by Shane Thomas

CONTENT NOTE: This piece contains plot spoilers, and some of the embedded links are NSFW.

With the news that Ghostbusters is to be remade with an all-female cast, I’ve been pondering the topic of movie remakes. For some, the notion of remaking a heralded story from the past is creative heresy.

However, I’ve never been against remakes per se. I’m of the opinion that films like Scarface and Let the Right One In were improved by being remade[1]. I’m also a proponent of a remake having a more inclusive prism, which is why I’m looking forward to seeing what Paul Feig does with Ghostbusters.

So, with this in mind, here’s four movies that I think would lend nicely to a remake that puts people of colour at their centre:

 TRADING PLACES

Trading-PlacesWhile it’s regarded as one of the finest comedies of its era, I found it an uneven rendering of what is an excellent premise: The female characters are used largely for decorative purposes; after shining in the early scenes, Eddie Murphy is reduced to being Dan Aykroyd’s sidekick; and lest we forget the horrendous blackface sequence.

My idea would be to keep the original setting. The financial district remains an ideal place to delve into the murky world of Western capitalist finance. However, like Ghostbusters, we change the genders of Winthorpe and Valentine from male to female. This allows us to highlight issues like unequal pay, along lines of both gender and race.

While white cis women on average earn less that their white cis male counterparts, that gap widens for both black and Latina women. The Winthorpe character could be the model token woman in the corporate world, in the mould of a Sheryl Sandberg, while Valentine could be a razor-sharp, working-class black woman, with a little bit of ratchet.

What Trading Places did so well was reveal how corporate employees are as disposable as cigarette butts, seen as nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet. I feel this shabby treatment could hit closer to home with two female leads, as it would underscore the way women are trampled over as a quotidian part of our society.

New+York+Magazine+Cut+Fashion+Week+Party+ysmPutwlGgclUnlike the original, I’d want there to be equal attention on both main characters, so that even when our female Valentine climbs the professional ladder, we not only see that her race will forever be a hindrance to career progress, but also accent the inner turmoil a black person can sometimes feel being the token face in a white space.

And when our protagonists get their revenge at the end, they could do so by exploiting the weak regulation of the financial system in order to bankrupt Randolph and Mortimer.

So, who’s our leads? Rachel McAdams as Winthorpe, while Jessica Williams would play Valentine. It’s a box-office smash waiting to happen.

 

CLEOPATRA

downloadThe warranted side-eyeing Exodus: Gods and Kings received was the latest in a litany of Hollywood whitewashing African stories. One of the most prominent examples is 1963’s Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Unlike the other movies on this list, an update of Cleopatra isn’t a hypothetical. History is set to repeat itself with Angelina Jolie strongly rumoured to play the titular Egyptian queen.

While Jolie has the acting skill to carry off such a role, it would only serve to ossify the pervasive whiteness of mainstream American cinema[2]. The character of Cleopatra radiates an iconic status, in terms of both gravitas and beauty. Rebecca Theodore-Vachon superbly attested the significance of casting Cleopatra as a woman of colour.

But who? Because more than just a good actor will be needed for this role. It also requires a movie-star quality. This is an important distinction. A movie star has a magnetic effervescence, an imperceptible glow that ensures they remain the centre of attention. Lupita-Nyongo-Hair-Makeup-SAG-Awards-2015

I think Teyonah Parris or Tracey Heggins[3] would ably fulfil this criteria, but there’s one very obvious choice; Lupita Nyong’o.

Cleopatra could be the role of her career. Just imagine her giving the, “You will kneel” speech to an agog Mark Antony.

12 ANGRY MEN

I’m a sucker for a courtroom drama. They function as arenas of combat, but without physical violence. A  place where one’s words and wits are the weapons of choice.

I imagine many film purists have seen this on the list, and are already composing irate responses in the  comments section. For clarity’s sake, I think 12 Angry Men is a bona-fide classic, worthy of all the  superlatives bestowed upon it. But while a remake may not be a better story, it could be an equally important one.

In his review of the film, the late, great, Roger Ebert said, “In form, ’12 Angry Men’ is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it’s a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.”

To piggyback this point, 12 Angry Men always felt like an acid test for who counts as fully human through the eyes of the dominant culture. The marginalised are always on trial, and not only would a remake solidify this metaphor, it would give us a snapshot of contemporary America.

jesse2Obviously, the jury would not singularly consist of men this time. In fact, while credulity may be stretched, I’d take the creative licence to have the jury include a mixture of America’s citizens, along lines of race, gender identity, and disability. My ideal cast would include actors like Laverne Cox, Bradley Whitford, Sandra Oh, Peter Dinklage and Dileep Rao.

What would remain from the original is the claustrophobic tension, as the jury room becomes a space where – like a diamond squeezed from coal – hidden bigotry spurts forth. We would also have the chance to interrogate the notion of reasonable doubt, and just who in our society is entitled to it.

And among it all is our lead. In the original, Henry Fonda played a character who was erudite, virtuous, with a strong moral constancy. Who could embody such qualities this time? Step forward, Jesse Williams.

 BRASSED OFF

Brassed-Off-posterA film that never got sufficient praise, Brassed Off is about a Northern coal miners brass band, torn apart as the rampant closure of pits in the North of England caused mass unemployment under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

In this proposed remake, I’d keep the band, but change it to a group of diasporic Caribbean steel band players. And instead of a pit closure, we would see the imminent demolition of the local housing estate in which our characters live, causing inevitable displacement.

Tensions among the residents could result in a schism between those who want to remain, and those who want to take the money from the property developers. All the while, the steel band are the only thing holding the neighbourhood together, a point of pride for a community that’s being splintered by neoliberal greed.

Full disclosure, here. I was part of a steel band as a kid. It’s only with hindsight that I appreciate its cultural relevance. You see it at the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s not only an affirmation of one’s diasporic identity, but can also function as a tool of resistance in a country where 1 in 3 Britons surveyed as being “racist on some level”.

The brass band in the original film compete in a national competition at the Royal Albert Hall, so a natural transition would be to move the competition to the aforementioned carnival, with songs like Yellow Bird, and Cocoanut Woman as key parts of their repertoire.

The original location must remain. Because while films centred around black Britons are rare, it’s rarer for them to be based outside London. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Britain’s black diaspora also exists outside the capital, so the cast would comprise of black actors from the north; Wumni Mosaku, Andrew Shim, Marsha Thomason, and Fisayo Akinade.

Akinade’s inclusion is significant. Part of the original story includes a romance between Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald. This time, the romance plot should be between two male members of the band. Not only because gay relationships are still “othered” in everyday storytelling, but it would help combat the fallacy that black people are more homophobic than other races.

cathy tyson headshot

Finally, I’d cast Cathy Tyson as the lead. The sadly departed Pete Postlethwaite did stellar work in the original. But Tyson has the sufficient acting chops to carry the story, and I’d love to see her given a similar speech to the one Postlethwaite gets at the film’s culmination. A speech that could easily apply to Britain circa 2015.

So, those were my suggestions. What’s yours? We have a comments section for a reason.

 

[1] – This is the first of many points in this piece that I imagine will cause my follower count on Twitter to rapidly decrease.

[2] – I await the person in the comments caping for Jolie’s WoC credentials by stating her mother has Huron ancestry.

[3] – Tracey who, you ask? Watch Medicine for Melancholy.

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.


A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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42 thoughts on “Imagined: Lupita Nyong’o as Cleopatra (and other film remakes we would love to see)

  1. Hi people from Reddit! Welcome to the social justice party! You’re all really late, where have you been? No matter, the party’s pretty quiet now, but come in anyway. For those of you who don’t want to stand, we’ve got some gender-neutral chairs still available. There’s anti-racist drinks in the fridge (alcoholic and non-alcoholic – I know some of you are driving), and you can leave your coats on the feminist coat rack in the corner.

    Right, then. I normally reply to people individually, but I’m going to handle this in one response, mainly because it’s the same points that are being made. The primary one being, “Cleopatra was Greek/Macedonian! How don’t you know that?? Read a history book!”

    Please everyone, find where I wrote that Cleopatra wasn’t any of these things? I know that may be a burden on your time, but I”m guessing that won’t be an issue for people who decided to comment on a piece written A YEAR AGO. While you’re searching for for words that don’t exist, because I never wrote them, let’s deal with the rest of the bugbears.

    – Black-washing, Lance? That’s what you’d call it? You seem very attached to how Cleopatra is depicted. That’s cool, as I’m sure you apply that mindset unilaterally with films like ‘A Mighty Heart’ or ‘Ghost in the Shell’? I mean, anything else would not show you in a positive light.

    – “People without a basic understanding of history and a high school diploma, shouldn’t post on the internet”. Good point, ‘EducateYourself’. And yet, they let them anyway. But don’t be too annoyed. If there was an agency that started scrutinising people who post on the internet, they may come for you pretty soon.

    – No Michael, I’m not saying you can only relate to characters if they are of the same race. But if that wasn’t an issue, then Hollywood whitewashing wouldn’t be a thing. And we wouldn’t have the problem of TV (because this affects all on-screen storytelling) having a negative effect on the self-esteem of everyone except white boys – http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news-archive/22445.html That’s why Lupita as Cleopatra could be such a benison.

    – Simon, the reason there’s no mention of films about other African civilisations is because this piece was about remakes. You see where it says “remakes” in the title? You’d think that would be a giveaway.

    – ‘Nefertiti’, see my response to Simon.

    – Sam, it’s not the fact checking that’s wrong with the piece. It’s people projecting on what I know and don’t know based on things I didn’t include because it wasn’t germane to what I was writing about.

    Essentially, the most telling thing from all these comments are how so many have been incited to point out the historical inaccuracy of casting Lupita Nyong’o as Cleopatra. Since when has accuracy been a staple of Western historical storytelling? Why is it suddenly an issue when a black woman becomes the beneficiary? All this outrage for a film that doesn’t even exist, and probably never will. What is it you’re really mad about? The possibility of Hollywood ruining it’s ostensibly pristine record of reproducing the facts, or a generation growing up with a black woman in a prominent role in the oeuvre of our storytelling, where she’s not cast as a maid, a slave, or a single mother?

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    1. “The warranted side-eyeing Exodus: Gods and Kings received was the latest in a litany of Hollywood whitewashing African stories. One of the most prominent examples is 1963’s Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor.”

      It’s pretty clear isn’t it? The article is stating that Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra is an example of Hollywood whitewashing African stories (indeed a prominent example, supposedly). But this is not true since, as 63,000 people have already stated, history tells us she was a Macedonian Greek. Why not publish a correction to the article, or amend it, as is usual in journalism/commentary?

      It’s not that a POC couldn’t play Cleopatra – actually it would be great – POC can play anyone, these are imagined stories after all. It’s not that Hollywood and Western story telling in general isn’t racist in it’s exclusion of many non-white stories and lives, it is, so the general thrust of the article is perfect. But none of that excuses getting basic facts wrong. I like this site, I pay 20 quid a month to support it, I just wish it would be more upfront and less defensive when it comes to correcting errors.

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      1. I remember the passage, which I stand by. There isn’t total consensus on the minutiae of the real Cleopatra’s heritage, and while I’ll leave the specifics to historians, some have posited that she also had African features. And that’s a significant factor that’s been absent from the comments, and from the whitewashing conversation in general. The problem with whitewashing sometimes means the erasure of PoC features as well as faces. It presents the ideal of what a protagonist should be, and – where women are concerned – the ideal of what is attractive. For clarity’s sake, if Cleopatra was played by a white women with discernible Mediterranean ancestry, I still wouldn’t have been happy with it, but one could make a case for that not being so objectionable. But Elizabeth Taylor is not from that part of the world, which is why I still perceive it as Hollywood whitewashing. It’s not just that we’re seeing a white woman play Cleopatra, but a woman with features that reify a racist standard of what is physically attractive. See Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone as another example.

        While I obviously appreciate your financial contribution to this site, I can’t just retract what I honestly think. And as you’ll see in the comments section of this piece – https://mediadiversified.org/2016/02/08/diversity-is-dead-and-whiteness-killed-it/ I have no problem correcting errors I make in a piece (we corrected this one in about a day).

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        1. Have you seen the Ptolemaic dynasty family tree? Cleopatra’s family are incest and inbred, they married within the family to keep their bloodline pure Greek Macedonian. Cleopatra was Greek Macedonian. Ancient Macedonia is located between Thessalonike and Epirus, which today consist of Northern Greece, Macedonia and Albania.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemaic_dynasty

          “Well, Cleopatra descends from one of of the generals of Alexander the Great, who were Greek Macedonians. So there is no question there she comes from a line of Greeks. It gets a little more certain because they intermarry, of the 13 or 14 marriages in her dynasty, 10 of them were brother-sister marriages, so there really is no foreign blood whatsoever in her dynasty. They are truly Greek-Macedonian to the hilt. There may have been a Persian princess that slipped in there somewhere, but otherwise you’re really talking a bout a woman who was about as Greek in terms of ethnicity, in terms of culture and in terms of education as you can be in that world.”

          TAVIS SMILEY | Author Stacy Schiff on Cleopatra’s ethnicity| PBS

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  2. Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek. So white actors playing her is hardly an example of whitewashing African stories, as claimed. A lack of basic fact checking really lets down this site sometimes.

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  3. You do realize that Cleopatra was descended from greeks (i.e. Ptolemy) and spoke greek. She was greek. Also, even if she were Egyptian, Egyptians are a distinct ethnic group that does not identify as black. If you look at Egyptian art, they depict foreigners as either darker or paler than themselves. As a woman of Kenyan and Mexican descent, Lupita Nyong’o would be as inappropriate a choice to play an Egyptian as Angelina Jolie, although Jolie does pass for Greek a tad better than Nyong’o would.

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  4. Wow this crap again?

    It’s like you people have never picked up a history book. Cleopatra was Ptolomeic. You know, A Greek Dynasty named after one of Alexander the Great’s generals who inherrited Egypt after Alexander’s death. And Greeks rulled Egypt from Alexander’s death until Romans conquered it.

    God fucking damn it, people without a basic understanding of history and a high school diploma, shouldn’t post on the internet…

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  5. If historical accuracy is a concern remember that Cleopatra VII wasn’t even Egyptian, that entire dynasty (Ptolemaic dynasty) was Hellenic. They were installed after Alexander the great died and one of his generals took power.

    I dont really get the fixation on her as an Egyptian ruler, the glory days of Egypt had ended thousand of years before, she was a bit player in Roman politics as the ruler of one of their vassal states, originally propped up because she was willing to play to Caesars tune.

    If you want a person of colour make an original movie about Nubia, Songai or one of the other great civilizations of Africa.

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  6. I’m confused, are you saying that people can’t relate to the themes in these movies already? Cause it sounds like you’re saying that the only way someone can relate to another person is if that person looks exactly like them which is pretty ridiculous and backwards.

    And look as much as I like Lupita, her playing Cleopatra wouldn’t make any sense because cleopatra was Greek, nor were the Egyptians sub-Saharan African black. They definitely aren’t white but they aren’t black either. The fact that you view Africa as one homogenous area like that is incredibly ignorant.

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  7. As a Egyptian its amazing how ignorant you people are to history. Here a hint do some research on who Cleopatra was because she was from the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Macedonian Greeks. Instead of trying falsifity your ignorant understanding of history why don’t you demand Hollywood represent stories from ancient societies in middle Africa or even the Nubians.

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  8. I don’t mean to spoil your fun, but you know that Cleopatra was white, right? She was of Greek ancestry (there was a lot of inbreeding going on, too).

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  9. As Cleopatra was of Macedonian Greek descent (descended from Ptolemy, hence the Ptolemaic dynasty) and her dynasty practiced inbreeding (which is why she was married to her brother), casting Lupita wouldn’t make much sense. Cleopatra looked like a Greek. Because the Greeks conquered Egypt and installed their own Pharoah.

    Come on, guys. History isn’t that hard.

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    1. As a young woman watching Cleopatra for the first time made me ill. I originally thought they were mocking Black people, but in White face. Seriously.

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      1. The house of Ptolmey was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals a man of greek/macedonian decent and the house was famous for its inbreeding and attempts to keep its legacy “pure”. Cleopatra as a decendant of that house would have been genetically no darker than olive complexion and given that paleness was seen as a sign of high social class so would be most likely lighter still.

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      2. Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Macedonian Greek origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemies, throughout their dynasty, spoke Greek and refused to speak Egyptian, which is the reason that Greek as well as Egyptian languages were used on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone. By contrast, Cleopatra did learn to speak Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess, Isis.

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    2. Alexander the Great was a world conqueror. At 30 years of age he conquered north of Africa and much of Europe and the middle east right up to India. There were many very powerful generals in his campaign and many of whom were left behind to rule as rulers in sections of his won territories. The Egypt territory was one of these territories/ The ruler was a man called Ptolemy. He was Greek. Whilst Alexander does and his progeny and many of the other successors, he stayed sheltered from such political fallout. His Macedonian descendants included the Queen Cleopatra.

      For the record. One of the most beautiful girls of my youth (and one that got away) was an Egyptian girl, most definitely of African, Arabian and Macedonian heritage

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  10. You made good notes, I think that Cleopatra being depicted as a black woman is long over due, I would love to see that happen even if it wasn’t Lupita. But that is definitely a good start.

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      1. Actually research shows that while Cleopatra’s ancestors are of Greek origin they indicate that her ethnic makeup cannot be determined. While a lot of her background has been lost they have determined that she was mixed. And that research is found on the principles of background up to 8 generations before she was born (i.e: Macedonian/Ptolemy reign timelines) with what, we cannot be sure, furthermore you can’t take away the relationship the reigning family of power would have as Ptolemy reign was in Egypt 300 years prior to Cleopatra’s rule, and it has been noted that siblings were determined to have African heritage. Based on text we have available today, again there is no proof of her ethnic makeup to be precise about it

        By modern day standards if you have a mustard seed worth of African DNA , guess what your considered. Nonetheless, we are talking about a specific region known and identified to be of darker skin so it would only make sense to depict the same. Additionally we are talking Hollywood the mythical land of make believe you ask why based on one piece of historical background but not the full historical content so I ask why not depict a Nubian queen as cleopatra there appears to be no historical evidence that she was or wasn’t by some researchers, I would love to see it for many reasons though

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        1. Yeah. Part of me worries about the rhapsodic way we talk about Lupita. Don’t get me wrong, a dark-skinned black woman getting prominence is huge, and she fully deserved her Oscar, but she’s only really done 2 films so far. I just hope we don’t put her on a pedestal that’s impossible for her to live up to. Like you say, I want her to have a long career, not just be the ’12 Years a Slave’ girl.

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  11. On a Trading Places updated remake:

    “So, who’s our leads? Rachel McAdams as Winthorpe, while Jessica Williams would play Valentine. It’s a box-office smash waiting to happen.”

    SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY

    Liked by 1 person

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