When it was announced last fall that Jodie Turner-Smith, a Black actor, had been cast to play Anne Boleyn in a U.K. miniseries of the same name, the backlash was swift, significant and entirely due to race.
Boleyn, after all, was a white woman, and queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as King Henry VIII’s controversial second wife (though only one of his many lovers). Despite being a devoted wife to the king, she was often maligned for being headstrong, and ultimately was accused of treason and – spoiler alert – beheaded.
But here’s the thing: white actors have been playing people of other races and ethnicities for many years, and this isn’t the first time Boleyn has been played by a woman of colour. In 1933, British actress Merle Oberon, who was of South Asian descent and hid her race in fear it would negatively affect her career, played Boleyn. And in the upcoming production of Broadway’s Six, Canadian actor Andrea Macasaet, who is of Filipino descent, takes on the role. Also, by the way, King Henry VIII was once and popularly played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers; the two not only differed in age, but face and body, and that’s saying something.
Eve Hedderwick Turner, writer of the current three-part series (now airing on Crave in Canada), wasn’t fazed by the criticism. In fact, the entire team – most of them women – were thrilled to bring a new perspective to a story told so many times before. She says, “I think having a Black woman portray Boleyn only makes it more contemporary and relevant, so it was great to feel like we could bring a new message out with the story and, most importantly, bring new audiences to it. Because they could maybe connect with the woman at the centre of the story in a different way.”
And there’s no mistaking it: The casting of Turner-Smith, who is an equally vulnerable and majestic Boleyn, brings the ill-fated queen’s story into sharper light. Take, for example, when she says, “I know what it’s like to have their eyes on you and never truly feel seen.” Boleyn was an outsider to the kingdom and never forgot it. With Turner-Smith donning the character, the new layers she brings to the role offer greater clarity and accessibility. Suddenly, the story of a queen feels more relatable than ever.
That also comes down to the series’ incredibly feminist approach. This Boleyn speaks up for herself, wields all the tools she has for greater power and demands to be involved and have a seat at the table. She is, in a word, a force.
Executive producer Hannah Farrell, of the female-focused Fable Pictures, explains, “The idea of doing something about such a famous woman in history, and resetting people’s expectations and assumptions about Boleyn was exciting. People have heard those buzzwords – the witch, the seductress, the manipulator – [about her] that are incredibly derogatory, and we wanted to tell the human story. To peel those away, step back and think about Boleyn as a mother, as a great politician, as a wife, as someone that we can all really relate to.”
That meant not spinning her into a hero, but showing her as the imperfect woman she was, who used sex as a tool when she could – often the only effective thing women had at their disposal in that era – and said things maybe she shouldn’t have. It also looks like showcasing her as the working mother she was, who experienced three miscarriages and was often implicitly and explicitly informed she wasn’t much more than a womb.
Producers were inspired to hire Turner-Smith after reading the Vogue profile in which she opened up about giving birth at home during the pandemic in hopes of avoiding the systemic racism Black women experience in many health-care systems around the world.
“I find it hard to see how you could tell this story without it being a feminist narrative, because Boleyn was such a complex, powerful woman who was pushing boundaries and defying expectations,” Turner explains. “She definitely had an innate sense of her worth, and never really questioned her right to be in those rooms that the men were traditionally occupying. She was a woman who was trying to juggle so much pressure, and as the lead woman at court, she was also under so much scrutiny, she was expected to be so many different women all at once.”
Needless to say, then, the anger viewers might feel by the miniseries’ end is the goal. Turner and Farrell want their audience to remember that Boleyn didn’t experience a downfall as many depictions have suggested, but that, actually, she was murdered by her husband in her quest to rise above the patriarchy. She was, in other words, so much more than just one of King Henry VIII’s wives.
As Turner says, it’s a topical narrative: “We know how women are often treated in the media now, and not unlike that, they made Boleyn the enemy in her own story and made sure that that was going to be the party line, and it was for many centuries. But we have an opportunity here to put her back right at the centre of her story.”
And indeed she is, with the series’ three episodes encapsulating the final five months of her life, and entirely from her perspective. It’s a tight, much-needed focus. One the pair are hoping to recreate again for other women in history – though they’re as yet tight-lipped about who exactly. The list of potential women is, of course, long.
“We want people to think about the legacy that those women and she left behind, not only in the things she did or the things that she tried to do while she was alive, but also in the legacy of her daughter Elizabeth,” says Farrell. “She left behind this incredible female leader, and [that’s] a story of women standing on other women’s shoulders.”
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