Over the past six weeks the BBC has been showing their latest adaptation of Les Miserables (UK).
It seemed from the start that what a lot of people concerned themselves with was the colour of Inspector Javert’s skin – he was portrayed by David Oyelowo – and whether a black actor should be representing a copper in 19th century France.
Let’s not call anyone racist, as many folk are probably genuinely puzzled by his inclusion into this, perceived, #whiteworld. As a white person myself, I cannot help the world I grew up in – white family, white friends, white neighbourhood. I would guess that over 90% of children in my schools were white, but in my Primary school class there was one girl of Chinese parentage and one boy who was Black British. But overall it was a very white world.
This was not my choice. Children do not choose where they grow up. We are the result of our culture and upbringing. So if the people on social media question David Oyelowo’s casting, then let’s accept it as simply that – questioning.
It’s the naysayers who can make things uncomfortable for the rest of us white folk. “No!” they say, “No way could a black guy become a police officer in that period.”
One of the things Victor Hugo hi-lights in his story, is the way people are born into a class system and, mostly, die in that class they were born to. However, some rise above it. Jean Valjean, a convict, rises at one point to become Mayor of a small town. Inspector Javert was born in a prison to a Fortune-Teller mother, his father is also a prisoner. His beginnings suggest that he may never rise to the top of the class system, but he becomes a law enforcer, and this world has it’s own hierarchy. For one man, change is the force that makes him a better man, for the other it is what breaks him.
Most people will have heard of Alexandre Dumas; author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. A similar thing happened when his books were made into films and TV shows – at least in the UK – white actors all. And yet, Dumas was himself a Person of Colour. Are we to believe that he only wrote white characters?
And what about that claim that black people could not rise to prominence?
Dumas’ own father, became a military General and served with distinction. In 1879, Severiano de Heredia became president of the municipal council of Paris – he was bi-racial. Blaise Diagne was a Senegalese–French political leader and the Mayor of Dakar. He was the first black African to hold a position in French government in early 20th century (in 1899 he also became a Freemason!) There are other examples.
In the UK, Norwell Roberts was the first black officer in the Metropolitan Police force – 1967. However, recent research has revealed that actually, one of our first (recorded) black officers was John Kent, who served from 1837 in Carlisle. The point is this –
Yes, a black person could have become a police officer in 19th century France!
We must also remember that this production – Les Miserables by the BBC, is entertainment. And the actors are just that, actors. They aren’t really those things they portray, so some level of flexibility of mind is not a great ask. For my part, I thought Oyelowo portrayed Javert wonderfully. Rigid with indignation, self-satisfaction, obsession and possibly shame, he cannot, he realises, continue after experiencing the self-sacrifice of Jean Valjean. That final moment we see as he determines to commit suicide, the agony of his inability to commit himself to the act – then the clarity of understanding that his life has been wasted – he could have been a better man – and finally truth descends, no more tears, he is ready to die.
Also, in the spirit of Victor Hugo and his representations of the struggles of humanity – might we not come to be less poor of mind and spirit ourselves; as well as physicality and station in life, if we could just be more accepting and open-minded about each other – regardless of skin colour? If we do not open ourselves up to possibilities and change, if we retain and do not question what we learnt in our childhoods, then might we all just be Javerts?
*Three images of David Oyelowo from BBC iPlayer – https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer