Posted on April 29, 2024

Hollywood’s New Fantasy: A Magical, Colorblind Past

Kabir Chibber, New York Times, March 31, 2024

Not long ago, in the cinema, I found myself trying to focus on Timothée Chalamet’s charming portrayal of a young Willy Wonka, arriving penniless in a new city. What drew my attention instead was the population he encountered there. The first person to greet him was a joyful British Indian. Soon we met a cute orphan sidekick, played by a Black American actor, and the chief of police, played by a biracial American. The vaguely Mitteleuropean city Wonka had come to — Viennese shops, Italian architecture, English language — was a happy melting pot: All races seemed to coexist without race meaning anything. The story was set in a fantastical past, but its cast looked like a utopian 21st-century London, with actors of British and Caribbean and Asian backgrounds all stirred together. The Oompa-​Loompas, described by Roald Dahl as a pygmy people found “in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before,” were played by Hugh Grant.

Across the arts, we now see so many worlds that never existed. David Copperfield is played by Dev Patel. Marvel’s Norse pantheon includes a Black deity. The hit Netflix series “Bridgerton” depicts a version of Regency England ruled by a Black queen and an anachronistically multiracial royal court.

When you see these examples gathered, they’re often followed by some complaint of a world gone mad with inclusion. In Britain, for instance, there was some outrage when the protagonist of an otherwise faithful Agatha Christie adaptation was revised to be a Nigerian immigrant. But the problem, for viewers, isn’t wokeness run amok; it’s the incoherence of the world we are watching. We see an African man solving crimes in a rural English village of the 1950s, as the sun sets on the empire — yet his race is barely mentioned or considered and never makes any material difference in his experience.

You might call this kind of defiantly ahistorical setting the Magical Multiracial Past. The bones of the world are familiar. There is only one change: Every race exists, cheerfully and seemingly as equals, in the same place at the same time. History becomes an emoji, its flesh tone changing as needed.

And yet something is off, something that makes these stories impossible to get lost in. You can never fully envision the Magical Multiracial Past without having to mentally take apart the entire scaffolding of world history. “Bridgerton” is set before Britain abolished slavery, an institution that apparently exists, largely unmentioned, in the world of the show. What, precisely, are the rules of a world in which a Black queen reigns over a British Empire that sanctions the enslavement of Black people?


{snip} Storytellers are struggling with how to approach a historically white canon and a set of well-worn genres (like the period costume drama) whose characters would, in reality, be almost exclusively white. They are wary of simply omitting all the other ethnicities that are part of the modern, multiracial West, either as performers or, potentially, as viewers. Neither do they want to tell stories in which nonwhite people must always appear as servants, or victims, or issues.

The Magical Multiracial Past is one optimistic solution to this conundrum. We want to include everyone in our storytelling, but we are not always prepared to change the kinds of stories we tell. So we simply suspend disbelief; we imagine that everyone who is currently a part of our Anglophone culture has been there, a valued and equal participant, all along.

Thus have all of us, from around the globe, been retconned into the history of the West. Now we can watch ourselves speak languages we did not speak in rooms where we were unlikely to have been welcome. We are included, but our actual history is erased. {snip}