Sometimes I read a piece of classic literature and I’m amazed how white modern adaptations of these stories are.



I’m re-reading Les Miserables, the classic novel by Victor Hugo. The antagonist is Inspector Javert, a police officer who hunts down the main character, Jean Valjean, because he escaped parole. While it is only implied in the musical, “I was born with scum like you/…/I am from the gutter too”, in the novel it is made clear that Javert’s mother is Romani, or as the politically incorrect 1800s writing would tend towards, “gypsy”. (I guess he had a thing for them, given their prominence in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

It’s not even worth asking how many of the actors who’ve played Javert had a drop of Roma blood in them; the answer is almost certainly 0. And we don’t know what race his father was, only that he was a “galley slave”. But there was still a bit of whining about Norm Lewis, a black actor, playing Javert for the 25th Anniversary recording of the musical.

And you know the racial controversy around BBC’s Merlin? Guinevere is played by a black actress, the utterly gorgeous and flawless Angel Coulby. The controversy mainly stems from the crowds bawww’ing that there can’t be a black person in the Arthurian legends. Except, you know what? One of Arthur’s knights, Aglovale (brother of Sir Percival), sired a Moorish son, named Morien (subtle), who himself was knighted. The actual Arthurian legends have a Moor as a character, guys.

Like how do you even justify it.

I guess my point is, no matter how awful and problematic most old Western literature is when it comes to portraying people of other races… they still acknowledged that they existed and wrote them into their stories. Sometimes they even got positive portrayals, sometimes they even got a chapter dedicated to their stories, and sometimes they even were part of the main cast. Yet we can’t accomplish this incredibly basic shit in half the movies and novels and video games that come out today.

Looking at you, Brave and Tangled. Looking. At. You.

True. Javert is part Romani; I think for Hugo this was part of his tragic past, leading of course to his tragic ending.

Norm Lewis was a tremendous Javert — the best one, in my opinion — but unfortunately it reminded me of the tendency in musicals to cast Black actors as antagonists, such as the tradition in Jesus Christ Superstar of casting Judas as a Black actor, while Jesus is always played by a white actor. 

Personally I believe that these casting decisions are exactly upside-down.

I read Les Miserables over 20 years ago, over the course of 3 months (that sucker is looong), and the whole dazzling story has been stuck in my head ever since. But the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I’ve come to realize that Jean Valjean should be a Black man.

The novel begins in 1815, which not coincidentally is the year of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which dissolved Napoleon’s empire and included an addendum which abolished the African slave trade. This would have been a historical moment during which freed Black men would be making their way around France. Moreover, in 1815 France was already engaged in its colonial venture into Algeria, which became a full-blown invasion at the end of the Bourbon Restoration in 1830, so there was a flow of human migration between France and Algeria during the time in which Les Miserables takes place (it ends in 1832).

Jean Valjean is an unusual French name; it would have been appropriate as a semi-assumed name of an African immigrant. He’s persecuted and imprisoned on trumped up charges while trying to survive. He unjustly serves decades in a chain gang, being tortured and whipped. Does this really seem like a role which should only be played by a white man?! In fact, I would argue it makes far more sense to cast a Black actor as Valjean and a white actor as Javert, the unbending arm of the law.

Same with Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus was false accused and falsely executed by the state. Judas was the collaborator with empire. You make the call.

So yeah, it goes beyond whitewashing to willfully upside-down storytelling which convolutes our understanding of the world in the service of white supremacism.

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