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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser