There has, to date, been no feature film or biopic on the life of the early twentieth century black nationalist Marcus Garvey. But the recent controversy in which the eminent French actor Gerard Depardieu applied tanning lotion and put a set of curlers to good use in his portrayal of Alexandre Dumas has thrown up an obvious candidate.
It is not difficult to imagine the heated casting discussions and conference calls that are already taking place between prospective film producers of Garvey: The Movie.
"Denzel. It’s got to be Denzel. This is a no-brainer. Denzel Washington is Marcus Garvey. He did Malcolm, right? And Malcolm’s father was a Garveyite for Pete’s sake."
"Faultless logic my brother, but Denzel’s not free. What about Forest?"
"Whitaker? Correct me if I’m wrong, hombre, didn’t Forest play Idi Amin…. Helloooo! Amin was a monster. Garvey was a god."
"All right, all right. Let’s call in Morgan Freeman. Morgan would work."
"If we could afford him. No, what we need is someone affordable."
"Have to be English?"
"At least speak English."
"Say no more, monsieur. I have just the guy. Gerard Depardieu!"
"I’m not feeling Gerard. I was thinking someone...How shall I put it?...Of darker hue."
"Homie, you’ve got to get post-racial. Don’t you remember that minstrel thing...The Dumas pic?"
"Oh yeah, he did do that, didn’t he?"
"And you have to see the smile? This guy, Depardieu, smiles and it’s like..."
"Just like a piano lid being lifted."
"Mmmh. I see where you’re going with this. Ugly in a beautiful sort of way?"
"In a Garvey sort of way. After all, he did lead the whadyamacallit? UNIA."
"Universal Negro Improvement Association."
"Ugliest Negroes in America."
"(Buzzing through to his assistant) Cheri, get me Paris."
There is of course a commercial imperative for the French film makers of The Other Dumas to consider. Casting a star of Depardieu’s stature might afford the film a greater measure of success than with a lesser known black actor at the helm. But there is also another imperative?: not to deny the past.
Newspaper columnists have struggled to contain their guffaws, unleashing an unsympathetic critical wave which can be summarised as: “When are you black people going to stop whining?” Besides, these critics point out, though Dumas’s grandmother was an enslaved black woman from Haiti, he was only a quarter black, and he was fair-skinned. But is it not disingenuous to cite Dumas’s eye-colour (blue, like Depardieu’s) and overlook the director’s determination to darken the French actor’s pale skin? Either his race and colour matter, or they do not.
Whilst some argue that too much harking back to the wrongs of the past can lead to a culture of complaint and victimhood, it is fanciful to suggest that, even with the election of a black president in the U.S., we have moved into a post-racial era. The past is not settled, despite the idealism of those who would have us believe otherwise.
So, why should it be of any concern whether a white actor plays the part of black historical figure? Because, many black people argue, there has been an attempt, systemic or otherwise, to erase significant black figures from history, the end result of which is to suggest that black civilizations and the black man never accomplished anything of significance in history. At times, such thinking has even infected black people and led to a kind of self-loathing reminiscent of the Groucho Marx joke: “I don’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member,” and the kind of attitude that in the 1940s caused the Jamaican journalist, Vivian Durham, to lament: “It was the ambition of every black man to be white.” And who could blame them? There were few models to counter the widely held belief that “black achievement” was an oxymoron.
It was this absence which spurred the historian Joel A. Rogers to begin composing The World's Great Men of Color in the 1940s. The short sketches of one hundred notable men included Rogers's contemporary, Marcus Garvey, arguably the leader who placed the greatest premium on restoring black people to mainstream history.
In the twentieth century, Marcus Garvey recognised that, in a large part, the “problem of black” people lay in the perception of white people. He chose to address this conundrum by adopting the uniform of authority. Whilst his gaudy Victorian military regalia may have been mocked by some, for millions of black people the sight of Garvey in uniform caused their chests to swell with pride.
Alexandre Dumas is admired and highly-regarded as a great black man in the Black Hall of Fame. Does the lightness of his skin exclude him from that panoply? Can color-blind casting be applied to such figures? Could Marcus Garvey be played by Gerard Depardieu, and if so, how much faith can we place in the past depictions?
In Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1965 portrayal of Othello the shoe polish seemed to have been applied by Al Johnson’s make-up artist. But, when I saw the film a couple of decades later, it was the performance rather that the appearance that caused me to squirm. Too often the whites of Olivier’s eyes rolled up in his head; and a reptilian tongue darted out from a murderous red mouth. Olivier was the finest Shakespearean actor of his day and an exemplary student of human psychology; yet his Othello was a condescending caricature of a black man, one that caused you to think: Is this indicative of a general misperception. Is this what the white man really thinks of his black brother?
The old trope: that the black man was mimetic and a joke has been rolled out routinely over the past century. The jeering could still be heard from the pages of V.S Naipaul when he sat down to tap out his fictionalised memoir, A Way in the World – a book in which his composite narrator recalls the ‘ship-wrecked men’ he continually comes across in the 1950s as “extravagant black figures…about on the streets of London. Men in pinstripe suits and bowler hats and absurd accents.”
Yes, you could dress him up in the finery of the civilized, but scratch beneath the surface and, oh dear, you’d find the savage had not quite departed the black man. In a few cases, of course, his blackness was leavened by white input into the gene pool. In the early twentieth century, it was a commonly held view in polite Parisian society that Alexandre Dumas could not have achieved the literary sophistication he did, if some white man – down the line – had not come to the rescue and arrested the tragedy of generation upon undiluted generation of Negroes of unmixed stock. The Negro – supposedly – hadn’t much to celebrate before black and white lay down together to produce a brown off-spring. But who must claim the brown?
Asked about which race he belonged to, the Rastafarian Reggae singer, Bob Marley, said famously that he dipped on neither one side nor the other. Half or three quarter white men, like Marley, Obama and Dumas respectively, have served as the bridge between the races. In modern times these men have been embraced by the same white world which, just a few decades previously, would have rejected and classified them as undeniably black, having been “touched by the tar-brush.”
Marcus Garvey’s grand ambition was to lay to rest the notion – stated or veiled – that the black man was somehow degraded. His greatest achievement (which also led to his downfall) was the launching of a shipping line called the Black Star Line. Black men, he suggested, need no longer resign themselves to lives as galley boys; they could be captains of industry. Finally, in his conception, black people were capable of just as much erudition as whites; they could be writers, composers and theatrical performers. Weekly from his platform, Garvey drummed home the message almost as a mantra, reciting figures from history that black people should be proud of. The list included Alexandre Dumas.
Some have argued that Garvey’s spectacular pageants – at which he was proclaimed the “provisional president of Africa” and at which his generals, with Napoleonic munificence, were appointed “Duke of the Nile”, and “Baron of the Zambezi” and so on – were elaborate acts of child’s play, fantasizing Carnivals of Kings and Queens. Fundamentally, though, Garvey was trying to shift our perceptions: black and white people are not so different, he seemed to say, and in many instances, share a common history.
Marcus Garvey would have been surprised and delighted to learn that at Stratford-upon-Avon, at the home of Shakespeare, black men now regularly don the crown to play roles such as Henry IV or V.
If we can accept this inversion of the norm (a black man ascended to the English throne) then is it not possible to acknowledge that a great white French actor can invest the role of Dumas with all of the qualities that he possessed? Perhaps Gerard Depardieu should not be judged by the color of his skin but by the quality of his performance. And if Depardieu can portray Dumas in a way that does not cause us to squirm, that allows us to suspend our disbelief, and yet not deny Dumas’s blackness, then, who knows, perhaps Garvey might be next.
Colin Grant is the author of Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and His Dream of Mother Africa (Oxford, 2008).
His website is www.colingrant.info.