It’s a generally accepted truism that period films are as much about the times in which they are produced as those that they depict. Some filmmakers explicitly draw attention to this, such as Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which channeled 1920s New York through the 2011 song “No Church in the Wild.” This inevitable relationship between past history and the contemporary moment — which, almost instantaneously, becomes another fragment of history itself — is bound up in all sorts of politics, leading us to ask: ‘What do these visions of the past say about our perspective on the present moment?’
Whereas Luhrmann’s Gatsby is self-consciously on-the-nose, the release of Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield illustrates an attempt to update a 19th-century story for 21st-century audiences through subtle (though still discernible) means. Rather than bringing old literature up-to-step with what one may assume to be 21st-century attitudes regarding race and mental health, however, Copperfield highlights how facile mainstream notions of progress are in the British film industry.
Period films have long been a reliable export for the British film industry, often doing well both domestically and internationally. This was perhaps epitomized by Merchant-Ivory productions, which in the 1980s and ’90s specialized in literary adaptations, winning several Oscars for the efforts. Despite such commercial success, though, these costume dramas have long been criticized for projecting a fantasy of Britain at odds with both its past and present reality. Most notably, such films tended to feature entirely all-white casts. In light of this trend, Copperfield marks a welcome example of the British period drama recognizing the historical reality of multiracial diversity in the UK.
Such recognition allows Copperfield to thrive on the basis of its strong ensemble cast, but in the film’s trailer, the only non-white actor to be given named billing is Dev Patel. After that, it’s a parade of Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, and Hugh Laurie. Watching and rewatching the trailer I kept asking myself: “Why isn’t Benedict Wong given such prominence?” Wong, who plays the perpetually drunk Mr. Wickfield, has been acting on stage and screen since the 1990s, recently appearing in a number of Marvel movies. Unlike his Copperfield co-star (and fellow MCU alumnus) Swinton, however, Wong is still not considered a British star of comparable stature. It demonstrates that even with a diverse cast in one film, the white supremacist bedrock of the British culture industry remains largely intact — a foundation that ensures that established white performers remain household names at the expense of people of color.
Successful Black British actors have frequently spoken out about how their moves to America are in large part motivated by the dearth of quality roles for them in the UK. In 2016, Idris Elba gave a speech at Westminster on diversity in British television, while that same year the British Film Insitute (BFI) announced a five-year plan to improve diversity in the British film industry — a public show of improving things, at least. There’s no doubt this played a role in the pre-production of Copperfield, yet, as demonstrated in a 2018 open letter by filmmaker Kolton Lee, it remains doubtful that such expensive pledges will enact meaningful change both in front of and behind the camera. Lee recalls a 2017 meeting with BFI development executive Kirsty Irving, in which she cited the funding of Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie as evidence for improvement of diversity — to which Lee asks the reader: “Is she really saying that if you are a filmmaker of color you either have to be a new filmmaker or you have to be working in Hollywood before you are deemed worthy of support?”
The Personal History of David Copperfield represents a positive step in British film, yet its reliance on white household names suggests that mainstream efforts towards diversity adopt a have-your-cake-and-eat it approach: cast people of color in a few key roles, but otherwise carry on as usual. Such attitudes have implications for all marginalized groups struggling for a place in the industry. As a white LGBT writer, it was infuriating to attend press screenings at BFI Flare (a London-based LGBT film festival) last year and watch films that seemed more concerned with courting a cishet audience, while more radical work at the festival was not being considered for wider release.
Those involved in such curation must ask themselves whether it’s enough to just receive a slice of the cake instead of changing the recipe.