychopath in a dinner jacket. Chiwetel Ejiofor, on the other hand . . . He’s the Bond for me. Bring on the phallic sports car and the cheap puns about electrocuting people.

Thankfully, overt racism about casting decisions is much rarer than it once was – at least outside internet comments, where one person I read suggested Elba playing Bond was a gateway drug to Frank Bruno as prime minister. But there are more subtle, and more successful, arguments that conspire to keep non-white actors out of leading roles.

The first is the power of the default. Too many roles are assumed to be white roles unless otherwise specified; James Bond is a classic case. Is it so bizarre to imagine that a black or Asian boy might be orphaned and dropped into public school, and might emerge a repressed charmer with great aim and a taste for Martini? Also, just putting this out there, but I hear there are non-white people in Scotland these days. (Notwithstanding Billy Connolly’s claim that actually most Scots aren’t even white: they’re pale blue.)

The second is the hard-headed commercial argument: ah, we would love to cast non-traditionally, but – oh dear! – it would be a commercial flop. This is the argument advanced by Ridley Scott to explain why his film Exodus featured a cast that would have needed to apply SPF50 ten times a day while crossing the Red Sea. “I can’t mount a film of this budget . . . and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he told Variety. “I’m just not going to get it financed.” He’s right that the system is stacked against him, but equally, audiences can’t demonstrate what they want until they are offered it. Five years ago, you’d have been told that no one wanted a female action hero. Then came The Hunger Games. Before that, people fretted about having a black action hero. Then came Will Smith.

The last redoubt of this argument is the most persistent: the appeal to historical accuracy, the argumentum ad Downton, if you will. Unfortunately, it is also total bollocks. It ignores, for a start, that Europe’s population was not snow-white until the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. To take a random example, in 1789 London’s big literary sensation was the bestselling autobiography of the former slave Olaudah Equiano; he even went on a book tour to promote it. Just over 20 years later, a Bengal-born man called Sake Dean Mahomed established Britain’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House in London. Just because the history many of us were taught at school doesn’t mention the likes of Equiano and Mahomed doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

In any case, we gaily ignore strict historical accuracy when it suits us. Every so often, someone has a conniption about an innovative way of presenting Shakespeare, with the implication that the director has mucked about with The Way It Has Always Been Done. But people have always mucked about with Shakespeare: the 18th century preferred King Lear with a happy ending. Against this, experiments with casting such as Patrick Stewart’s “photo-negative” Othello – he was the only white actor in an otherwise all-black cast – don’t raise many eyebrows. What might surprise you is that as recently as 1981, it was considered OK for Anthony Hopkins to black up for the part.

It’s a criminal waste of talent that many of our best black actors will be inundated with offers to play Othello but wouldn’t ever be considered for Hamlet. Look, unless you’ve got boys playing all the women’s roles and you’re doing it in original pronunciation, don’t come bleating about source material. (Yes, Lenny Henry’s accent is more “authentic” than John Gielgud’s.) I have a smidgen more sympathy with people who might find a non-white Henry V disorienting, but if they can imagine that there was a teeny bit more to Agincourt than a dozen Rada graduates standing around between two velvet curtains, they can probably cope.

In any case, more diverse casting is better casting. Why? Because we are addicted to franchises and remakes. Actively casting women and minorities in established parts opens up interesting narrative possibilities. Take the story of Sherlock Holmes: stripped of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages, it’s a story about how the world accommodates a difficult genius, and what it means to care about someone who refuses to listen to good advice. In the past ten years, that has given us the BBC’s Sherlock, where the central relationship is reimagined as homoerotic; CBS’s Elementary, where a female Watson is much more reluctant to indulge her Sherlock’s whims; and Fox’s Bones, where Emily Deschanel’s forensic anthropologist is the high-functioning social maladroit and David Boreanaz the people person.

Diversity here is about more than “political correctness”; it makes for better drama. What keeps us coming back to Shakespeare, or Sherlock, is that they tap in to universal archetypes and emotions – but every generation can make them new again.

Now, get Chiwetel on the phone. There’s a dinner jacket with his name on it. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.