In the cinema and TV shows of recent years, it is customary to rethink history: we are shown the dark-skinned Gagarin in the French film of the same name, Count Orlov in The Great, and people of Asian appearance among the English nobility of the 19th century. Film critic Ivan Afanasyev explains why the “new shades” of historical realities traumatize Russians so much - and why we stand up for “reliability”.
In February, Russian social media users were excited by a shot from a new series in which Anne Boleyn is played by black actress Jodie Turner-Smith. In January, a similar thing happened with the Bridgertons series: the writer Tatyana Tolstaya was outraged by the fact that “black” aristocrats had entered the British high society of the XIX century, and Queen Charlotte was played by a mulatto. And in May 2020, a scandal erupted around the shocking costume show "Great": among other liberties, there was a dark-skinned Count Orlov from the city of Rostov-on-Congo!
Of course, there were other complaints about these series, but it was the skin color of the characters that triggered the defenders of "historical accuracy."
Film critic Maria Kuvshinova wrote an article that nagging about skin color in historical cinema is caused solely by intolerance for violating only certain established dogmas. The key word here is “certain”: Tolstaya also spoke about the discrepancy between the suits in “Bridgertons” and the fashion of that era (“senseless tightening of corsets while fashionable for Empire dresses”) - but for some reason the public does not stand up to defend the Empire style.
Why do we resent some manipulations of history and leave others indifferent?
Credibility versus "prettiness": what does the viewer choose?
In 1813, when the Bridgertons were in action, there was no proper sewer in London. People relieved themselves in pots or in cesspools. The contents of the pits outside the city limits were taken out by sewers - people called them nightmen, that is, "night lights", because they were allowed to work only while everyone was asleep.
In 1815, it was decided to unload feces directly into the Thames. Londoners used the water from the river for washing and cooking. They began to systematically filter water in the middle of the 19th century, and a full-fledged sewage system appeared only in 1865.
Imagine how things were with personal hygiene at a time when the action takes place in historical series and films. Acne and pockmarks were the norm not only among the lower strata of the population, but also among the aristocracy. To hide the painful redness on the skin and preserve the classic "Victorian face" (pale velvety skin "without pores" and a slight blush), ladies in the early 19th century used a powder containing lead. And they blushed with means based on cinnabar (mercury sulfide). Men also tried to dress up and hide their physical disabilities.
Now remember the beautiful and well-groomed characters in almost any historical film. How they look, for example, in moments of intimacy: clean, hot, ruddy, with delicate pinkish skin that shines in the light of candles.
Women - with clean-shaven legs (in reality, they did not do depilation, anyway, nothing is visible under long skirts). Of course, "it was not like that"!
Before the Bridgertons, the historical inconsistency of cinema with the era depicted did not provoke such heated discussions among ordinary viewers and only outraged historians and costume designers. The example of skin condition and general hygiene in Victorian England is one of the many blunders made by the producers of costume films and TV shows. But for some reason, no one has any questions as to why in the film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, everyone without exception looks like well-groomed people of the 21st century: with a healthy blush, without a single flaw or the slightest sign of a "pale face" characteristic of the aristocracy of that time.
But everyone was terribly embarrassed by the dark-skinned Anna Boleyn in the next film adaptation of her biography!
On this score, there is an opinion that "in historical cinema, one should strive for authenticity, at least where possible." Simply put: there is an opportunity to choose an actor with white skin for the role of a white-skinned character - take him. And the opportunity is always there. An excellent idea, if you think about it!
What prevents directors and producers in this case from meeting lovers of authenticity and turning all the characters into mummies, abundantly sprinkled with lead powder? Why not make the ladies of high society really grimace at the awful smell of sweat. Coming from gentlemen who just played backyard cricket? After all, as you know, the first antiperspirants appeared only at the end of the 19th century. Why not “decorate” ladies' snow-white outfits with monthly spots? By the way, washing the perineum - as well as washing in general - in those days was still considered a direct path to infertility! Why not show it in detail?
Putting on actors a simple makeup that imitates smallpox is much easier than finding an actor similar to the depicted historical character - if only because not all good artists will necessarily be like him.
But why do the creators often forget about naturalistic make-up, but not about finding a suitable, similar and attractive actor for the viewer?
“Because no one is pleased to look at the body's secretions, at patients with consumption and at dirty sweaty people, but beautiful, clean, well-dressed artists are very pleasant,” the absolute majority will answer.
Therefore, it is impossible to find (and, possibly, create) a film that will reliably reflect its era from and to. As Maria Kuvshinova correctly noted, modern film and television productions are subject to market laws, which imply that the final product will be attractive to the viewer - and this often contradicts the requirement of reliability. It turns out that a dark-skinned actress playing a white character is as unpleasant for the viewer to look at as the acne face of a typical Londoner of the 19th century?
This suggests a completely logical thought: the gravitation towards the "historical truth" is often covered up with completely different things - for example, racism.
Why history is not an exact science
There are not so many unambiguous answers in history - this is not mathematics or physics. For example, half a century ago it was impossible to imagine that many things in Soviet politics could be perceived by the citizens of our country as something wrong and destructive. And today we know how much terrible was happening in the country.
Scientists are rethinking facts - school textbooks are also being rewritten. Following the political changes, the historical "truth" is also being transformed.
Consequently, there are no reliable films about the past and cannot be: rather, such works of art play up history in the spirit of their time.
Historical reconstructions are closer to reality, but they are unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than history students, professional historians and museum workers. And directors and producers don't need literal reconstruction - why?
Sometimes you can hear complaints: before, they say, they shot historical films, classics, but now what? And the same thing: such a "classic" as the Soviet film "Admiral Nakhimov" by Vsevolod Pudovkin in 1946 did not so much retell the biography of the famous naval commander. How many "advertised" the order of the same name, approved two years earlier. This is an openly propaganda film that now looks archaic. Historians could find fault with at least how the people of the 19th century speak there - like hardened Soviet nomenklatura leaders with a stylization of the speech of that time. And many will take it at face value - because this is a familiar historical inaccuracy, in the Soviet style familiar to many.
Why is it dangerous to confuse cinema and reality
And here is an example of unusual unreliability - "Death of Stalin", a radical tragicomedy by Armando Iannucci. Everything in it is not true at all: starting with Zhukov, rushing around the Kremlin with an AK-47 at the ready, ending with the very idea of political games over the corpse of the generalissimo. In an open letter to the then Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, opponents of the film, including directors Nikita Mikhalkov and Vladimir Bortko, reported that Death of Stalin “is a libel on the history of our country, a spiteful and completely inappropriate supposedly“ comedy ”. Blackening the memory of our citizens who defeated fascism. "
But the creators of The Death of Stalin do not even call it a historical movie. Iannucci's film genre is defined as political satire black comedy - "black comedy with political satire." The film did not strive for historical reconstruction, but is devoted to contemporary problems, which he looks at through the prism of a popular political marker - the figure of Stalin in modern culture and totalitarianism in general.
And if the mockery of the Soviet leader offends all of us, then what to do with the film of the same Nikita Mikhalkov "Burnt by the Sun - 2", in which the division commander Kotov dips the leader of the people with his face in the cake in a rather comical manner? Maybe he tarnishes the memory of our grandfathers. Who fought for Comrade Dzhugashvili?
Why does the average viewer perceive "Death of Stalin" as an attempt on the truth? For one simple reason: he decided that since this is a historical film, the creators are trying to impose on him some false information about the history!
That is, before us is an insidious deception and misleading. But the delusion is to confuse feature films with reality.
Why it is useful to "distort" history
For a part of the conservative public, the figure of the same Stalin, for all his ambiguity, is something unshakable, sacred - like Lenin, the baptism of Russia or the work of Alla Borisovna Pugacheva. In about the same way, in the French tradition, it is not customary to joke with the Great Revolution and the origin of the croissant recipe, in the USA - with the Declaration of Independence and the figure of Abraham Lincoln. But in Great Britain, where Death of Stalin and the TV series about Anne Boleyn were filmed, everything is much simpler. For the British, there is one and only unshakable symbol, which, as long as the country holds on to the monarchy, is forbidden to be subjected to any comprehension - this is the tragically deceased Princess Diana. Everything else has long been ridiculed by Monty Python.
Therefore, it is a trifling matter for them to take on the role of a key figure in the political and religious upheavals of the 16th century in England. Anne Boleyn's skin color - as well as the course of the Reformation - will not change from this, and textbooks will not be rewritten.
Of course, boring British historians will definitely remind who was who (and Russian "experts" in English history, of course, will help them).
And why is this necessary, many ask. And then, that this gives a chance to a whole stratum of society - the colored population, which for a long time remained aloof from the "historical entertainment culture" - to finally get into costume films that they had never been able to access. Isn't this the task of real art, which is cinema (and in the last few years, TV shows) - to make people's lives better, start a dialogue, initiate long-overdue social changes and help express themselves to those who did not have such an opportunity before?
Moreover, the genre of a historical film is as vague a term as the concept of "historical accuracy" in cinema. After all, no one in the United States scolds Clint Eastwood for not doing his westerns the way they teach them in schools. Moreover, no one would even think of calling him a bad director for giving the image of good old America to those who need it now.