Queenanneboleyn.com and The Queen Anne Boleyn Society ask, “What are your thoughts on the casting of Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen Anne Boleyn?”
As heated debate and blatant racism permeates the social media, Queenanneboleyn.com asked historians, novelists, and history enthusiasts to share their opinions of the color-blind casting of Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen Anne Boleyn.
Leanda de Lisle, Historian
Controversy = publicity and I am delighted more people will be bought to the story of Anne Boleyn by the publicity this story has attracted. Anne has been played by someone of colour in the past — Merle Oberon was half Indian. But Jodie Turner-Smith is much more obviously not white British! Does that matter? Well, it is a reminder that drama is fiction, and drama is about telling a truth rather than the truth. Nobody blinked in the past when Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and I far prefer the freedom of color-blind casting to the narrow arguments against ‘cultural appropropration’. Children dress up in costumes from all over the world and I think that is a good and healthy thing: it encourages curiosity, it encourages us to think about people from other cultures. There are today many black Britons and I want their children to grow up feeling part of the history of the country in which they live. They inherit the baggage of the past, as we all do. Anne Boleyn wasn’t black, but nor was she a modern white woman educated at RADA. And being black could bring to the fore the perceived ‘otherness’ of Anne at the time – she was French-educated, had spent years in Europe, her religious views were not mainstream and were widely disliked, she was an outsider too as a mistress ousting a much-loved queen, her appearance was endlessly commented on and dissected. The script, the performance, the sensitivity of the director will all be key, but the fact that Jodie Turner-Smith’s colour provokes strong reactions is a plus. Anne had great admirers, while others bristled. Turner-Smith has provoked the same reactions as Anne Boleyn – and we haven’t yet seen her speak a single line!
Owen Emmerson, Historian & Supervisor of Hever Castle
There is more than a little symmetry between the furore surrounding the casting of Jodie Tuner-Smith in the role of Anne Boleyn, and the outcry caused by the elevation of the Anne Boleyn of history to the role of England’s “leading lady”. Anne’s unparalleled rise to Henry VIII’s second queen consort was particularly controversial and divisive, and it is evident that many today do not want a new head to wear the much-worn crown sported by the numerous actresses who have previously played the role on screen. “You can never replace [insert favoured ‘Anne’ actress] she will always be my queen”, some proclaim, in much the same way as those who once championed Anne’s predecessor Katherine of Aragon: the “true queen”. Chopping and changing queens has always ruffled feathers.
Since speaking in support of Jodie’s casting via social media, I have witnessed much overt racism. I have also seen arguments which, when scratched at, have revealed themselves to be intrinsically racist. I do not mean to suggest that all criticisms have been racist, but it would be irresponsible not to state the ugly reality of some of the comments sent my way. They must be an infinitesimal speck of those witnessed by those involved in the production, and especially by comparison to those experienced by Jodie herself. I am not trained to talk at length about racism, but I have studied the life of Anne Boleyn for many years and I wish to address some of the criticisms which have been raised, many of which have also been used to conceal racist sentiments. Arguments against Jodie’s casting of Anne appear to be rooted in the notion that historical accuracy should be paramount in the casting of the people from history. I would like to plead the case for the historically inaccurate historical film, chiefly because I do not believe that it has ever been achieved in the case of Anne Boleyn’s story, and more importantly because I do not believe that it is possible to accurately re-create history on screen.
‘Authenticity’ seems to be the byword that underpins the vocal rejections of this casting. Portraits labelled as Anne Boleyn have been furiously copied and pasted into online comments to demonstrate what she ‘really looked like’, when not one of them is, to our knowledge, a contemporary likeness. The one image that does reliably hint at Anne’s appearance – a medal struck in 1534 – is often bypassed by Anne stans in favour of prettier posthumous presentations of the queen. While we know that Anne was white, with a ‘swarthy’ complexion and that she had dark hair and eyes, we cannot truthfully say that we have sufficient evidence to feel confident about her appearance, let alone to say whether she looked anything like any of the given actresses who’ve played her. I have reconciled myself to the fact that I will probably never know what Anne truly looked like. If she (or I) were somehow able to breach the barrier of time separating us, I most likely wouldn’t recognise her face in a crowd. Anne was never famed for her looks, and yet our fascination with Anne’s image is as strong today as it has ever been. I believe that the images conjured when we think of Anne Boleyn have been greatly influenced by those projected onto us in popular culture; none of which can reasonably be called accurate.
The actresses who have tackled the mercurial Anne Boleyn have all been rather beautiful, and that beauty has been to underpin an understanding of why Henry VIII fell in love with her. The truth of the matter is rather more complex, and frankly more interesting. While some of Anne’s contemporaries believed her to be good looking, even her friends marked that they believed her to be only moderately so. Moreover, when Anne’s contemporaries did mention her looks, it was almost always in conjunction with her style, allure, and the substance of her character. Her ‘black and beautiful’ eyes were referenced almost as portals into a much deeper and more fundamental experience that Anne gave. The glossing over of the complexity of Anne goes way beyond her looks. Rarely has the Anne on screen been seen to genuflect, let alone show a woman of deeply held, often radical, beliefs. We have several surviving books which were once amongst Anne’s most treasured possession, and which evidence her piety, and yet seldom do we see Anne with a book in her hand. She was an astute political player who wasn’t afraid to take risks, yet we are far more likely to be given a woman being manipulated by her ambitious family. None of the Anne Boleyns on film has been a faithful representation of the Anne we find in the archives. Anne wasn’t 6ft tall, she didn’t have blue eyes, she didn’t have a Canadian lilt to her speech, and she sadly didn’t reach the age of 41. Yet, there was no public outcry when actresses who didn’t fit the extremely limited specifications that we have of Anne’s appearance were cast in that role. Considering the outlandish liberties taken with Anne story, such as Anne stealing her sister’s child, plotting to kill Bishops, or having an incestuous liaison with her brother, the aesthetics of the actress seem rather insignificant in the broader question of historical accuracy.
I don’t believe that the majority of those who consume these fictitious stories of Anne life unthinkingly believe all that they see. We live in an age where we can almost instantly access articles debunking these many myths. I talk to thousands of people who have accessed Anne via these dramas when they visit my workplace. The anachronistic anomalies and fanciful fictions that are shown on screen often prove to be the bedrock of the questions we receive, the debates that ensue, and the deeper understanding we arrive at. In truth, I believe that we enjoy historical dramas because they give us an essence of the past; an essence which, in the case of Anne Boleyn’s history, is rarely rooted in her known history. It is something of a cliché to say that films tell us more about the time in which they were made than the history they purport to depict, but in the case of representations of Anne Boleyn on screen, this is undoubtedly true. As Susan Bordo and Stephanie Russo have demonstrated, the stories we tell about Anne Boleyn have shifted enormously according to the social and political context in which they were told.
I don’t believe that we would enjoy a truly accurate glimpse of the past, even if we were able to recreate it. For a start, it is doubtful that many would be able to understand the majority of what was being said, owing to the significant shifts in our language. It is questionable that we would see much of the history which took place after dark either. When BBC’s ‘Wolf Hall’ gloriously shot night scenes by candlelight, to enhance a sense of authenticity, Twitter was awash with complaints about the dull and inaccessible aesthetic. Barely any conversations of the time were recorded fully, so we would be left with snippets of scenes instead of well-rounded and meaningful dialogue. When the BBC committed to recreating Prince Edward’s christening, it was almost entirely devoid of conversation for this reason. I think we enjoy the glamour, the pace, and the spectacle that these inherently fictitious films provide. Moreover, I think we may secretly enjoy some of the errors too. Which one of us doesn’t like to shout at the telly, complaining about an anachronistic 1540s-style French hood in a Legatine courtroom scene set in 1529? Doesn’t it give us a limitless source of self-congratulatory pats on the back? Perhaps I’m alone here, but I like my history pure and my historical dramas as impure and problematic as possible. Long may they reign.
David Lee, Historian
‘It’s time to break the glass ceiling!’
When I first saw Jodie Turner-Smith cast as Anne Boleyn in the new Channel 5 production about Henry VIII’s ill-fated second queen, I was immediately excited. Like many, I always welcome another portrayal of my favourite Tudor queen. Turner-Smith has earned critical acclaim for her past performances; her poise and obvious firm command of her roles will, no-doubt, make her an Anne Boleyn to remember.
The most interesting and exciting thing about Turner-Smith’s leading role is that she is fearlessly re-branding this incredible story as the first black woman to play Anne. Obviously, and predictably, the choice of colour-blind casting has ruffled some feathers, or rather, rattled some cages. However, it must be remembered that history belongs to everyone. Television series and films are not always completely accurate, nor can they be.
For me, historical television productions say more about the times we live and write in now than they do about eras they depict on screen. The revelation of Turner-Smith’s role is literally ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ in terms of how we see people of colour, particularly women of colour, in leading historical roles. It’s about time! Diversity in this context has never been more prevalent, nor important.
Turner-Smith is not the first black woman to be cast in the role of a historical white woman. Indeed, the portrayal of another ill-fated queen – Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, was played by Sophie Okonedo, in the 2012 series ‘The Hollow Crown’. This was my first time seeing a black woman in a historical drama, and I adored her scenes! Need I mention that Okonedo is an Oscar-Nominated actress? Another recent and well-received series to take on the taboo of racial diversity in casting is ‘Bridgeton’ (2020), which featured a mixed cast of black and white actors in prominent historically-themed roles.
Anne Boleyn’s story of a woman’s fight to overcome the patriarchy that surrounded her – which ultimately orchestrated her demise – continues to be as relevant today as it was in the sixteenth century. It reminds us that to dismiss true talent over skin colour is to deliberately overlook the most important component of a successful period drama – the acting! I am looking forward to seeing this new and daring Anne Boleyn.
‘Ainsi sera Groigne qui Groigne’
– Anne Boleyn
Estelle Paranque, Historian
James Peacock, The Queen Anne Boleyn Society
Everyone who has portrayed Queen Anne Boleyn has brought something unique to the role and made it their own and I have no doubt whatsoever that Jodie-Turner Smith will be exactly the same. For anyone still uncertain I highly recommend reading Jodie’s interview with Vogue, in which she discusses what drew her to the part and her take on Anne. In this Jodie clearly states that she understands Anne’s strengths and weaknesses. I was incredibly struck by the first images released of Jodie in costume as Anne. Those pictures were a mixture of strength and vulnerability. Just by looking at them, I knew that this portrayal of Queen Anne Boleyn was in safe hands.
Claire Ridgway, Historian
I’m thoroughly excited about this casting. I’m one of those naive people who believe that Jodie could have been the best actress who auditioned, but whatever the reason, I fully support her playing Anne Boleyn.
I’ve been asked numerous times, sometimes not at all politely, how I, as someone who writes about Anne Boleyn, can support a black actress being cast as her? I find that bizarre. This series isn’t a documentary, it’s fiction, and I love it when the “theatre” (and I use theatre as a general term to embrace all drama) shakes things up a bit so that we look at things differently. I’ve enjoyed it when females have played traditional male roles, for example, Glenda Jackson as King Lear, or when there has been colour-blind casting. It’s refreshing; it makes the viewer look at a story they are familiar with in a different light, in a different way. In fiction and drama, those writing it or directing it have the freedom to do this, and it’s a wonderful thing. Accuracy has nothing to do with this Anne Boleyn drama. It’s not required to be accurate. We’ve never had a historically accurate Anne anyway, so some people’s “concerns” about accuracy only go as far as skin colour.
Jodie playing Anne Boleyn has sparked outrage in some quarters, but didn’t Henry VIII casting Anne Boleyn as his queen-consort in the 16th-century cause outrage too? This outrage, anger, and disgust towards this drama perfectly mirror the situation in the 1520s and 1530s to me. Anne was different; she wasn’t seen as queen material; she wasn’t seen as suitable. I think Anne would empathise with Jodie and the comments that are being aimed at this wonderful actress. Anne never backed away from controversy. Let them grumble, while the rest of us enjoy a fresh take on Anne.
Sandra Vasoli, Historical Novelist
Beth von Staats, Queenanneboleyn.com
To be quite honest, I have been disgusted and dismayed by the blatant racism on social media in reaction to the casting of the brilliant Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen Anne Boleyn. I felt compelled to shut off the ability to comment on posts highlighting articles so related in my Facebook group, many initial reactions so heated, ignorant, and prejudiced that I feared valued group members would be offended. I also felt bewildered by the negative responses to this color-blind casting, citing a lack of historical accuracy. After all, color-blind casting is nothing new.
Through the years many white actors portrayed characters of varying races. Beyond those previously mentioned by other responders here, Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone portrayed women of Asian descent. Natalie Wood portrayed a Hispanic woman — and from a more historical perspective — Alec Guinness portrayed an Arab prince in Lawrence of Arabia, while Laurence Olivier acted in blackface as Othello. Several white actresses portrayed Queen Sophia-Charlotte before finally an actress of mixed-race Golda Rosheuvel was cast in Bridgerton. (And yes, Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of England and wife of King George III, was a mixed-race woman. Even Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged her African heritage at her Coronation.)
Admittedly color-blind casting can sometimes pose complicated challenges within a historical context, even for actors of color. For example, in Hamilton, Black men portray historical figures that were slave owners, a concern even creator and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda found valid. Additionally, though his performance was brilliant, what drove the choice to cast African-American Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ, Superstar? The solution? I would suggest the answer lies in diversifying the industry at all levels, enabling actors of all cultural and racial backgrounds ample opportunities that are limited solely by their talents.
Can Jodie Turner-Smith portray Queen Anne Boleyn credibly? Given the enormous success of the brilliant acting in both Hamilton and Bridgerton, let’s do put the color-blind casting controversy to rest once and for all. I believe given her previous performances, this delightful actress with the undeniable “Anne Boleyn eyes” has every potential to provide us with a highly nuanced and deep performance of English History’s most intriguing, complicated, and tragic Queen. I bend the knee.