On “Mary, Queen of Scots”

Nayirah Muhammad presents a commentary on the 2018 film Mary, Queen of Scots, homing in on issues of race and representation in Western society.


After watching Mary, Queen of Scots hit theaters this past December, I was pleasantly surprised how this film managed to stick to historical facts for the most part, as well as mix it with their own dramatic spins to make it more compelling, and my personal favorite: incorporated more people of color (POC) into the cast. However, when it comes to historical fiction and period dramas in today’s pop culture, I came across what you always see on social media and fan sites: a ravenous slew of racism and questions about PC-casting and social justice warriors (SJW).

Why is it that when today’s media wants to include POC into their historically based projects that the racist and ignorant always want to cry that history is being ruined? It’s like these people think every black, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, etc. person in the world didn’t start mixing in with their precious “lily-white” flowers until recently. Or even worse, POC didn’t exist at all in the Medieval and Dark Ages. It’s not only irritating and disheartening to see this level of ignorance still happening in 2018, but it is also curious as to why these people believe that. What makes them so sure no black men like Mary, Queen of Scots‘ Adrian Lester’s character could have existed and taken up official positions in the Elizabethan era?

Well, I would say it mostly has to do with much of our history books being conveniently light and ambiguous with mentioning the appearance of POC in royal European courts. It would hurt the ignorant population’s sense of security if they knew it might’ve been possible that some Asian women may have been courtiers to the great Queen Elizabeth I or that there might have been black men of consequence within the Elizabethan court.

This issue is not just rampant in movies like Mary, Queen of Scots, but also in small-screen shows as well. For example, I recently came across a slew of hateful YouTube comments about the BBC series Troy: Fall of a City, where the legendary and heroic character of Greek lore, Achilles, was portrayed by a black actor: David Gyasi. It’s no secret that in the 2004 film Troy, Achilles was portrayed by Brad Pitt, a man with blonde hair, blue eyes, the whole shebang. Comments were, again, more focused on the inclusion of black actors in a legendary setting that, keep in mind, is based on legend—meaning it may have not even happened—more than the writing or cinematography or performance.

It is staggering how the inclusion of POC in period dramas and historical fiction movies can make a group of people so unreasonable in today’s society. You would almost think there has been no progression anywhere. My dearest hope is that the inclusion of POC in these genre-films and series do not cease as time goes by because at the end of the day not all history can be taken at face value. It is, after all, written by the victors.

—Nayirah Muhammad

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