Image: John Blanke – black trumpeter to Henry VII and Henry VII. Detail from Westminster Tournament Roll 1511, © College of Arms used with permission
Michael Ohajuru is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and a member of the innovative A2Bfour academic group. Made up of four BAME historians, they aim to reveal the brilliant characters and plots found in their research to bring diversity to the ‘big screen’ in response to Twitter’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. In doing so they hope to redress the imbalance, injustice and ignorance in the portrayal of BAME characters in the film industry.
An example of the ignorance on the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) presence in history can be understood from a statement made by an academic and historian on the BBC Radio 4’s Presenting the past – how the media changes history programme, recently repeated on Radio 4 Extra. Commenting on a black soldier being shown on a beach at Dunkirk in the film Atonement, she said: ‘It would have been impossible for there to have been a black soldier on the beaches of Dunkirk.’
Later in the same program a movie producer further undermined the program’s history credibility and affirm his ignorance, to my mind, by claiming it was not right to cast a black character in a movie about Elizabeth I ‘as you wouldn’t have been able to prove that.’ Both comments are profoundly wrong and these errors were discussed on line at the time.
As revealed in recent times, there were black soldiers fighting for Britain at Dunkirk. While for evidence of a black presence in a movie about Elizabeth I, Dr Miranda Kaufmann’s doctoral thesis, Africans in Britain, 1500-1640′- Oxford D.Phil. thesis (2011), discusses more than 350 people of African descent during the period, some of whom she is bringing to life in her book, Black Tudors, which is due out next year.
The imbalances and injustices seen in the lack of the presence of BAME characters in films and on television is not good for BAME youth. They see so very few characters like themselves or any member of their community or role models on the big screen.
Through my historical research and that of others in the A2BF, we have discovered not just the BAME characters who look like them and their friends and family, but also the role models that can motivate and inspire them. The BAME character I will be pitching a movie for during an evening event at Senate House on 21 November, is John Blanke, the black trumpeter to the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII.
‘Unfulfilled black love at Henry VIII’s court’. The story of the illicit, ill-fated, mismatched love affair between John Blanke, Henry VIII’s black court trumpeter and Katharine of Aragon’s black personal chamber maid, Catalina. It would be set against the backdrop of Henry’s doomed, twin desires for a male heir and an alliance with France against Spain.
The John Blanke story has already attracted media attention. It will be part of BBC Two’s four-part landmark series, Black and British: A Forgotten History, which begins on 9 November (9– 10pm). The series will be presented by historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, who also fronted the BBC’s popular Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.
He agrees that for too long we’ve been under-selling black British history. Writing on the Heritage Lottery Fund website he said ‘Black British history stretches back far further than we often imagine; and it is more surprising, more shocking, more compelling, more global, more contradictory, and more British than we usually think. What I hope the series shows is that it is impossible – or at least it should be – to explore the history of Britain without encountering black people; men and women of African descent.’
Through John Blanke’s story and that of the other characters from by the A2Bfour, I hope young people will be able to see possibilities for themselves or someone who look like them playing a significant role in history, and not the impossibilities founded on ignorance such as that on the BBC program. The A2BFour strives to help bring some balance and sense of justice to the BAME presence on the big screen.
Michael Ohajuru (@Michael1952), who holds honours degrees in physics and art history, specialises in the black African presence in Renaissance Europe in particular the Black Magus in Adorations images from the period. He regularly writes and blogs on these matters and also speaks on those themes at the Victoria & Albert Museum (where his work is referenced), the British Library and other institutions. He is currently working with the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies to run a series of workshops around the theme, ‘What’s happening in black British history?’