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Let’s make sure we cast BAME actors in authentic roles

February 22, 2020

Laurence Fox’s ill-informed comments about the appearance of a Sikh soldier in the gripping World War One drama 1917 sparked a debate about the need for more roles for actors from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds. Some of the responses raise the spectre of lazy casting undermining the authenticity of the BAME story in British society.

Let’s take WW1.

Of course, there were Sikhs fighting on the Western Front. There were many Indian regiments – Sikh, Muslim and Hindu – deployed in all theatres of the war. They were, however, separate regiments and not integrated with British Army regiments. The appearance of a Sikh soldier in a lorry carrying white British troops probably wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, although one could quibble that he would have been in a slightly different uniform. He would have been quickly returned to his own unit, however.

Had he been wounded he would have been taken to a separate Indian Field Ambulance and would not have been treated in the British Field Hospital shown in the closing sequences of the film. The separation of the medical facilities with the Royal Army Medical Corps running the hospitals for British (white) soldiers and the Indian Medical Service running those for Indian soldiers was inefficient and part of what we would now call the institutional racism endemic in the British Empire.

An Indian Field Ambulance in Mesopotamia in 1916

It was not until the latter stages of the war that Combined medical units were formed but even they still had separate Indian wards, a division that continued into the Second World War. It took another battle to allow highly qualified British nurses to treat the Indian soldiers in these Combined hospitals so that they received the same quality of care as their British Army counterparts. All of these facts are evidenced in my book Fighting for the Empire, the story of an Irish Catholic doctor who joined the Indian Medical Service and fought the worst consequences of this institutional racism. Doctors who chose to serve in the IMS were often looked down on by their supposed colleagues in the RAMC and dismissed as “Sikh fellows”, the implication being they had in some way gone native. That was the reality of early 20th century British attitudes to race even when BAME soldiers were laying down their lives for the Empire.

There are some great stories to be told about the heroism of soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds. A handful even made the breakthrough into the mainstream British Army, the most outstanding being the black professional footballer Walter Tull. He was actually commissioned as a second lieutenant and was killed in France in March 1918. All through his career as a footballer and as a soldier he had to fight discrimination and prejudice.

Where does this leave the film industry?

Quite simply, it needs to keep hold of authenticity. The response to the legitimate complaints about the lack of substantial roles, at least in historical films such as 1917, should not just to be to cast a few more BAME actors in a way that masks or blunts the struggles they faced. It must be about authenticity. Anything less will do all of us a great disservice.

From → Publishing

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