We need to talk about Anne Boleyn

Almost 485 years ago, a Queen of England ascended a scaffold in the Tower of London, made a speech honouring the king who had, until very recently, been her husband and was the father of her three-year-old daughter. She was found guilty of having had affairs with five men, one of them her own brother, and of conspiring to kill the king, in what was recognised by many then and now as a shocking miscarriage of justice. She paid the executioner who had travelled from Calais, knelt in the straw while her ladies-in-waiting blindfolded her, and said her prayers, before the executioner took off her head with a single blow of his sword.

I like to think Anne Boleyn would be flattered that, all these years later, we’re still talking about her.

Anne has been back in the news recently, not because the letters she wrote to Henry VIII have finally been found or a new portrait of her has been discovered, but because a new three-part drama is set to be released on Channel 5 later this year and British model and actress Jodie Turner-Smith has been cast as Anne, marking the very first time Anne has been played by a Black actress on screen.

I don’t think it’ll be hard for you to imagine what the reaction has been from the people who never learned that ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. I shared an article about the new show on a Tudor Facebook group I’m part of because I love the sound of the show—a three part drama treating the fall of Anne Boleyn as a psychological thriller—and I was disgusted by how many people left horrible comments. These same people cried about historical accuracy but were quite happy to watch Outlander, because time travel is 10/10 accurate, I guess.

There have been countless ‘bUt AnNe BoLeYn WaSn’T bLaCk’ and ‘WhAt If SoMeOnE wHiTe PlAyEd RoSa PaRkS’ comments sprouting up like weeds across the internet, and today I felt like addressing what’s been going on.

Before we get started, however: I’m no authority here. I am not a professional historian, I don’t have a History degree, and everything I know about the Tudors has come from watching documentaries, reading books and articles, and seeking out information because I’m a massive nerd when it comes to the 16th century. I’d like to think I at least know a bit more about the Tudors than some of the racist cretins on Twitter, though.

ANYWAY. Look, historical accuracy, particularly when it comes to casting, is kind of bullshit. My favourite portrayal of Anne, who seems to be the favourite of many, is Natalie Dormer in The Tudors. Natalie Dormer is not olive-skinned and her eyes are blue, whereas Anne has always been described as having eyes so dark they’re almost black, and yet I never saw anyone crying out about how Natalie Dormer didn’t look enough like her. In fact Anne is still such an enigma that every actress brings something a little different to her because we’re never going to know exactly what she was like—none of her love letters to Henry VIII survive, and while there is a letter that’s believed to have been written by her while she was in the Tower we don’t know that for certain, so we don’t have anything proven to have been written in her voice—and the kind of person she was continues to be debated by historians and Tudor fans alike. To some she’s a homewrecker, to others she’s a Protestant martyr. Some historians don’t even think her song in Six the Musical is accurate enough, for heaven’s sake!

(It’s also worth noting that Natalie Dormer is stunningly beautiful, but Anne wasn’t a great beauty. Tudor beauty ideals at the time were pale skin, fair hair and blue eyes and Anne had none of these, but she oozed charisma and wit and that’s what drew people to her.)

To the people out there claiming Jodie Turner-Smith’s casting is as bad as a white person being cast as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., I’m here to tell you why you’re wrong. I doubt you’re reading this, though, and if you are and you continue to be a bigot, I hope you step on a Lego.

It’s not a double-standard to say a white person couldn’t play someone like Rosa Parks because race is a huge part of Rosa’s story. She wasn’t told to give up her seat on the bus because she was a woman or because she supported the wrong football team, she was told to get up because she was Black and therefore viewed as a second class citizen. Casting a white actress would completely remove what Rosa Parks was fighting for in the first place.

Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, had plenty of things to worry about, but the colour of her skin wasn’t one of them. In fact racism as we now know it wasn’t really a thing in Tudor England; the colour of your skin didn’t matter the way your religion did. Initially the slave trade argued that slaves were lesser because they weren’t Christian, but when slaves began to be converted to Christianity the slave trade needed another reason to keep those poor people under their boot, and they chose their skin colour. Racism is man-made.

Fiction often reflects the context it’s been created in, and I think showing a Black woman at the mercy of a white king and his white councillors will add a whole new layer of understanding to what happened to Anne Boleyn. Unlike her predecessor, Katharine of Aragon, Anne wasn’t a foreign-born princess whose safety would therefore be guaranteed because Henry VIII could have started a war with Spain if he’d had her killed on trumped up charges. Anne was an English citizen and the person she might have turned to to plead her case was the very man who wanted her dead. Her guilt was decided before her trial even began.

Ultimately, though, if you don’t want to watch a drama with a Black Anne Boleyn, then DON’T WATCH IT. No one is going to force you to, and that the media keep bringing up that Anne is being played by a Black actress is them relying on the anger of bigots to sell their news stories. They’re talking about Jodie Turner-Smith as though her skin colour is the most important thing about her, and not what it is that she’ll bring to the role as an actress.

It’s just a show. It’s not the end of the world. I guess you’ll just have to choose from Vanessa Redgrave (A Man for All Seasons) or Genevieve Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days) or Dorothy Tutin (Henry VIII and His Six Wives) or Helena Bonham Carter (Henry VIII) or Natalie Dormer (The Tudors) or Natalie Portman (The Other Boleyn Girl) or Claire Foy (Wolf Hall) or Millie O’Connell (Six the Musical) or Alice Nokes (The Spanish Princess) instead…

8 thoughts on “We need to talk about Anne Boleyn

  1. dinipandareads says:

    Oh, this post is so great! This is the first time I’ve heard about this series and I don’t know much about Anne Boleyn but I’m definitely going to be checking this show out as soon as it’s available! I do hope those bigots step on a lego 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Catherine@basedonthebook says:

    I’m so excited for this! Like you said, you couldn’t cast a white Rosa Parks because it’s relevant to the story but race isn’t important here. They’ve cast the guy from I may destroy you as the brother too and Gren from GoT as Henry – such a good cast!! I love that they’re doing it as a sort of thriller. I hated how they portrayed Anne in Wolf Hall so hopefully this will show her in a better light as well

    Liked by 1 person

  3. thecorneroflaura says:

    This is the first time I’ve heard about it and, for my part, it depresses me to see people arguing that her race isn’t historically accurate as if historical accuracy is the most important thing in a drama. It’s exactly the same argument that was thrown around when Sophie Okonedo was cast as Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown right up until it aired and she completely stole the show. If it’s a drama and not a documentary, all that matters is how well the actors play the role and, if Turner-Smith is half as good as Okonedo, we’re in for a treat.

    Liked by 1 person

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