Friday, February 24, 2012

"Downton Abbey" in Black and White

Somewhere in Hollywood, there might be someone looking at the recent success of PBS's "Downton Abbey"--the last episode of the final season gained more than 5 million viewers--and wondering about the possibility of an American remake.

And why not an American version of the show about a family of aristocrats and their servants in the English countryside before and after World War I? Over the past few years, appropriating foreign successes ("American Idol," "The Office," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") has become almost a Hollywood tradition.

Except. . .

It was done nearly 75 years ago, and "Downton Abbey" is really just "Gone With the Wind" in white face. Both are lavish costume dramas whose idealized, romantic setting is changed forever by war. And, of course, (white) plantation culture of the antebellum South was a conscious attempt to imitate gracious English living.

I watched and enjoyed "Downton Abbey," bingeing on the entire two seasons (14 episodes) on successive days, courtesy of Netflix streaming and PBS's iPad app. I confess to some small embarrassment at writing that. But then, I grew up in the West Indies when it was the British West Indies. And, once a colonial, always a colonial.

Still, though I enjoyed the show--and intend to watch the third season next year--"Downton Abbey" (like "Gone with the Wind") didn't seem quite honest in its serene depictions of the inherently unequal relationships between upper and lower classes. It seems unlikely to me that aristocrats and their servants were as intimate as "Downton Abbey" would have them; just as it seems unlikely to me that Mammy, Priss, and the other black characters in "Gone With the Wind" were really all that happy being slaves.

I started writing this as a kind of thought experiment, imagining an American "Downton Abbey" set in the South before the Civil War. Morgan Freeman would be the butler and Denzel Washington the valet, which was as far as I got with the casting. Spike Lee probably wouldn't want to direct, but Tyler Perry might, as long as he could get his name above the title. Oh, and he'd want to write it and be in it too.

In some ways, though, he'd be be the least of the problems. How to, for example, translate Downton Abbey's relationship between the Irish chauffer and the lord of the manor's youngest daughter?

A good scriptwriter might find a way around the problem, forthrightly addressing still-painful aspects of our shared history. And history is full of surprises.

Researching my own family history, I discovered a great-great-great-great-great-grandfather who bought his freedom and his family's. Eventually, he emigrated to Liberia with his wife. Before he went, though, he wanted his family to be able to read and write, so he hired a white woman from the North. And to get around the laws that prohibited whites from teaching blacks to read and write, he somehow persuaded her to pretend to be a fair-skinned black from New Orleans.

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