HBO’s House of the Dragon and woke casting, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Once upon a time, HBO’s House of the Dragon was praised for its commitment to diversity, and anyone who disagreed was attacked as a racist, but suddenly the woke have completely changed direction, and they’re now claiming black story lines haven’t been given the proper respect, wondering whether black people should watch the show at all.  I’d say it’s surprising, but…

Both HBO’s House of the Dragon and Amazon’s Rings of Power were praised in the mainstream media for the diversity of their casts.  Fantasy, if not television in general, were too white we were told and were not reflective of today’s modern world.  The only way to rectify the problem was to change the races of key characters and the showrunners for both series readily embraced this point of view.  House of the Dragon’s Ryan J. Condal explained his thinking to The Hollywood Reporter, “We knew from the outset that we wanted to change that conversation. The world changed a lot between 2011 and 2021 and [so did] what audiences expect to see on camera. The conversations Miguel and I had were: How do we create a diverse cast for ‘House of the Dragon’ but still do it in a way that feels organic to the world and doesn’t feel like pandering or tokenism — and also have them not be pirates, slaves and mercenaries like you tend to see in high fantasies?”  To “fix” this problem, the showrunners cast black actors in the role of a major family, the Velaryons, one of the realms wealthiest and most powerful, second only to the ruling Targaryens.  Steve Toussaint was selected to play Lord Corlys Velaryon, also known as the Sea Snake.  He too embraced the diversity point of view, claiming “I loved ‘Game of Thrones,’ but my only caveat was, ‘Where’s everybody else in this world? Because it’s a diverse world Martin has created if you look [beyond Westeros], and I think this show comes closer to that.”  The casting decisions were backed by a more diverse production team, and the mainstream media almost universally cheered.  ABC News reported, “‘Game of Thrones’ prequel keeps dragons, adds diversity,” noting that the show was “set to forge its own storytelling path.”  Slash Film opined that House of the Dragon “fixes” Game of Thrones “diversity problem,” saying that the show “made a conscious effort to avoid the diversity problem that plagued ‘Game of Thrones’ throughout its run.”

Further, anyone who questioned the wisdom of these decisions, voicing concerns that changing the races of major characters would affect the carefully constructed mythology and history of these fantasy universes, was immediately branded a racist.  Angie Speaks, co-host of the Low Society Podcast and a black woman herself, summed up the fantasy purists view nicely for Newsweek.  “The new prequel, House of the Dragon, has by contrast been praised by critics for ‘fixing” Game of Thrones’ diversity problem, which many even blamed Martin himself for.  And therein lies the irony. For in its clumsy, pro-forma insinuation of diverse actors that makes little sense in the context of the plot, it is House of the Dragon that is committing the race crime, while Martin’s source material had a deep, rich, and sensitive approach to incorporating racial difference in his books.”  She continued, “As a person obsessed with fantasy and sci-fi who as a young girl longed to see people who looked like me cast in my favorite shows and movies, I understand the importance of representation. And yet, the marketing decisions around diversity casting in fantasy are often responding to a cultural and political climate where art and entertainment is solely valued based on signaling political allegiance to changing social conventions.  This is the opposite of the goal of diverse representation, which is all expanding art’s universal appeal—something that is undermined when Black actors are stuck into explicitly white roles with no concern for plot or whether it makes sense.”  This point of view was almost universally rejected.  As Mr. Toussaint himself described it, “I didn’t realize [the casting] was a big deal until I was racially abused on social media. Yeah, that s**t happened. I was just like, ‘Oh wow,’ and then I thought: ‘OK, so this means a lot to some people, but I can’t allow that to bother me.’”  Whoopi Goldberg stepped into the fray as well, saying “Are you telling me Black people can’t be fake people, too?”  As she saw it, “I want to start by saying: These are not real.  There are no dragons, there are no hobbits, and there are critics who are saying they were too woke by adding — yes — diverse characters. Are you telling me Black people can’t be fake people, too?”

In principle, there is some merit to this claim.  Fantasy isn’t real and representation can certainly matter.  Shakespeare’s plays have been produced with some degree of mixed race casting for almost two hundred years.  More recently, acclaimed actor Denzel Washington has portrayed two traditionally white roles on screen.  First, in Kenneth Branagh’s charming Much Ado About Nothing in 1993, and just last year in Joel Cohen’s stark adaptation of Macbeth.  No one that I’m aware of had a problem with either because the casting was not perceived as a political statement and both adaptations hewed closely to Shakespeare’s original text, preserving his mastery of language and character.  Putting this another away, whether or not Mr. Washington is black, white, yellow, or purple, the director stayed true to Shakespeare’s vision.  Watching either movie, you aren’t concerned about Mr. Washington’s skin color.  It never occurs to me at least that Macbeth might actually the descendent of slaves because of the casting choice, or that Don Pedro’s flirtations with Beatrice would be considered miscegenation in the time period.  The performance and the quality of the end product were all that mattered.  There was no racial “baggage,” a legacy of systemic racism, the plight of the disadvantaged or marginalized, or whatever social justice phrase you would like to place there to speak of.  Likewise, we can imagine a world where black and other minority actors could be cast in high-profile fantasy shows the same way they’ve been in Shakespeare.  Personally, I believe Mr. Toussaint is a fine actor with the appropriate gravitas for the role of the Sea Snake.  John McMillan, who portrayed his son, Laenor, brought a boyish charm and sensitivity to a nuanced portrayal of a gay military veteran trapped in a marriage of convenience and a power structure that denies homosexuality exists.  Wil Johnson combined the necessary outrage and command upon learning Driftmark, the Velaryon seat of power, was going to be inherited by a bastard.  Audiences should be intellectually adept enough to enjoy a black actor playing these and other roles while recognizing the world these events take place in is not our own.

Sadly, that is not the case for the woke.  They harangued previous shows for not being diverse enough, praised the new show for promoting a commitment to diversity, attacked everyone who believed diversity casting could conceivably have any downside, but suddenly they’ve completely changed direction.  They’re now busy attacking the more diverse show for not handling storylines featuring black actors with more respect.  I’d say you couldn’t make this up if you tried, but the outcome was all too predictable and so I was not surprised to discover Stephanie Holland’s diatribe on The Root, “House of the Dragon Proves It Knows Even Less About Black Characters Than Game of Thrones.”  She began by venting her frustrations, “Once again, the Game of Thrones universe has a problem with Black characters. I wish I was surprised, but after what they did to Jacob Anderson’s Grey Worm and Nathalie Emmanuel’s Missandei, I’m not.”  Ms. Holland claimed she was “hopeful when Steve Toussaint’s Corlys Velaryon made his presence known in House of the Dragon. In the first episode, he was introduced as the richest, most powerful man in Westeros, then he was immediately thrust into a story with the show’s main antagonist, Prince Daemon. It appeared that they were making his character and his family central to the plot.”  It wasn’t long, however, before Ms. Holland “knew this show wasn’t going to let House Velaryon be great.” Ultimately, the seventh episode “snuffed out all of [her] hopes and dreams.”  Her complaints include everything from the screen time reserved for these suddenly “black,” as in descended from slaves in America black, to the shortness of their story arcs and lack of character development.  Ms. Holland takes particular offense to a sequence in episode seven where a white character steals a dragon from a (not black because this is fantasy) black character.  “Laena and Daemon’s children won’t be treated any better. Literally, minutes after Laena was buried at sea, Alicent’s horrible son Aemond claims her dragon as his, stealing that right from her daughter, Baela. And he does it in that smug, entitled white guy way we’re all very familiar with.”

She concludes by insinuating these (fictional) characters have been treated by the creators this way because they are black, saying “Look, I don’t know if these characters were given such short shrift because they’re from the series’ one Black family,” meaning that is precisely what she believes.  Ms. Holland practically says it outright in the next sentence, because “the history of the universe…it certainly points to a glaring issue where POC are concerned.”  I shudder to think what Ms. Holland may do when she learns the fate of the Valeryons in general.  I haven’t read the source material for the new show, but the family does not make it to the timeline of Game of Thrones, a significant clue that they were wiped out in the events of House of the Dragon.  In the meantime, there is little doubt what Ms. Holland wants at this point.  She ended her article by questioning whether black people should watch the show at all, “House of the Dragon sidelined its one Black family for several episodes, then killed them and wrote them off in the course of one hour, leaving Black fans to wonder if this universe is worth their time and support.”  In other words, everything we were told about diversity in the lead up to the show was a lie.  The goal has never been to diversify the cast, but keep the overall spirit and mythology of the established fantasy universe.  It cannot be that because in George R.R. Martin’s creation there are no “POC” as we describe them in our own world.  Westeros is not the United States, having a history of slavery and segregation.  There are no white nationalists, no systemic racism, no critical race theory, social justice, or any of the progressive accouterments. The Valeryons are not the oppressed.  They are instead the oppressor.  They arrived in Westeros with the Targaryens, and proceeded to conquer the entire country, stealing and subjugating the seven kingdoms with the might of dragons.

By the logic of the woke, the whites of Westeros are the ones who should be clamoring for social justice, fighting to shake off the chains of an oppressive black family.  This is, of course, ridiculous, but the idea that their characters should be treated differently because of their race is the same as saying Denzel Washington’s Macbeth shouldn’t have been killed at the hands of Macduff.  The ending of the play should be different with a black person in the role because other people of color have been oppressed in Shakespeare’s universe, such as Othello.  The driving force behind the resistance among fantasy purists has always been this fear.  I admit that fantasy purists like myself can seem a strange lot.  My own family, many of whom are fans of elements of the fantasy genre, find it odd the amount of time I’ve invested in learning and discussing the details of these worlds.  There is a huge volume of material one needs to read to become even cursorily familiar in a genre where six or more books as part of a single story is the norm.  Robin Hobb for example has some sixteen books set in the complex Farseer universe, all with inter-related plots.  I cannot speak for other fantasy fans, but we do this because of the thrill of exploration, the feeling that the author has constructed a world as detailed as our own, and we have the chance to explore it from end to end.  Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien can discuss the history of Middle-earth as thoroughly as any religious scholar can the Old and the New Testament.  No one, or at least next to no one, objects to seeing black people and other minorities on screen in prominent roles, but we worried that it wouldn’t end there.  Something told us this wasn’t going to be simply about casting.  We believed the real goal was to forcibly inject progressive politics circa 2022 directly into the carefully constructed worlds we know and love via “woke casting.”  Guess what?  We were right.

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