Greetings! It's been another month of Sundays since I posted here, but I'm back to share a brief response to a movie I saw recently: the latest film adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. I was very interested to see it, not least because it is the first film to cast a black actor (or two, technically) as Heathcliff.
The reason I thought this might be a great choice is because it would drive home for today's audiences how thoroughly racialized English society was in the 19th century. Emily Brontë's hero, unlike her sister's Rochester (in Jane Eyre), was not "dark" simply in the sense of brooding and brunette. Rather, Heathcliff is described over and over as a "gipsy," a derogatory term for the nomadic Romani people, whose "swarthy" complexions and curly hair contributed to their being subjected to a whole raft of negative stereotypes. They were thought of as "natural" liars, theives, and murders -- utterly untrustworthy. They were not black, but were definitely "beyond the pale" of whiteness. (Deborah Nord has a fantastic article about this form of racism and its manifestation in such works as Wuthering Heights, available to any of you with access to the academic journal Victorian Studies.) I thought that casting the light-skinned black actors who play the younger and older Heathcliff would be an effective way to give audiences a strong visual sense of the relationship between race and class in Victorian England.
But, to my surprise, the movie doesn't simply cast black actors, it rewrites Heathcliff's character. That is, Emily Brontë's Heathcliff is suspected of being a "gipsy"; this movie's Heathcliff is understood to be black. Where the novel uses the g-word, so to speak, the film in most instances gives us instead the n-word. Where the novel reveals how racism and discrimination was practiced against people like the Romanis, who were not of African descent but merely darker than the "fair" English norm, the film reinscribes blackness (in the sense of Africanness) as the specific target of England's white supremacist ideology. I can't say for sure how this movie played in the UK, but I'm pretty sure that for US audiences, from the moment the n-word was first hurled at Heathcliff (which is in the first 10 minutes of the film), the treatment he receives at the hands of nearly everyone in the small Yorkshire world of this story "makes sense." I do not mean that US audiences would say that Heathcliff was treated fairly or justly or that the discrimination against him was unobjectionable. What I mean is that the slurs, beatings, and exploitation he suffered will strike most US viewers as "normal" (if inexcuseable) for "back then." The director, Andrea Arnold, missed an opportunity to defamiliarize racism and make it more visually evident, at the same time.
That was disappointing for me, to be sure, but another reason I didn't love this movie was that it did violence to the wonderful way that WH unfolds the story. Not only is Heathcliff reimagined, but the frame story disappears; Nelly, the maid, who narrates the novel, is reduced to a bit player; and the film ends at the novel's halfway point! If you haven't read the novel, you won't have to face these filmic betrayals -- but then, I wonder how much you'd be able to understand the film's representation of the plot, without already knowing what happens. There is very minimal dialogue, which I don't mind at all, but which would leave the characters' motivations fairly opaque and their actions, at times, unfathomable to viewers who don't have the benefit of Brontë's rich prose descriptions.
After all of the above complaints, I must admit that it was quite a pleasure to watch the stunning cinematography on view in this movie -- and to hear the thick Yorkshire accents "untranslated" into the Queen's English. There were some truly wonderful scenes that I enjoyed so much I could almost forget my disappointments . . . but not quite.