Caliban

22 12 2012

The_Tempest_2010_posterI watched the 2010 Julie Taymor screen adaption of The Tempest recently. I hadn’t seen TheTempest in a fair while – not since I saw my high school’s Year 12 drama production of the play[1] – and was keen to watch it again. In this adaption, Prospero has been changed to Prospera, giving Helen Mirren a chance to take the role. I was pretty excited to see a woman play one of Shakespeare’s leading characters, and as the movie began, I wasn’t disappointed. Helen Mirren brings an aura of power and harshness to Prospera’s character, and her screen chemistry with Felicity Jones gave some delightful mother-daughter scenes. I also enjoyed seeing Ben Whishaw’s delightfully naked Ariel. Things were going well. Until, that is, I got to meet Djimon Hansou’s Caliban, whose portrayal I found to be problematic, to say the least.

Caliban is the only black character in the movie, which is, in and of itself, not a problem, especially once you consider the small cast (11 major characters, with little in the way of extras). It’s not even necessarily a problem that the only non-white character in the movie got cast as a monster. While the dehumanisation of non-white characters in the media is a problem, it is largely due to the frequency of such portrayals, rather than any individual portrayal of a non-white character in a negative light. Had the film stopped merely at this, I would have noted that I found this problematic and then moved on to enjoy the rest of the story. What I encountered, however, was a portrayal of a Caliban who was not a monster, but rather a creature who possessed all the characteristics of the “black savage”, and whose monstrous nature was depicted through his expression of these characteristics.

caliban-the-menace

Caliban is menacing.

Our first encounter with Caliban sees the two white women calling the black man “slave” and accusing him of rape. He lives in a cave, wears nothing but a loincloth (which somehow looks more savage than Ariel’s glorious butt-nakedness), and got all his education from the two white women who share his island. They seem to expect him to be grateful for this, even though Caliban also shared with them his knowledge of the island. Caliban is a brute, who on some instinctive level desires – or perhaps needs – a master. Ultimately, he allies himself with those who represent the dregs of white society – all the while seeing them as his superiors. Then there is this scene, which speaks for itself:

caliban-sticks

We still make stuff like this in 2010? Really?

Caliban is supposed to be a monster. The Caliban I saw in this adaption, however, does not look like a monster: he looks like a caricature of a black man dragged right out of a 1920s adventure movie. The make-up that he wears to make him appear more monstrous still leaves him looking like a black man. It doesn’t do enough to prevent the movie from sending out the message, “This is a black man. He is dangerous, savage and untrustworthy.” Not once throughout the entire film did I ever feel that Caliban was any kind of monster, except insofar as I felt that I was expected to view him as a monster because he was a large black man, filled with bitterness because of years of slavery and disenfranchisement. He didn’t even have horns, which I think might have made it easier for me to think, “This guy is supposed to be just some monster,” as opposed to, “This guy is supposed to be a black man.” The makeup they used didn’t make me think “monster”. It made me think “skin condition”.

That said, this portrayal of Caliban’s character could be interesting – had it been put in a different movie. I could see definite parallels between Caliban’s story and the history of European colonialism. Poor Caliban is the master of the island until Prospera and Miranda arrive. Initially he is friendly towards them, and treats them as his guests, showing them around the island. After he makes advances towards Miranda[2], however (mistakenly thinking that his guests might view him as an equal, perhaps), they cast him out of their society and make him their slave. Later on, he encounters Trinculo and Stephano, who offer to help him cast off Prospera’s rule, should he serve them At first they seem kinder than Prospera, offering him wine to drink, but in reality caring little for Caliban’s fate, except insofar as he was capable of giving them power. Then, in the end, all the white people get the happy ending, where they all sail away and live like royalty in Milan, Caliban is just left behind and forgotten about by everyone. In this, you can see how Caliban suffers the evils of colonialism – the theft of his land, slavery, substance addiction, social exclusion and ultimately abandonment once his usefulness has expired. This is all thrilling stuff, but unfortunately, it is also something that the viewer must read into the movie, rather than being something that is explored in depth. I can’t really blame the play itself for this, but had the movie explored this interpretation of Caliban’s story further, it would have gone a long way towards alleviating my discomfort at the way Caliban is portrayed. If this adaption’s version of Caliban had been the star of a Caliban-centered story, in the vein of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I would have found it fascinating.

miranda-prospera

I did like the chemistry between Prospera and Miranda. They made a cute mother-daughter couple.

Even leaving Caliban as-is in the film, this adaption could have been made a lot less problematic than it was simply by casting (preferably sympathetic, but at the very least non-monstrous) actor of colour. I really don’t think it’s good enough to just say, “But the story is about people from Italy, therefore they should all be white.” With a good enough performance, nobody will care if your actors are not as lily-white as they initially imagined them. When I watch Merlin, I don’t care that Guinevere is black, and when I watched The Hollow Crown, I saw that the Duke of York was not exactly white, and I didn’t care then either. Kenneth Branagh even made a movie where Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington were brothers, and it was fantastic. There’s not even any particular call for the suspension of disbelief when it comes to the presence of non-white characters in Shakespeare or mediaeval drama. Africans did travel to Europe in the past, and while their numbers might not have been as great as today, they still left enough of an impact on European culture that Shakespeare saw fit to give them roles in plays such as Othello and Titus Andronicus. It is small-minded to think that they should be disqualified from other Shakespearean roles, merely because all other roles fall into the category of “race unspecified” (which apparently gets interpreted as “white”).

keanu-denzel-brothers

Sure, I’ll totally buy that these guys are brothers.

Now, in the interest of fairness, I don’t think Julie Taymor was attempting to create a racist film. Caliban is as Shakespeare wrote him, and it would probably be difficult to make him more sympathetic without completely rewriting the character. As for casting the monster as a black man, I suspect that was in order to create a visual dichotomy between the light and obedient air spirit, Ariel, and the harsh and intractable earth spirit, Caliban. This is evident not just from the text, but also from the direction – with Ariel constantly darting about like a gust of air, while Caliban’s movements are far stronger and more solid. Perhaps, too, they were looking to emphasise the parallel between Caliban’s plight and European colonialism, as I mentioned before. It’s certainly a nice bit of imagery when looked at in these ways, and the producers were likely thinking of at least one of these interpretations when doing their casting. I highly doubt that they went into the movie thinking, “Yes, let’s make Caliban the embodiment of black savage tropes.” The problem is, even if they weren’t intending to portray Caliban in this way, that is ultimately what they ended up doing. When creating a piece of art, one must be aware that once the work is published, your audience will not have a chance to discuss your intentions with you. Your work – and the message you meant to portray with your work – must therefore be clearly evident from your final cut. This was not the case with The Tempest, and ultimately made it difficult for me to enjoy the film.

caliban-ariel

“Dark” Caliban vs “Light Ariel”

[1] My high school had a very good drama program, so this was actually a lot better than it may sound. It also had added Beatles songs, which are always good.

[2] Yes, I know that Miranda and Prospera claim that Caliban attempted to rape Miranda (well, violate her honour, however you wish to interpret that. Since this occurred before the play began, however, we only have their word for it. I don’t want to go into whether or not we should believe them, because that involves walking the whole tightrope between supporting rape victims and giving the accused the benefit of the doubt, which is an interesting conversation, but not really a part of the scope of this essay here. Let us just agree that P[Caliban is an attempted rapist]<1, and move on with the discussion. Regardless of that, I feel that Miranda and Prospera never viewed Caliban as an equal. Miranda describes her feelings towards him as “pity”. Given how Prospera treats Ariel, she probably would have had Caliban collecting sticks for her even without the falling out.

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