Anne With An E Draws On History To Create An Inclusive Period Drama

After a long anxious wait, Netflix and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) announced yesterday that Anne With An E is renewed for a 10-episode third season. If you’re new to the series, here’s why you should catch up on it before it returns in 2019: Anne With An E brings something new to the period drama and book-to-screen adaptation genres have been taking over our screens lately. Leave all your expectations of period dramas being too white and straight at the door, and get ready to step into an updated Avonlea that reflects the diversity of its time.

Anne With An E is loosely based on the classic Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery, which centres around young Anne Shirley’s coming of age. Anne (played by Amybeth McNulty in this version) lives with her new adoptive parents in Avonlea, a predominantly white fictional community set in 1870s Prince Edward Island, Canada. Knowing this, I dived into this latest adaptation expecting to see only white faces. Not to mention that the English-language period drama is a genre perhaps most notorious for its almost stubborn lack of diversity and inclusivity.

Throughout its ten episodes, the first season took a refreshing feminist direction and deftly tackled bullying, childhood abuse and PTSD in more complex ways than the original books and other adaptations had. But without a single person of colour making an appearance, Anne With An E would not be considered a diverse show just yet. Then, just seven minutes into the second season (released July 6 on Netflix) I notice, glistening with sweat in the dim steamship engine room, a black face.

The mysterious face belongs to Sebastian “Bash” Lacroix, a Trinidadian man played by Dalmar Abuzeid. He’s stoking coal alongside Gilbert Blythe (Lucas Jade Zumann), Anne’s love interest, who had left Avonlea to see the world and figure out his future after inheriting his family’s farm land. Decades of readers and viewers have loved and fangirled over Gilbert. The witty banter between him and Bash quickly reveals that Bash has become fast friends with the beloved character.

That’s a significant friendship to have established, because no one in the 110-year legacy of Anne of Green Gables had heard of Sebastian Lacroix before this.

In a historic move, Anne With An E’s showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett (the Emmy-winning writer for Breaking Bad) and her team have created several original characters with the intention of bringing more diversity to the classic story. There’s Cole (Cory Gruter-Andrew), a gay boy in Anne’s class, and the writers added a queer dimension to a few characters from the books, including Aunt Josephine (Deborah Grover). Then there’s Bash, the first major black character in the Anne of Green Gables universe. I say “major” because in the book Anne of the Island there is a brief scene with a dark-skinned hired man named Pacifique Buote. Apart from him, no person of colour has appeared across the franchise that includes countless adaptations, until now.

The addition of these new characters and storylines was not a blind appropriation of the source material to speak on modern social justice issues. On the contrary, Walley-Beckett explained that she wanted to address “the lack of diversity in the book” through modern sensibilities, “especially since Canada is such a diverse nation, both then and now”.

Exploring themes of inclusion in Anne With An E began where it should: in an inclusive writers’ room. It goes beyond the all-female writing team in Season 2 the series is known for. According to IndieWire, a member of the show’s creative team who worked on the new queer storyline had been inspired to come out to Walley-Beckett. Additionally, Veteran TV writer Shernold Edwards, who is of Trinidadian descent, joined the production team and helped uncover the largely forgotten parts of Canadian history. Here’s a lesson in why you should work with writers of colour if you want to add more diversity to your project. It was Edwards who told Walley-Beckett about The Bog, a large black community in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. The Bog was home to many freed slaves and their descendants throughout the 19th century. After Bash is called a “savage brute” in Avonlea and is refused medical attention in Charlottetown, The Bog is where he goes to meet people like him and even falls in love. From helping Abuzeid get his accent down to making sure the set represented an authentic Trinidad by capturing the look and feel of her parents’ hometown, Edwards was instrumental in breathing life into the Trinidadian elements of Anne With An E.

While some writers seem to deliberately ignore minority characters based on what they deem realistic for their historical drama, the Anne With An E writers make their deliberate effort to imagine beyond the perspectives of their source material. Bash has his own motivations and nuanced storyline, which make him more than just a prop to develop Gilbert’s growth; despite his struggle to fit in even at Trinidad and The Bog, he doesn’t allow that to bog down his endeavour to build a better life.

The writers not only connect more diverse groups of actors and audiences to the world of Avonlea, but also delve deeper into the history of 19th century Prince Edward Island. As the character Pacifique Buote immediately shows, Canada’s imperialist history is very much a part, albeit a buried one, of the original canon. So, to any showrunner or fan who claims “historical accuracy” to defend an all-white casting in a period drama, we’ll give you a minute to come up with a better excuse.

Many of us love period and historical dramas because they let us explore life in a distant place during an earlier era, or take us back to our nostalgic childhood. Seeing people write letters and rock puffed sleeves, we can’t help wishing we were living in that simple and romantic time.

That is, until we witness the severe sexism, racism, class prejudice and homophobia.

If the English-language period dramas that come to your mind are the likes of Jane Austen adaptations, Downton Abbey, or even Mad Men then we’re still a long way from exploring non-white and LGBT+ communities in the past.

But the times, they are a-changing, and so are the stories about the past. Films such as 12 Years A Slave, Belle, and Selma have demonstrated that stories about historical black figures and events do well at the box office and the awards. Before its time was sadly cut short by Netflix, The Get Down gave us a rare look into the contributions of black, Latino and queer artists to the birth of hip-hop. There’s also the HBO biopic Bessie, which not only entertained us with the vibrant Harlem Renaissance, but also celebrated a bisexual black woman fighting for herself and her people. Even British period dramas are offering more diverse perspectives: for example, the Hulu/ITV series Harlots, set in Georgian-era London, highlights how the sex trade would have affected black people. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned Hamilton yet.

Anne With An E is making waves by politically reframing not just the dominant narratives of 19th century Canada, but also a beloved children’s story. Some critics see Season 2 as the writers forcing their belief systems and trying too hard to be “woke.” Admittedly, the writers’ focus on drama and conflict in the second season and their appeal to social justice issues come across heavy-handed at times. But despite that, Bash and Cole’s storylines only add depth to the narrative’s underlying message of finding possibilities and imminent change during the turn of the centuryWith Anne still struggling to have Avonlea accept her past in institutional care, Walley-Beckett weaves Bash and Cole’s experiences of racism and homophobia respectively into the larger theme of difference.

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The other characters’ responses are realistic and laced with hope: it’s refreshing to see the children have a frank conversation about same-sex love as Anne’s bosom friend Diana (Dalila Bela) takes a few episodes to warm up to the revelation about her Aunt Josephine’s homosexuality. Such scenes convey the gravity of being homosexual during a time when same-sex activities were punishable by death penalty. At the same time, Walley-Beckett also made a point to create a fabulous queer soiree to give us a much-needed break from the common image of queer individuals being miserable and isolated in the past.

Anne With An E adds to the growing list of diverse period dramas by bringing white and black, straight and queer experiences of an intolerant world together. The writers pushed for such inclusion through original storylines in their adaptation even when they must have expected some backlash from purists. We need to encourage creators and networks that take on such risks. We need to encourage shows that involve creators of colour and LGBT+ creators in producing stories about their cultural heritage and minority experience. It’s heartening to see Netflix and CBC do the right thing and support Anne With An E’s ventures into realistic representation. I, as well as many other fans, will be eagerly anticipating Season 3 with hopes that the direction towards greater inclusivity continues to develop in both the storytelling and the creative team.

Editors: Amino Yusuf & Raissa Vasconcelos

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