Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Class, Race, Historical Accuracy, and BBC's The Musketeers

In my lifetime alone I think we've already glutted ourselves on interpretations of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers

When I was a kid, I absolutely adored Disney's Three Musketeers, which starred the incomprehensible trio of Charlie Sheen, Oliver Platt, and Kiefer Sutherland as the titular characters (and Tim Curry as the evil Cardinal Richelieu). Then there was The Man in the Iron Mask, which took place later and starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, and Gerard Depardieu. 

Who could forget The Musketeer? Everyone. But it did happen, an early 2000s retelling that added in a lot of wire-fu and took its inspiration from the wu-xia films coming out of Hong Kong. Oh, and lest we be remiss in our recounting, I should point out that Wishbone totally did an episode on this. It was one of my favorites.

When you look back on a record like that (I'm sure I forgot some), and consider that this is just from the past twenty years or so, you've got to wonder. What on earth can the new BBC show, The Musketeers, add to this conversation? What can it possibly say that hasn't already been said a million times and with a better budget.

A lot, as it turns out. It's kind of amazing.

For those of you unfamiliar with the basic plot, it sort of goes like this. D'Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino) is a brash young man, the son of a Musketeer (the famed guard that protects the king of France), comes to Paris to avenge his father's death. He teams up with a trio of famous Musketeers, the best in the squadron, and they take it upon themselves to teach him how to be the best Musketeer he can possibly be. They also take it upon themselves to teach him about life and love and how to run away from an angry husband or avoid a duel, and it's all fun jokes and silly stories and stopping lots of assassination attempts on the king.

That's the basic story in most versions of the tale. This show sticks to the basic formula, but it's the twists and turns added along the way that really give it color. You'll see what I mean in a minute. First, let's go over the other major characters.

You've got three main Musketeers: Athos (Tom Burke), Porthos (Howard Charles), and Aramis (Santiago Cabrera). They're characterized pretty clearly across the board. Athos is a straight-shooter with secret past man-pain. (He accidentally married an assassin and then had to have her executed when he found out about it because no one is above the law except she lived and now she hates him like a lot.) 

Porthos is the blowhard hedonist who loves food and drink and fighting and women. He's the best shot in the guard, and also a little bit nuts. Prone to starting fights and cheating at cards and making someone else clean it up. And Aramis is a former priest who likes to espouse lofty philosophical ideals while screwing lots and lots of women. 

Charming bunch of fellows, huh? Then you've got the eternally weak-willed King Louis (Ryan Gage), the devious and conniving Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Capaldi), the lovely Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling), and steady Captain Treville of the Musketeers (Hugo Speer). All of these characters form the basic outline of the story, and the story really never changes that much. Swashbuckling, romance, swordfights, intrigue, and all that. But the core never really shifts.

The interest, then, is in the little details that flesh out the story. And as I discovered with this show, much to my surprise, the little details can make the biggest difference.

To be totally honest, I didn't start watching this show because I'd heard it was good. I hadn't really heard anything about it. I decided to track it down and watch it because I discovered that Luke Pasqualino (who spends most of Snowpiercer with his shirt off doing parkour) is starring in it, and that one of the other leads is Santiago Cabrera, who I've had a crush on since Heroes. In other words, I didn't start watching this for the plot. I started watching for the hot dudes.

Even going into it, though, I was intrigued. As you may or may not know, Santiago Cabrera is Chilean*, making him an interesting choice to cast for a medieval French guy. Additionally, Luke Pasqualino is Sicilian, and really not in fitting with the usual "white as the driven snow" casting aesthetic that usually plagues these adaptations.

As I actually watched the show, though, I discovered that Howard Charles is of mixed-race, and that, more than all of this, the show actually acknowledges it. Like, it comes up. In the episode. That some of the characters are not super white. That is an honest-to-goodness plot point. I nearly cried with joy.

Not only does it just come up, though, it's dealt with in an honest and realistic way. We as the audience sort of know already that Porthos (Charles' character) is probably not white, but the topic is raised bluntly when another character (played brilliantly by James Callis) straight up points it out. And yes, Porthos admits that his mother was a freed slave who came to Paris to start a new life. Things didn't go so well for her, and he was orphaned at a young age. It's very sad, and as the audience you figure that's an end to it. It's more than I expected they'd talk about it at all.

But no. It's not the end, because as the episode goes on to tell us, Callis' character isn't just a harmless explorer out for a bit of fun. He's a slave trader setting up tobacco plantations in South America, and he's completely unrepentant of the fact. The rest of the episode deals not with the moral issue of whether or not slavery is wrong, but with what they are to do with Callis' character. On the one hand, the Musketeers are men of honor, and it would be wrong to kill him. On the other hand, by killing him, they could save thousands of lives lost in brutal slavery.

I was blown away. Seriously. It never occurred to me that a period show would deal with issues of race like this, with complexity and humanity and awareness of the brutality and pain caused. There is no glossing over. There is no easy way through. The show doesn't make you comfortable, and I love it for that.

I love even more, though, that this isn't the last episode to deal with Porthos' race and social class. Only a couple episodes later (it might actually be the next episode), Porthos is framed for murder, and because he is lower-class, not-white, and from a particularly seedy part of Paris, he's immediately sentenced to death. He's then rescued by some of his old friends from his days as a criminal living on the street, and the rest of the episode is a hunt to clear his name and figure out what the overarching plot is. 

It's fascinating because, yet again, the show doesn't shy away from issues of race or class. Porthos was born of a former slave, who then died. He grew up poor, in a place called "The Court of Miracles", where criminals roam freely. He was a criminal himself, and then he left to become a Musketeer. Because of that, because he chose to abandon them and sought to rise above his preordained station in life, Porthos is resented both by the upper and lower classes. 

The people in the Court of Miracles find him too good for his britches and think he abandoned them. The people in the King's Court think it's absolutely disgraceful that he was allowed to be a Musketeer in the first place.

Basically, it rocks. The episodes are well-written, cognizant of the historical issues going on as well as the social underpinnings, and the whole thing is just so freaking good you want to scream. Heck, they even acknowledged Santiago Cabrera's South American background by having his character speak Spanish. It's never even addressed (at least not yet), but it makes sense. They could even have his character originate in Chile, where Cabrera is from, and have come to France. It would make sense in the time period. I doubt they'll do that, but they could.

Of course, because this is a period drama that dares to talk about people of color in ye-olde Europe, some people have been absolutely up in arms about it. They claim that it's historically inaccurate to have Porthos and Aramis played by men of color, and they insist that their objections are not based in racism, but rather in fact. "Europe was white in those times because only white people lived there, okay?"

I sort of want to smush their faces into a map of Europe and point at the bottom. "See that bit there?" I'd say as I rubbed their noses in it. "That's Africa. See how close it is to Europe? Like, within spitting distance? Now tell me again how there were never any black people in Europe."

The great blog MedievalPOC has done a lot more to contribute to this conversation than I have, but suffice to say that not only is it illogical to assume that there were never people of color in Europe, it's downright factually inaccurate. So, yes, it makes a lot of sense to have at least one, possibly more, of the Musketeers represented as men of color. Perhaps the detractors are forgetting something rather important: Alexandre Dumas himself was famously mixed-race. His paternal grandmother was a Haitian slave, which is interesting in and of itself, but most interesting is that his father chose to take her name and not that of his French nobleman father. Alexandre Dumas, then, takes his surname from a slavewoman in the Caribbean. So, you know, racists should probably shut up.

And as far as the historical inaccuracy charges go, not only are they false, they're also aiming at the wrong target. If you want to find something inaccurate to complain about, then the more correct target (though still a silly complaint) would be the casting of Tom Burke as Athos. Not because he's a bad actor, or because I'm trying to suggest that white people weren't in Paris of the 1700s or anything, but because he has a visible scar from the surgery to correct his cleft lip as a child. That surgery wasn't invented until over a hundred years after the story takes place. So, technically it is an anachronism.

But no one cares. I mean, most people don't know things like that, but still, no one cares. Why should they? Tom Burke is an excellent actor, and his Athos is complex, deep, and moving. I really like him, and I think he's brilliantly cast. So is Howard Charles, and Santiago Cabrera, and Luke Pasqualino. They're all perfectly cast. Quibbling about the accuracy or inaccuracy of that casting is a bit like complaining that the baker used the wrong brand of sugar in your delicious cake. Is the cake still delicious? Then eat a piece and shut up.

I do think, though, that I understand where these racists, and there is no other word for them, are coming from. It's so easy to romanticize The Three Musketeers. After all, this is a story about men of honor fighting to protect the king. It's romantic. They swashbuckle and seduce the ladies and are always carefree and chivalrous and right. The story, at least as we remember it, is easy. It's fun. You don't have to think very hard, and it lets you imagine a time when ladies wore beautiful dresses and went to balls, and the men were all handsome and clever, and everyone was happy.

That time never existed, and thank goodness that the BBC show refuses to admit it did.

Let's be real: the world has always been a pretty crummy place. At least now we have indoor plumbing. While I love a good swashbuckle as much as the next girl (probably more), I love much more the idea of representing a world that actually existed. A world that is dirty and smelly and complicated. Where Cardinal Richelieu is always conniving, but not always wrong. Where race and class are issues that really are addressed, and regularly, because these are huge factors in people's lives.

I prefer stories like this, because when you show the pain and sorrow and frustration of the world as it really is or really was, then that makes the heroism shine all the brighter. The world in Disney's Three Musketeers is very nice and shiny and happy, and as a result, the actions in that movie feel trivial. There's no real sacrifice involved in choosing to fight for good. It's all fine. It's nice. It's clean.

This story has dirt and sweat and blood, and as a result, it matters that the Musketeers choose to stand up for honor and justice. It matters because it costs them something. I would far rather have that, and take a few lumps along the way about my moral complicity, as a white person, in the effects of the slave trade, than pretend that everything's fine and get a watered down story as a result.

As I was reminded recently, the best stories are never nice.

One more thing before I go. (I will later go into details on how much I love the representation of female characters on this show, but that's another article in and of itself). When talking about race and colorblind casting in period shows, it's nearly impossible not to mention BBC's Merlin, which shocked some people when it cast Angel Coulby, a woman of color, as Guinevere, and Santiago Cabrera as Lancelot. And then it doubled down by casting Elyan, one of the knights, as a man of color, and not apologizing for any of this.

I love Merlin, I really do, and I absolutely love their casting choices. I love that they completely breeze past questions of whether or not it's historically accurate. Eat the damn cake, they seem to be saying, and so we eat the cake and it's great cake and everything is cool. Plus, as it turns out, the casting probably is quite accurate, so yay!

The only problem I really have with it is that, unlike The Musketeers, Merlin never addresses the race of its characters. I don't think it ever comes up. And while that's nice, it also feels a little cheap. I'm not saying I want people to make racist remarks in the show, or for any of the characters to be completely defined only as a person of color. That would be terrible. But I feel like it's a bit lazy to not include that in their character at all. Yes, it's bad to make a minority character who is only defined by their minority status. But it is also problematic to make a minority character who is utterly unaffected by their minority status, and who doesn't even seem aware of it. It works in Merlin, but I am grateful to The Musketeers for not going that route, and for being brave enough to talk about race and class and the dirty stuff that makes us uncomfortable.

Because if we never talk about it, how is it going to change?

This is totally off-topic, but doesn't Luke Pasqualino totally look like Tyler Posey? They should play brothers.

*Edited on 7.20.14 to correct a mistake. I said Santiago Cabrera was from Argentina. He is actually from Chile. Whoops!

13 comments:

  1. Given the content of the post it should probably be pointed out that Santiago Cabrera is not, in fact, Argentinian but Chilean

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  2. I will admit, I had to double check his IMDB profile after I read this article, but it kept nagging at me as not being right, so I did

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  3. This and your article on the female characters relating to transactional marriage has convinced me to watch the show, since I too, have had a crush on Santiago Cabrera since Heroes and I think he plays a lot of underappreciated characters.

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    1. Yessssss. You should definitely watch it. Because not only is it super aware of race and sex and all that important stuff, it's also fun. Which is just so wonderful.

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  4. Found this article late, but YES. I will also say that -- particularly with the second series -- people raised issues with the treatment of the female characters, but I think that for the most part the show is good about giving them things to do without ignoring the realities of women's limited roles in society at the time.

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    1. I think they try, which is half the battle. I mean, I will give a lot more leeway to a show I think is genuinely putting the effort in over one that's just blowing off the concerns of its audience.

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  5. I have really been loving this show. I just started streaming it last week. However my issue with historic accuracy is only one major flaw, Elizabeth I of England is not the King of France sister. The Elizabeth that is would be Queen Concort to Spain

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  6. I have really been loving this show. I just started streaming it last week. However my issue with historic accuracy is only one major flaw, Elizabeth I of England is not the King of France sister. The Elizabeth that is would be Queen Concort to Spain

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  7. A great article. I love the fact that they have so many characters of colour and adress it. Howard Charles is a great actor. And the female characters are so amazing too. You are so right, the only thing not historically accurate is Tom Burke's lip, but who cares? I would like to read your opinion on the last season. I just watched it and thought it was the best.

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