Image: Mariana JM via Unsplash
Netflix’s latest film adaptation follows the first novel in the Enola Holmes series, author Nancy Springer’s adaptation of the classic Sherlock Holmes adventures. Springer’s adaptation centres itself around Enola, the forgotten younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft, in what can only be described as a feminist twist.
Enola is a charismatic, rebellious and intelligent teenage girl, facing the threat of being sent to finishing school by her oldest brother Mycroft. This follows her mother’s abandonment of the family estate to join the Suffragette movement in London, leaving a trail of clues in her wake for Enola to decode. As Enola runs from the oppressive life that Mycroft aspires to condemn her to, she meets Lord Tewkesbury, a boy of around the same age who is also running away. Tewkesbury is instead running from an aristocratic family who disagrees with his politics, who want him to abandon his place in the House of Lords so that his uncle can instead vote in favour of the family's own classist and sexist interests. This is all while the House of Lords is split on their decision to enact the 1884 Representation of the People Act, which laid the foundations of Women’s suffrage.
The Netflix adaptation (screenplay by Jack Thorne, directed by Harry Bradbeer,) has been relatively well-received - Millie Bobby Brown as Enola is, as critic Loughrey wrote, ‘part-Austen Heroine, part-#GirlBoss.’ But this is where I would argue things become problematic. The ‘Austen heroine’ seems a very apt description for a wealthy white young woman whose trajectory I, as a poor brown young woman, am supposed to admire. It could be said that my identity as a woman of colour in this country is simply never going to be reflected by pop culture. After all, between Ackley Bridge and I May Destroy You, I would argue that there are very few authentic and holistic representations of young women of colour in recent media. But even when I concede this fact, the Period piece as a genre itself still presents challenges.
Where things go wrong is the film’s failure in reckoning with the violence of racism. Eudoria, Enola’s mother, played by the ever-brilliant Helena Bonham-Carter, is a suffragette, but the British Suffragette Movement was plagued by imperialism and racism. For example, Emmeline Pankhurst’s political party that she started with daughter Christabel in 1918, the Women’s Party, was categorically anti-immigrant, and the suffragette movement within the British Empire was based on the colonial idea that the white British could save the Indian, Australian and New Zealander women from their backwards societies. In perhaps a more insidious way, the US Suffragettes blatantly refused to let Black women attend their protests, and many leading figures were anti Civil Rights. This is not something explored in the film.
Another thing which confused me was the tokenistic casting of two of the supporting characters: Edith, played by Susan Wokoma (who you might remember as Cynthia in Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum), and Lestrade, played by Adeel Akhtar. Edith, who teaches women self-defence in the attic of her café, is not a character whose blackness is ever discussed, yet she becomes the mouthpiece of the Suffragettes when in conversation with Sherlock. Race is never discussed in the film, (though in a way, it could have been quite easily, given the presence of Indian women in the Suffragette movement), so it fails to represent an intersectional form of feminism for this very reason. Edith is a non-racialised character and Wokoma’s race is supposed to be seen as neutral, or in other words, white. Non-coloured. This is down to the fact that in this context, where race isn't supposed to matter, (1800s England,) it does.
We simply cannot imagine contexts free from the divisions of race. Take John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars. In his recent GQ interview, he explains how his character was marketed as being a significant role, but his character was given no nuance and he was ‘pushed to the sidelines’. He was essentially used as a marketing tool to bring in new (racially diverse) viewers. As he puts on a costume, he is supposed to be seen as a non-racialized character in a non-racialised universe, but we know that this is not how race works.
Even in contexts where race isn’t supposed to exist, we see the violence of racism played out in the way in which films are received. Boyega was opened up to horrific racist abuse by Star Wars fans, and nothing meaningful could be done about it. So as well as putting on the costume of the character, actors of colour attempt to put on the costume of whiteness.
Yet when the curtains close and the actors all go home, they still face the acts of violence inherent in a systemically racist society. Where does this leave us? What use is it, pretending that race doesn't exist in a film, that's written for an audience in which it does? Representation for representation’s sake, for this reason, is damaging, yet seems endemic to the film industry. Black Panther was praised and loved because it was a positive and restorative portrayal of blackness, not just portrayal itself.
Equally puzzling as Wokoma’s casting is Akhtar’s portrayal of a police officer, given the inherent racism towards people of colour within the justice system, which we have been reminded of by the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement (Akhtar being half-Kenyan and half-Pakistani). This reversal of roles - where the victim becomes the abuser - does not sit comfortably, particularly because of the way that real officers of colour are discriminated against, many having left the profession and condemning their treatment by racist bosses. Perhaps it could have made more sense in a more modern context, but in this particular instance it just seems like another diversity hire.
My question is, what does drama look like for actors of colour in 2020, beyond tokenistic representation? Is the process of ignoring race as a character trait not just a further way to impose whiteness as an ideal? Do actors of colour have any role to play within white media, or is it time to write our own stories, more Black Panthers and less Enola Holmeses?
Pankhurst’s infamous line, ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’, seems reminiscent of Enola - she rebels against the patriarchal society that Mycroft imposes on her, but her life at boarding school is actually not that bad. It is certainly not comparable to the life of women living in Britain’s colonies - their countries and in many cases, their bodies, having been colonised by the British - or even to the white working-class women living and struggling in the same country that Enola travels through.
Between failing to explore Eudoria’s ideas of political revolution, and the ultimate dependence on Tewkesbury, (a man) to vote in favour of women’s rights, and crank the wheel of social progress, it sadly fails at being a thoughtful representation of feminism. And it begs the question of if a rich white woman’s story can be a progressive feminist story at all.
Edited by Ellie Muir