Why the Controversy Over a Black Actress Playing Anne Boleyn Is Unnecessary and Harmful

Long before Jodie Turner-Smith’s miniseries came under criticism, British Indian actress Merle Oberon portrayed the Tudor queen

Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn
“We have these iconic figures from history and literature, who people feel possessive about in some way,” says scholar Miranda Kaufman, author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story. “But you have to remember that it’s not a historical reconstruction: it’s a thriller; it’s a drama; it’s entertainment.” Channel 5

When British broadcaster Channel 5 announced the cast of its “Anne Boleyn” miniseries last October, the show’s eponymous star—Black actress Jodie Turner-Smith—faced immediate backlash from critics who objected to a woman of color portraying the white Tudor queen.

The racist overtones of this outcry weren’t lost on Turner-Smith, who tells Glamour’s Abigail Blackburn that she knew “it would be something that people felt very passionately about, either in a positive or a negative way, because Anne is a human in history who people feel very strongly about.” As the actress adds, she responded to the criticism by focusing on the story she and the series’ creators wanted to tell—a “human story” of Anne as a mother.

The three-part production, which premiered earlier this week, revisits the final days of Anne’s life from her own perspective, framing the intrigues of Tudor court as a psychological thriller rather than a historically accurate period drama. In addition to Turner-Smith, the show features Black actors Paapa Essiedu as Anne’s brother and Thalissa Teixeira as the queen’s cousin.

Instead of practicing color-blind casting, the show’s creators adopted an “identity-conscious” approach to choosing its stars, reports Flora Carr for RadioTimes.com. Mark Stanley, a white actor who portrays Anne’s husband, the mercurial Henry VIII, tells RadioTimes.com that “[i]t was all about this being the right person for the job, rather than what we as a society might perceive as the ‘right look’ for the job. Anne Boleyn was beautiful, witty, vibrant, intelligent and Jodie is all of those things.”

Turner-Smith’s casting is part of a broader trend within the cultural sphere. Instances of Hollywood whitewashing real-life historical figures abound, from John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956) to Elizabeth Taylor as the title character in Cleopatra (1963). Though some creators have taken steps to combat whitewashing, either through color-blind casting or the intentional casting of non-white actors (Broadway blockbuster Hamilton and Netflix drama “Bridgerton” stand out as recent examples), the furor over “Anne Boleyn” underscores the polarizing nature of this approach.

The real Anne Boleyn wasn’t Black. But as Anita Singh argues in the Telegraph’s review of the miniseries, other adaptations of the Tudor period have taken comparable liberties without attracting the level of ire directed at Turner-Smith. Showtime’s “The Tudors,” for instance, transformed a 30-something Jonathan Rhys Meyers into the aging, increasingly obese Henry VIII by simply giving him a graying beard and a raspy voice. Singh further points out that Turner-Smith’s casting doubles as “a clever way of illustrating Anne’s outsider status at court in the final months of her life.”

Decades before “Anne Boleyn” debuted, another British starlet made history as the first non-white actress to play a British royal onscreen: Merle Oberon, who hid her Asian heritage to protect her career at a time of rampant racism. Though the young actress appeared in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) for just a few minutes, her performance was “quietly riveting,” writes Ed Power for the Telegraph. The film’s success, and her subsequent casting in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), inspired Oberon to relocate to the United States. She received an Academy Award nomination for her starring turn in The Dark Angel (1935) but is perhaps best known for playing the Cathy to Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in the 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

Why the Controversy Over a Black Actress Playing Anne Boleyn Is Unnecessary and Harmful
Merle Oberon, an actress of Sri Lankan, Māori and British descent, portrayed Anne Boleyn in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII. Photo by Sasha / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Supposedly born in Tasmania to a British Army officer who died when she was young, Oberon claimed to have been raised by her aristocratic Indian godparents. But as Lisa Liebman reported for Vanity Fair in 2017, this account was likely a fake origin story invented by the actress’ first husband, Henry VIII director Alexander Korda. (The couple wed in 1939, six years after the film’s premiere.)

In truth, Oberon was born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in 1911. She grew up in poverty in Mumbai, which was then under British control. Her mother, Constance Selby, was of Sri Lankan and Māori descent, while her father, Arthur Thompson, was a British railway engineer.

Oberon “was the product of rape two generations over,” noted journalist Halley Bondy in a 2020 episode of the “You Must Remember This” podcast. Her grandmother, 26-year-old Charlotte Selby, was in a relationship with Thompson when he impregnated Constance, who gave birth to Oberon at just 12 years old. More than a decade earlier, Charlotte herself was raped by an Irish foreman of a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and gave birth to Constance at age 14.

Charlotte raised Oberon as her own daughter, and the young girl grew up believing that Constance was her sister. Years later, when one of Constance’s sons learned the truth about Oberon’s parentage, he attempted to arrange a meeting with her but found his request refused, per Claire Ellicott of the Sunday Tasmanian. Thompson, for his part, fought for the British Army during World War I and died of pneumonia at the Battle of the Somme.

Oberon, who had significantly lighter skin than her grandmother, began wearing white makeup to mask her true complexion during her teenage years. Following her discovery by Korda at age 17, she took additional steps to alter her appearance, including lightening her hair and using skin bleaching products laced with toxic mercury. According to Kevin O’Keeffe of Mic, Oberon reportedly refused to appear on camera without wearing makeup—a choice explained, in retrospect, by her desire to present herself as white.

Bondy argued that Oberon’s tragic family history, as well as her upbringing in a deeply racist society, may have left her with “untreated, inherited trauma, [which] can give someone the uncanny ability to be so disassociated from their true identity that [they] think they can slip undetected between false identities in order to seem to be whatever people want them to be.” Oberon certainly never admitted to her past: In 1978, the year before her death at age 68, she accepted an invitation to Tasmania to see her “birthplace” but spent most of the trip hiding in her room, “terrified from the moment she got [there that] her story would unravel,” per biographer Bob Casey.

The first inklings of Oberon’s true heritage came to light in 1983, when two biographers “intrigued by [her] evasiveness” raised questions about her early years, as the Washington Post’s Christopher Schemering wrote in 1985. Two years later, Oberon’s nephew, Michael Korda, published a novel loosely—but transparently—based on his aunt’s secret life. The full truth of the matter was only revealed in 2014, when a joint initiative between the British Library and ancestry website findmypast.co.uk published Oberon’s birth certificate, which identified Constance, not Charlotte, as her mother.

Oberon was the first woman of color to play Anne Boleyn. Turner-Smith won’t be the last. As soon as this September, Filipino Canadian actress Andrea Macasaet is set to step into the role for the Broadway production of Six, a pop musical based on the lives of the Tudor king’s six wives.

“We have these iconic figures from history and literature, who people feel possessive about in some way,” says scholar Miranda Kaufman, author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story, to History Extra’s Rachel Dinning. “But you have to remember that it’s not a historical reconstruction: it’s a thriller; it’s a drama; it’s entertainment. As a historian, I think one of our roles is figuring out how to engage people with the past—and this is a fresh take on an old story.”