This weekend sees the release of adaptations of two cherished favorites featuring black actors playing characters previously portrayed as white. Andrea Arnold's gorgeous and raw spin on Wuthering Heights opens in limited release and features a black Heathcliff (via Solomon Glave, who plays him as a teen and James Howson, who handles the grown-up portion of the film, which covers only about the first half of Emily Brontë's novel). Meanwhile, Kenny Leon's adaptation of Steel Magnolias features the likes of Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashād and a show-stealing Alfre Woodard among its entirely black principle cast. It airs Sunday on Lifetime.
For Arnold, making Heathcliff black rights the wrongs of previous interpretations of the classic book, which either glossed over Brontë's descriptions of her character or were too squeamish to portray an interracial romance. On the character that is described as "dark-skinned in the book," Arnold told Film4:
It's been a very big issue, but for me, it was quite clear in the book that he was dark skinned. He gets called a little Lascar, which would have been an Indian seaman, and Nelly says, ‘Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen.' I think it's very clear that he wasn't white. I think his difference was certainly very important in my story and very important in the book.
On Heathcliff's otherness, which helps flesh out the doomed nature of his mutual love with Catherine, Arnold added to Indie Wire, "I like the idea that it came out of Emily's subconscious because it feels like that."
The promo press for Magnolias handles the alteration less directly, if at all, typically treating Magnolias as just another remake. Here's about as close to an exploration of the rationale as it gets, via USA Today:
"[Producer] Craig [Zadan] and I are always looking for inspiration," [co-producer Neil Meron] says during an interview on set last spring. Steel Magnolias, he says, is "like a cornucopia of great roles for women, and if you want to make a remake then you have to justify why you want to do it."
Meron is referring to remaking Magnolias with an African-American cast but, he says, it's the cast members and the story, not the color of the actors, that will make this production compelling. "Steel Magnolias is so much a story about a community of women that if it were multicultural, if it was all Latina, if it was all Asian, it would still be Steel Magnolias. It would just be as original as the group of women you put in it."
The subtext is that black women are still underrepresented in movies and TV and that there is a dearth of rich roles for them. And it is through subtext, actually, that both Heights and Magnolias deliver their most salient commentary about race. Both necessarily engage the viewer's expectations by altering the depictions of what came before: there is a palpable commentary to these adaptations, regardless of how much race affects the plot (less so in Magnolias than in Heights). But then, actual humanity ends up superseding categorical concerns. Arnold's movie is about racism and its detrimental effects, but it's also about life as a nonlinear experience: memories are not necessarily neat statements of what was but thick stacks of senses. The movie's dialogue is sparse, but through Arnold's magnifying lens and her endless collage of profound imagery, Heathcliff and Catherine's shared torture over their romance is explained completely.
Steel Magnolias, meanwhile, is a broader statement about women's bonds that have some basis in shared experience and culture but are ultimately universal. Black women can get unwisely pregnant and misguidedly short haircuts, too.
Both of these works acknowledge race as a vital discursive factor and then they transcend it. They provide a good model for how we can examine our own society, and for the discussion of such matters in popular culture. It's so rare to get this sort of light-handed, elliptical approach to what remains a fraught issue, and this weekend we have two of them.