There’s a long history of rightwing antipathy towards progressive racebending – if we can even call it that – in the movies. From Idris Elba as Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor films to John Boyega starring as stormtrooper Finn in the Star Wars sequel trilogy and even Halle Bailey as the Little Mermaid, there’s something about seeing black people in roles that might once have been played by white actors that really gets under the skin of organisations such as the Council of Conservative Citizens. The fact that nobody has any idea what levels of melanin Norse gods and mermaids had, or what the imperial troops looked like with their helmets off in the original Star Wars trilogy seems to have been conveniently forgotten.
Lately, the culture war seems to have moved into more insidious territory. Rather than just spitting bile on horrible forums that the rest of us can happily ignore, fascist types have taken to “review-bombing” movies that don’t fit with their worldview, a process whereby trolls target a film’s user-generated IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes rating in an effort to stop people seeing it.
The latest movie to suffer is the fantasy drama Come Away, which stars the British actor David Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie as parents of a young boy and girl, Alice and Peter, who use their imaginations to overcome family strife. The “problem” here for those of a certain disposition, of course, is that the film (out in the US at the weekend and available in the UK from 4 December), is intended as a prequel of sorts to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, meaning that both children are presented as being of mixed race.
“I would be lying if I said I was surprised by it,” said Oyelowo of the review-bombing during an interview on Tamron Hall. “I’ve had other films that have had this done to them. Famously, we saw John Boyega having to deal with this because people didn’t like the idea of a black stormtrooper or Halle Bailey as the Little Mermaid.
“For me personally, to see Keira Chansa as Alice from Alice in Wonderland or Jordan Nash as Peter, that’s what I didn’t get to see when I was 12 years old and I know that it would have slightly changed and reshaped my world view about where I fit in the world,” he said. “And at the end of the day, these are fictional characters in a fantasy fairytale, so it’s not any kind of displacement in terms of history. It’s just seeing these kids in the middle of this fantasy, which I think most kids would like to see.”
Perhaps rather than asking themselves how these famous literary characters could possibly be played by people of colour, those opposing the film might consider looking at things from the opposite direction? Director Brenda Chapman reveals in an interview with IndieWire that she almost passed over Oyelowo’s profile when considering who should play the role of Jack, Peter and Alice’s dad, before realising he was the perfect choice.
“I was disappointed – oh, it’s too bad, I’d love to work with him – and I moved on and then I sort of went back to his name like, wait a minute, why not?,” said Chapman. “And then, going through the story in my mind, it was like, I don’t need to change anything. It would open up the story so much more.”
Seen from this perspective, the proper question might be whether it would be fair to deny Oyelowo the chance to appear in the role simply because the original tales of Alice and Wonderland and Peter Pan were written at a time when the demographics of Victorian and Edwardian Britain were different from those of today. Is it that important to follow supposed historical precedent, especially when dealing with fantasy worlds where fairies and dragons really exist and it is possible to fly, shrink down to a tiny size and even meet invisible cats? As Elba once said of his casting as Heimdall: “Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”
• This article was amended on 26 November 2020 because an earlier version referred to Alice and Wonderland and Peter Pan in the context of Victorian and Georgian Britain, when Victorian and Edwardian Britain was meant.