That Isn’t Right

It occurs to me that this post (in which I had a go at ‘The Reign of Terror’ for giving us a thoroughly reactionary and misleading picture of the French Revolution) should’ve been called ‘That Isn’t Right’. So I’ve given that title to this post instead, which is also about all manner of wrongness in the representation of history.

I wasn’t going out on much a limb dissing ‘The Reign of Terror’ (the acronym of which is TROT, amusingly enough); nobody is terribly attached to it.  ‘The Aztecs’, by contrast, is one of those stories that fan opinion tends to think of as irreducibly Good.  It isn’t that everybody likes it, but anyone trying to say that it’s Bad definitely has the burden of proof upon them.

I’m not actually going to say that it’s bad, as such.  On the whole, it’s very well made.  But….

Black and White and Red All Over

“Tell me, Aged Servant of Yetaxa…
do you approve of interracial marriage?”

Firstly, the Aztecs are played by white people.  It’s not easy to tell for sure, but it looks like at least some of the actors are ‘darked-up’ (what would you call it… bronzeface?).  It seems probable, from looking at colour photos of the actors on set, that they’ve been reddened.  But even if they weren’t actually made-up, they were still representing Aztecs one way or another.  Costume, ostensibly ‘native’ mannerisms and speech patterns, etc.  It amounts to the same thing, or at least something very similar.  Remember, not all blackface involves actual ‘darking-up’.  These days, many understand the word and its variants to connote any situation in which the dominant culture reveals its inbuilt privilges (i.e. racism, ableism) by having someone not in an oppressed group representing that oppressed group, whether in overtly parodic form or not.  As China Miéville has observed, the Armstrong & Miller RAF sketches (while funny, at least once upon a time) employ a deeply reactionary verbal “modern blackface” by putting speech idioms associated with young, urban kids (who, if they’re not black, have supposedly absorbed aspects of black culture and speech) into the mouths of ‘the Few’, thus implicitly comparing today’s supposedly self-obsessed, aimless, pampered, ‘entitled’ youngsters with the generation of the “finest hour”.  Miéville points out that such juxtapositions (old, white, middle/upper class guys ‘putting on’ verbal fancy dress such as “innit”) are the standard obsession of Radio 4 comedy panel shows.  The more overtly sinister version of these same assumptions was expressed with typically boorish reactionary truculence by Dr David Starkey on Newsnight after the riots in 2011.

While blackface and its variants were on the wane in America from the 50s onwards (even before the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, which of course sharpened such unease), the use of ‘darking-up’ was less likely to be seen as problematic in Europe when ‘The Aztecs’ (and other similar historical stories of the same era) got made.  Even so, it’s far too glib to say that there was no way anyone at the BBC could have questioned the practice. …

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