**Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead! For Mary, Queen of Scots coming soon to VOD**
Mary, Queen of Scots is the latest in an encouraging trend of beautiful, powerful, female-directed historical dramas that further reminds Hollywood: we need WAY more historical period pieces directed by women.
Director Josie Rourke makes a stunning directorial debut with the film about the deep affection and fierce rivalry between two of history’s most powerful women: Mary, and her first cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. What makes the film stand out among other historical dramas is not just the flawless production design, costuming, and make up, or the powerhouse performances from two of the greatest actresses of their generation, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. Rourke tells the story in a way that is so true to a female perspective. The love the women feel for each other is real, but so too is the threat that each on poses to the political power and influence of the other. The film is also unique by Hollywood standards for featuring multiple people of color among the nobility, army, and staff at Mary’s castle, as well as an openly gay man as Mary’s best friend.
As we’re all very much aware, the film industry is dominated by white, male filmmakers and has been for the past 100 years, but it often seems as though some genres are particularly susceptible to locking women out of the conversation. War movies, for instance – many of which are also period pieces – have, since the dawn of cinema, conveniently ignored the contributions of women in the military. In reality, every war in human history has had women handling communications, advising on strategy, cooking, and acting as medics. Prostitutes hung around camps all the time, and many wars throughout history have had units specifically for women, many of whom were openly gay. Many historical armies, from ancient Vikings all the way up to Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia had women serving in combat right along men, even leading troops as generals.
Historical dramas as a whole really struggle to include any perspective other than that of straight, white, male protagonists. The consequences of erasing anyone who falls outside such a rigid description from these films is much greater than just frustration on the part of non-white and non-male audiences; entire generations of filmmakers – and worse, film goers – have grown up truly believing that erasing women, gays, and people of color is historically accurate.
And from a filmmaking perspective, the Hollywood machine as we know it has pushed male directors to make everything – including gratuitous violence against women – sexy. Historical dramas have never featured body hair, rotted teeth, dysentery, or human waste thrown onto any sidewalk, but have made sure a woman’s hair perfectly drapes over her shiny gown as she is violently attacked in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), 300 (2006), or From Hell (2001). Because, hey, that kind of thing just happened back then…it’s “historically accurate.”
By contrast, a scene in Mary, Queen of Scots features Mary being blackmailed into both marriage and sex by a man she thought she could trust. During the actual attack, she looks away, gripping the sheet, waiting for it to be over with nothing but pure distain on her face. There’s nothing sexy about it; it doesn’t exist to tantalize the audience, but rather to fill them with the same heartbreak and rage felt by our protagonist.
Rourke includes plenty of other details in her story that are not included when such stories are directed by men. Mary’s handmaidens clean the blood off her inner thighs when she gets her period. Elizabeth, played by the absolutely gorgeous Margot Robbie, is left scarred by a near-fatal case of pox, and has those scars – as well as a sheered haircut – throughout the second half of the film. And Mary’s relationships to her handmaidens go beyond that of an employer and her employees, and even beyond friendship; she tells them secrets, like how she dreams of losing her virginity; they rush to be there for her after a contentious sexual encounter with her husband; they stay with her every moment as she goes through the arduous (and very un-sexy) experience of giving birth to her son.
It’s not entirely surprising that TV is improving faster than the rest of the industry. While Game of Thrones is problematic in some ways, it normalizes homosexuality, as do Outlander and Versailles. The Alienist has a female detective in a lead role set in 1890s New York, Vikings features women in the army, and the now-canceled Penny Dreadful had recurring characters of Indian, African, and Native American decent.
But change remains slow in the film industry. White directors have been so preoccupied with making themselves the heroes in period pieces, they define the standards for historical accuracy by going out of their way to cast an image of themselves in period films about minority cultures. The Last Samurai (2004) stars Tom Cruise; Dances with Wolves (1993) stars Kevin Costner as our lead protagonist and Mary McDonnell as his love interest, a white woman adopted and raised by a Native American tribe. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) stars Daniel Day-Lewis, again a white man living as a Native tribe member, and Wind Talkers (2002) tells the story of Native code breakers in WWII through the eyes of its star, Nicholas Cage.
And to be fair to the directors of these films, there’s an obvious reason why the protagonists had to be white males: the studios would never have funded them otherwise. Studios have long ago decided that audiences must have a white man take them into the world of the “other” culture, rather than allowing that culture to speak for itself.
But finally, in 2018, we’re seeing a different trend. Mary Queen of Scots is a fantastic work of art that joins the ranks of Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014), Amma Asanti’s Belle (2014), Dee Rees’s Mudbound (2017) and Haiffa Al-Monsour’s Mary Shelley (2018).
Hollywood is slowly coming to accept the idea that the future cannot be written only by straight, white men, but with that movement, there is also a responsibility to adjust the way we have been trained to think about the past. Fortunately, plenty of talented filmmakers like Josie Rourke are up for the challenge.