TV Review: Les Misérables (2018) and color-blind casting

I recently watched a six-part 2018 BBC miniseries Les Misérables that is based on the famous novel by Victor Hugo that was published in 1862. I had read the novel a long time ago and I thought that the mini-series was very good and stayed pretty close to the original story.

For those not familiar with it, the story is set in the period 1815, just after Napoleon had been sent into exile and the monarchy restored, and the failed Paris Uprising of June 1832 that attempted to restore republican form of government. This is the backdrop to the tale of Jean Valjean, a man who served 19 years in prison doing hard labor because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. When he finally gets his freedom, he leaves prison deeply angry and bitter. Even when a poor but kindly bishop welcomes him and gives him food and shelter for the night, he repays him by stealing the small amount of silverware in the house and escaping into the night. When he is quickly captured by the police and brought to the bishop, the bishop surprises him and the police by saying that he had given the silverware to Valjean and even gave him two silver candlesticks, the only things of value remaining in the house.

Valjean is baffled by this unexpected act of kindness and generosity but leaves still angry and unrepentant and shortly thereafter he encounters a little boy and takes from him a coin that the boy had dropped on the ground. After the boy calls him a thief and runs away, Valjean hears church bells toll in the distance that makes him realize the wrong that he has done and he tries to go after the boy to return the coin but the boy has disappeared. That event is fateful because the fact that he has stolen again, however small the amount, is enough to make him a wanted thief who would be sent to prison for life if captured.

Javert was a prison guard who oversaw Valjean when he was a convict and later became a police officer. He has rigid beliefs that people can be divided into good and evil and can never change their nature. He even keeps a model of a human skull on his desk with the parts marked out to show the various centers of the brain. This was based on the now-discredited early 19th century theory of phrenology, that the contours of the skull can predict personality traits. The fact that Valean is a convicted thief convinces him that he is irredeemably evil. When he learns that Valjean stole the coin from the boy, it confirms his belief and he develops an obsession with capturing Valjean and sending him to prison for life.

Valjean reforms himself with a new name in a new small town, setting up a business and employing all the people who need a job, bringing prosperity to the community that is so grateful to him that they make him their mayor. Unfortunately, Javert is assigned to be the police chief of that same town and he suspects but cannot prove that the mayor is his quarry. They have a discussion where Javert expresses his view that people are either good or evil while Valjean says that he thinks that everyone is a mix of good and evil and that the circumstances of their lives can bring forth the different aspects.

The story continues with Javert hounding Valjean, forcing him to move from place to place, trying to make a new honest life and being thwarted by Javert seeking to destroy him. Javert is so obsessed with his quest that even when the city of Paris is in revolutionary turmoil, he tells his police force to not bother trying to restore order but to put all their resources into finding and capturing Valjean. Valjean is Moby Dick to Javert’s Captain Ahab, someone who must be relentless sought after and captured long after the search has ceased to be rational.

The story is a morality tale. Javert’s rigid conviction that people are either good or evil and that he represents the good and Valjean the evil is what results in him doing evil things, while Valjean, the ex-criminal seeking redemption, is the one who does good things. It is also a stinging indictment of the cruel penal system that would punish someone so harshly for minor offenses, as well as a denunciation of the rampant cruelty to children.

What I have presented is a skeletal outline of the main story. There are many other interwoven storylines and characters in the epic novel. In order to propel the story along, Hugo creates a huge number of coincidences where the lives of characters intersect in highly unlikely circumstances, even more than in a Dickens novel. But one swallows those because of the power of the storytelling.

This was an excellent production. Here’s the trailer.

One point of note is that it has color-blind casting. It is extraordinary how little impact it had on my viewing experience to see Black and other actors of color playing characters that, given the time and place of the story, would be of white people. So it bemuses me when there are still controversies about this, such as a an actor of color playing the part of Cleopatra.

Few creative selections kick conversational hornet’s nests like a producer’s decision to cast a person of color in a role long associated with whiteness. Choosing biracial actor Adele James to play Cleopatra VII, the star of the second season of “African Queens,” should not have been one of them.

Cleopatra has inspired dozens of films either about her life or related to her legend, along with tens of operas and ballets. Her reputation was not diminished by her likeness starring in a commercial for vaginal douche. Surely the glamorous image of Egypt’s last Pharoah can survive a worthy portrayal by a cast that happens to have more melanin in its collective complexion than Elizabeth Taylor did.

This underestimates how devotedly anti-Black Cleopatra’s supposed image preservationists are. The “Queen Cleopatra” trailer’s release in mid-April prompted an eruption among the usual right-wing trolls suddenly assuming ownership over anything related to the African continent. But it also moved an Egyptian lawyer to file a complaint alleging the hybrid docuseries violates the country’s media laws and “promotes Afrocentric thinking,” and a historian to invoke the ridiculous term “[B]lackwashing.”

Making all things more equal, but not really, the news that Gal Gadot plans to don the Pharoah’s crown in an upcoming movie elicited complaints about whitewashing.

As more and more color-blind castings occur, I am hoping that this particular controversy goes away.


  1. Silentbob says

    I’m not sure “color blind” casting is the correct term for deliberately inclusive casting -- more accurately “color conscious”. But yes it’s very much to be welcomed.
    It’s not just people of color who like the representation. Old white blokes like me are cheered to see a diversity of characters on the screen.
    Since when did we care if it was historically accurate when it was all white people with modern language and haircuts X-D
    These days I find it jarring if it’s all white people on screen.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Everything I know about Les Miserables I learned from Deep Space 9.

    Sandman, the recent Netflix series, did some superb race and gender diverse casting. The only one I had ANY problem with (before seeing it) was the woman they cast as Death. For me, death just had to look like Cinamon Hadley, so a Black woman just wouldn’t do. And I was wrong, wronger than Wrong Ron McWrong. Kirby Howell-Baptiste nailed it.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    My own favourite example of ‘colour-blind’ casting was Peter Brook’s 1989 film of The Mahabharata. It had South Asian, African, Japanese and European actors in major roles. I thought it worked wonderfully.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the usual right-wing trolls suddenly assuming ownership over anything related to the African continent.

    Same as it ever was.

  5. mnb0 says

    “As more and more color-blind castings occur, I am hoping that this particular controversy goes away.”
    Unlikely, because it’s ideologically inspired. at both sides, who use pseudohistory to advance their agendas. So I decided to remain indifferent.

  6. sarah00 says

    …given the time and place of the story, would be of white people

    I think you might be falling into the revisionist history trap that gets perpetuated by people who want to pretend that Europe was white until modern times. It really wasn’t. Black people have been in Europe for centuries (millennia) and Dumas himself was mixed race -- his mother was “an enslaved woman of Afro-Caribbean ancestry”, his father was a French marquis. His paternal grandfather was the first black general in the French army. The Chevalier de Saint-George, one of France’s greatest composers, was also mixed race (racism is why he’s been largely forgotten).

    There are records of black people in France from the 1400s (please excuse the language used in that source, it’s an academic paper from 1945, but just goes to prove that this recognition of black people in Europe isn’t something scholars have only just discovered) and by the 18th century there was an “accelerated influx” from the French slave colonies in ‘New World’. These colonies caused considerable debate for the revolutionaries who declared in 1789 that all men are free and have equal rights and the French revolution led to the Haitan revolution.

    Really, it’s the older whites-only adaptations of books like Les Misérables that are the revisionist versions. These ‘colour blind’ castings are much more historically accurate.

  7. says

    First, how can casting be “color-blind?” Are people really pretending they don’t, or can’t, see the visible characteristics of the actors they hire? Whatever they’re trying to say, that’s a terrible and stupid-sounding word to use.

    Second, in this trailer, Javert seems to be played by a black man. I must confess I have two problems with that: a) AIUI, Javert’s rigid binary mindset is derived from White/Eurocentric rationalist thinking, in its most primitive form that gave us phrenology and White Supremacy — so he should be played by a white man; and b) having a Black man portray the rigid, relentless, petty, evil Javert, against the wise, good-hearted, self-redeeming White hero, doesn’t seem to me the best optics. That’s not gonna look “color-blind” no matter how you spin it.

    And third, Cleopatra was EGYPTIAN, and Egypt is in Africa, so it makes absolutely no sense to expect her to be played by anyone other than an African, Egyptian or maybe Arab actor. All those wankers screaming about her not being white need to get lives.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Raging Bee @7:

    Cleopatra was EGYPTIAN, and Egypt is in Africa

    She belonged to a Macedonian dynasty which had ruled Egypt for centuries. They had all spoken Greek, and maintained Greek culture. Given the dynasty’s misrule of their subjects, and continuing attachment to Greek culture, it would have been interesting to ask contemporary Egyptians whether they considered her Egyptian (although modern Egyptians have embraced her, much as modern English have embraced Richard the Lionheart).

    And none of that has any bearing on who ‘should’ portray her in a movie. Sophie Okonedo would be a great choice. She did a spiffing job as Margaret of Anjou in The Hollow Crown.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @6 sarah00

    I believe it was Dumas’ grandmother who was black. Her son became a fairly famous general in or after the Revolution.

    Alexander Pushkin had a great-grandfather, Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, who was an African boy who was kidnapped and ended up in Russia. He was a favourite page of Peter the Great and went on to a distinguished military career and was ennobled.

  10. M. Currie says

    I saw the miniseries and thought the man playing Javert did very well, and his blackness ended up of little importance. I am not sure I agree with Raging Bee here on the cultural issue, because I have also heard it said that the chauvinism of France is more cultural than racial, and a black person who walks the walk and talks the talk is more likely to be seen as a true Frenchman than a white person who diverges from what passes for Frenchness. Javert is certainly relentless and single minded, a moralistic civil servant who takes things too seriously no doubt, but I’m not sure I’d have called him evil, at least no more evil than the system of which he is such a conspicuous part.

    Now playing on PBS is a new version of Tom Jones, in which Sophie Western is played by a black actress. Given a little side story of having come from the West Indies, she fits in fine. She’s very pretty and plays the part well, at least so far.

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