Alexandre Dumas played by a white actor? That's the controversial role the ubiquitous French actor Gerard Depardieu has taken on in a new film called The Other Dumas. Dumas, author of such famous novels as "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers," was the grandson of a freed Haitian slave and a French nobleman, but that hasn't stopped Depardieu, France's busiest actor, from playing Dumas.
The blue-eyed blond actor darkened his skin and donned a curly-hair wig for his starring role, triggering a heated debate in France, which is currently struggling with issues of race and identity. Depardieu called the debate over his role "ridiculous" and "unnecessary."
But France's Representative Council of Black Associations has objected to Depardieu in the role, saying black actors are not given an opportunity to play white roles in French cinema. "It's very shocking and it is insulting," Patrick Lozes, president of the council, told the London Daily Mail. "It is a way of saying that we don't have any black actors who have the talent to play Alexandre Dumas, which of course is not true. In 150 years' time could the role of [U.S. President] Barack Obama be played in a film by a white actor with a fuzzy wig?" he added. "Can Martin Luther King be played by a white?"
Dumas, beloved author and playwright who died in 1870, is one of few national cultural figures of color in France, although many today don't know about his black ancestry. "There is a mechanism of permanent discrimination by silence," said Jacques Martial, a black actor who made his name playing a television police detective.
The film's plot is also controversial, based on a disputed literary theory that Dumas's anonymous white collaborator, Auguste Maquet, should get much of the credit for the plots and drafts of Dumas' most famous works. "Possibly for commercial reasons, they are white-washing Dumas in order to blacken him further," said the Council of Black Associations. Ironically, the term in French for a ghostwriter is a "nègre littéraire (a literary Negro)," and ghostwriting is called "negritude."
Dumas was often taunted for his race and once famously responded to a critic: "My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, sir, my family starts where yours ends."
French intellectuals have long been ambiguous about Dumas. For decades he was dismissed as a pulp novelist whose books pleased the masses but had little literary value. It was just in 2002 that his remains were moved to the Pantheon, resting place for France's greatest literary and political heroes. His son, Alexandre Dumas, fils, was also a prolific author and playwright (The Lady of the Camelias) and a member of the French Academy, an honor never granted to the elder Dumas.