How Heathcliff got a ‘racelift’: an Afro-Caribbean Heathcliff in new version of Wuthering Heights

An Afro-Caribbean Heathcliff, a Caucasian anime hero and an all-black take on Tennessee Williams. How far can such ‘race-bending, or ‘race-lifting’, go towards redrawing racial boundaries on film and stage? Those are among the questions asked by Steve Rose in this article for London’s Guardian.

Andrea Arnold’s new version of Wuthering Heights has put the stray cat among the period-drama pigeons with its earthy realism and distinct lack of social niceties, but chances are, if you know anything about this movie, it is that it has got a black Heathcliff. “Black” meaning the role is played by two actors of Afro-Caribbean descent, Solomon Glave and James Howson.

This fact above all others as been widely reported in the press, perhaps with the expectation that the nation, like a 19th-century dame, would collectively primp its petticoats at the sight of “a coloured gentleman”. Arnold’s decision to augment Emily Brontë’s text with lines such as, “He’s not my brother, he’s a nigger!” only exacerbates the racial provocation. But the new Wuthering Heights has also drawn attention to the fact that up to now, Heathcliff has been played exclusively by Caucasian actors – Laurence Olivier, Ralph Fiennes, Tom Hardy, Timothy Dalton, the only notable exception being Anglo-Indian Cliff Richard with his disastrous stage musical, Heathcliff (an exclamation mark on the end might have swung it).

In her novel, Brontë leaves Heathcliff’s precise ethnicity open to debate, variously describing him as “a Lascar” and a “dark-skinned gipsy in aspect”, which only adds to the confusion. Should he be black? White? Roma? Indian? Couldn’t they have just cast Colin Firth?

The relationship between the ethnicity of a movie character and that of the actor playing them has never been a straightforward matter, but right now it seems to be particularly complicated, if not downright contradictory. For some, it is a sign that we are moving towards a “colour-blind” entertainment environment of equal opportunities; for others it is a threat to racial boundaries and identities. Now, at least, we have a name for it: “race-lifting”.

The term was apparently coined by a rather brilliant wiki called TV Tropes – an online compendium of fiction-writing cliches – and is defined as the changing of a fictional character’s race for a derivative work. Race-lifting can take many forms. TV Tropes lists eight variations, the earliest and most notorious of which would be “blackface“: passing off white actors in dark makeup as African-descended characters. Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer is the most notorious example, but the practice went on far longer than we would like to think. Laurence Olivier blacked up for his film of Othello in 1965, and The Black and White Minstrel Show stayed on British television until 1978. It did not stop with African characters either: Breakfast At Tiffany’s is permanently scarred by Mickey Rooney’s excruciating “Japanese” Mr Yunioshi, just as Alec Guinness’s “Indian” in A Passage To India now looks like an embarrassing anomaly. And let’s not get into John Wayne’s Genghis Khan.

The movie industry has supposedly cleaned up this particularly shameful act, but it has been replaced by a subtler form of race-lifting: rather than hiring actors of the same ethnicity to play non-Caucasian characters, Hollywood often simply changes the ethnicity of the characters themselves. Instead of hiring a black actor to play Othello, you just make Othello white.

This new, insidious form of race-lifting has been particularly applied to “based on a true story” movies, which, being true stories, often feature an inconvenient proportion of roles not suitable for white actors. Recent examples would include last year’s Extraordinary Measures, based on the true story of a couple who enlisted a doctor to find a cure for their children’s rare genetic disease. In the movie, that heroic doctor is Robert Stonehill, played by Harrison Ford (think Han Solo in a labcoat); in real life, he’s Chen Yuan-tsong, from Taiwan. Or there was the 2008 teen thriller 21, based on the true story of MIT students who used their maths expertise to beat the Las Vegas blackjack tables. Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth led the movie’s predominantly white posse of brainiacs, but in real life the students consisted of five Asian-Americans and one white woman. Or there was A Beautiful Mind in which Russell Crowe portrayed mathematician John Nash. Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar playing Nash’s wife, Alicia, despite the fact the real Alicia was from El Salvador. The list goes on.

It was only when the movies started messing with works of pure fiction, however, that the public really got upset. The highest-profile case was in 2010’s fantasy action flop The Last Airbender, directed by M Night Shyamalan. It was based on a popular TV cartoon series blending Asian, Inuit and Native American philosophy, history and martial arts and predominantly featuring dark-skinned characters. When it came to the film version, however, the four principal characters were all cast as light-skinned, blue-eyed American actors.

This was too much for the fans. Their rage on internet forums coalesced into a dedicated pressure group, calling themselves Racebending. “We grew to an organised website, a Facebook page, we got volunteers, and we spent time reaching out to press and TV, we got a lot of coverage. It became a national and international issue,” says Michael Le, one of Racebending’s team of volunteers.

M Night Shyamalan, who is of Indian descent and has regularly cast Asian actors in his previous films, defended the casting in the name of “diversity” (the creators of the cartoon series, by the way, were two white Americans). In response to the negative publicity, though, the film-makers replaced one of the white actors with an Asian one – Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire fame. But the move did little to defuse the situation, especially since Patel’s character was the story’s villain, and a “Boycott The Last Airbender” campaign was launched.

“We don’t take credit for The Last Airbender’s failure,” says Le. “The movie being terrible was the main factor in that. But what we were successful at was changing the context of the conversations about the movie. It was very difficult to write a review or an article about the movie that did not mention the casting controversy, and M Night himself was forced to respond to the question several times, much to his frustration. So maybe they’ll think twice next time.”

Or maybe not. Racebending, whose adopted term is synonymous with “race-lifting”, still has its work cut out. Asian-generated fantasy and science-fiction stories are particularly susceptible to race-lifting/bending. It also happened with 2009’s Dragonball Evolution, the live-action Hollywood adaptation of one of Japan’s most popular anime series. Again, the lead actors were played by Caucasian actors. And it is about to happen again with a new version of legendary manga Akira. The cast announced so far is led by Garret Hedlund, hero of the recent Tron Legacy, and includes Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham Carter. The entire story of Akira has been race-lifted from the original’s Neo-Tokyo, to “Neo-Manhattan”.

“Whitewashing” or “race-bending” is problematic specifically because of the tiny number of roles that actors of colour are allowed to try out for,” says Latoya Peterson, owner and editor of Racialicious, an online blog exploring “the intersection of race and culture. “This is the idea of under-representation that all minorities struggle against – that while competition for parts is stiff for everyone, many are written explicitly for white actors and actresses. Hollywood, and the film industry at large, seem to think that brown faces aren’t sellable. This despite Will Smith currently being the most bankable star in Hollywood. That’s why it’s a problem.”

Race-lifting is starting to work the other way round, however. If you are a big enough non-white actor, like Will Smith, you can play characters originally written as white – as he did in Men in Black, Wild, Wild West and I Am Legend. Morgan Freeman has done the same. His roles in The Shawshank Redemption and Gone Baby Gone were both originally written as Irish. Samuel L Jackson is another. He has played a recurring character, Nick Fury, in Marvel’s recent run of comic-book films – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and next year’s The Avengers. In the 60s comics, Nick Fury was originally white, but when Marvel revamped its superhero line in 2000, he was redrawn as an African-American, deliberately based on Jackson.

Marvel’s progressive race-lifting has not been without its controversies either, though. In what could be seen as the flipside to Racebending’s Last Airbender protest, this year’s Thor movie started another racial-casting row by having Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall. Never mind that this was a minor character in a special-effects fantasy, the prospect of Elba, a British actor of Ghanaian and Sierra Leonian descent, playing the “whitest of the gods” was simply unacceptable to some. “It’s not enough that Marvel attacks conservative values, now mythological Gods must be re-invented with black skin,” railed the Council of Conservative Citizens, an extreme rightwing American pressure group which described Elba as a “hip-hop DJ”. “It seems that Marvel Studios believes that white people should have nothing that is unique to themselves.” The bemused Elba defended himself by pointing out the obvious: “Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?” The CoCC indignantly organised its own “Boycott Thor” campaign, although the threat of America’s racist contingent not showing up did little to deter the rest of the populace; Thor has been one of the year’s biggest box office hits.

It is telling that Thor’s director was our very own Kenneth Branagh, whose background in British theatre no doubt familiarised him with these issues. Similar race-lifting battles were fought, won and altogether overcome on the stage at least a decade ago. In 2000, Adrian Lester played the first black Hamlet on the British stage, and David Oyewolo the first black Shakespearean monarch (Henry VI), and race-lifting is now commonplace – as with Debbie Allen’s recent all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Branagh had already cast Lester in his film of Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2000, and both Lester and Oyewolo were in his big-screen As You Like It in 2006. Even back in 1993, Branagh’s casting of Denzel Washington as Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing caused nowhere near as much controversy his decision to put Keanu Reeves in it.

Does this counter-race-lifting even the odds? Does it suggest we are actually approaching some post-racial future where the idea of inequality is as quaint as blackface? You could say Hollywood itself is keen to promote this narrative, looking at the success of racial feelgood hits such as The Help and The Blind Side, whose message seems to be “isn’t it great how we’re not as racist as we used to be?”

Peterson is not so optimistic. “Historically, white roles being played by actors of colour is a very small way of trying to rectify a very large problem,” she says. “Ideally, roles would be written and distributed more equally, so that changing the race of an actor wouldn’t be as big of a deal as it is. As a solution to the systemic exclusion of actors of colour, race-lifting is imperfect. But in terms of rethinking how we view art, it is amazing. When people stage productions like an all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it helps to reframe the stories told about blackness and whiteness. It’s one of the contradictions of art; since there is so much room to play with convention, completely unintended things happen. Art, in many ways, is a constant conversation. Race-lifting is one way to invite more people to participate.”

Which brings us back to Wuthering Heights. Part of Heathcliff’s enduring appeal is arguably his ethnic indeterminacy, both in terms of his own conflicted identity and the way he is perceived by others. People do not know what to make of him, a fact that Arnold has recognised in her film. “I think the only reason people are surprised is that they’ve just seen white Heathcliffs all the time and I don’t think anyone’s really concentrated on the text,” she recently said, noting Brontë’s ambiguous descriptions of the character. “I decided that’s really where the truth was. What really mattered was his difference, his exoticness. That was mainly what I thought was really important.”

Through Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights unsettled formerly stable boundaries of 19th-century Britain, including racial ones, and it is apparently still doing it today. You could see Heathcliff as the first post-racial hero – coping with a world that wasn’t yet ready for him, and still isn’t.

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