British filmmaker Andrea Arnold's remarkable new adaptation of Wuthering Heights comes packing some redoubtable weapons, including the most atmospheric ultra-realism the story has ever seen, an awesome sense of the Yorkshire landscape, and no small payload of brooding poeticism. But undoubtedly, its coup de grâce has everything to do with race. Brontëans may well be shocked at Arnold's reshaping the classic lit tale, via the conception of Heathcliff as a black man, and casting Yorkshire non-pros Solomon Glave (young) and James Howson (adult) as the "dark-hearted" orphan-turned-heartbroken-titan.
It's only a few steps to the left, and devotees of the book will see the relevance right away. For more than 150 years, and through countless versions remolded for movie, radio, TV and theater (including three operas, one composed by Bernard Herrmann and never performed during his lifetime), the young Heathcliff of the story's early passages has been defined as Emily Brontë did: a dirty, "dark" and swarthy lad; a "gipsy," culled from the slums of Liverpool (a port fraught with immigrants). But in all iterations, as the lad grew into manhood, he always became a mere Englishman distinguished only by his black hair and a cruel disposition. However much Brontë dripped suggestions into her narrator's minds about Heathcliff's possible mixed race, the role has always gone to white actors, from Laurence Olivier to Timothy Dalton to Tom Hardy, with nary a trace of swartness. (The one exception might be Luis Buñuel's 1954 film, in which everyone is Mexican.)
To be fair, we could read the mid-1800s English use of "dark" and "gypsy" as code for virtually anybody without discernibly proper British breeding. But it has been a vague and mysterious quality that Arnold has now made concrete and undeniable, doubling down on Brontë's ideas and steering the whole ship away from tragi-cosmic romance and toward whole-hog social tragedy, suffering the ghosts of slavery. This is intimated further by Arnold with a glimpse of the shirtless Heathcliff, his back scored with whip marks. In the 1770s, when the story is set, a black child was rare, even in Liverpool, the African chattel of the busy Brit-run slave trade going almost exclusively to British, Spanish, French,and Portuguese colonies in the Americas.
Which would make a black Heathcliff in Yorkshire an absolute stranger in a strange land, about whom specific bigoted norms would not even have been fully formed. Even so, his very presence in the manor houses of Brontë's imagination represents a primal taboo, a violent invasion of the First World by the Third. (Arnold's late-18th-century England feels quite Third as it is.) On top of that, talking about taboos, this is an interracial love story, in a time and place where, for most Brits, merely the chasm between the classes, not races, was more than enough to ruin lives and destroy families and disenfranchise entire swaths of the population.
Unlike in the theater, the use of race this way has not been common in movies. Most often, the appearance of a black actor/character in a role ordinarily doled out to whites is a device used as a joke (as in 1974's Blazing Saddles), or as a cudgel against racial bigotry, à la Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Of course, you could say virtually any movie about endemic racism, from Sergeant Rutledge (1960) to The Man (1972) to Far From Heaven (2002) uses this dialectic, simply by dramatic virtue of having the white characters wonder how in hell the black characters came to be so deeply in their midst. In this Age of Denzel, the idea has pleasingly dissipated, so that Washington taking on Don Pedro in Much Ado about Nothing (1993) signifies absolutely nothing. One must search for historical contexts in which to raise the point at all. In the '90s, critic David Thomson opined that Morgan Freeman might be the only living American actor with stature enough to play Lincoln, as irony might have it; not long thereafter, Dennis Haysbert was the unremarked-upon modern president in 24 (2001 — 2006), a tenure that, it seemed, suffered less barely repressed racist hatred across the country than the real-life movie Obama began to unspool two years later.
At least now a production of Othello, in any country, runs a slightly better risk of not casting a white man in black face as the Moor, a situation that is a dozen years old at best. In terms of renowned texts, if not Hollywood blockbusters, an actor's race still matters, and potentially in powerful ways. How would Hugo's Les Misérables or Kafka's The Trial play out with persecuted black men at their centers? What if, in a film version of Faulkner's Light in August that doesn't exist, Joe Christmas is unambiguously black? Can and should classic works about social stress still pretend they happen in an all-white world?