No Picture

Making dystopia diverse: How Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ updates the classic

April 25, 2017 aurorax 0

“What’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show?”

Samira Wiley as Moira in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” CREDIT: Hulu

In the original text of The Handmaid’s Tale, everyone we see is white.

Margaret Atwood’s 1983 classic work of speculative fiction depicts a near-future America run by a totalitarian, selectively-Bible-thumping patriarchy where all citizens are sorted by caste. The few fertile women remaining are forced into sexual slavery as Handmaids, made to bear children for the barren Wives of male Commanders. The colors that matter in this society, known as Gilead, are of uniform, not skin tone: Handmaids, literally walking wombs, wear red. (Like several other dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale has seen its sales soar in the wake of the election. Can’t imagine why.)

There were people of color in the America of before, the one where our narrator Offred — her real name has been erased; the only identity allowed for her is that she is “of Fred,” her assigned Commander — used to live. The one where she had a daughter and a husband, a job and a house, a bank account she could freely access. But the rulers of Gilead sent all of them to the Colonies (a.k.a. Nebraska and its surrounding states), where they, along with other Unwomen — the elderly, the sterile, the Handmaids who prove to be more trouble than they’re worth or, worse, fail to carry a pregnancy to term — live in exile, working in waste removal for as long as they can survive the radioactive toxins. Three years, give or take.

Maybe it’s better in the Colonies than in the Puritanical hell in which Offred resides: After a rigorous training-cum-reprogramming at the Red Center, where female officers known as Aunts beat and brainwash the Handmaids into submission, Handmaids are sent to live with Commanders and their Wives, where they are ritually raped each month so they may conceive a child which they will be forced to give away so the Commander and his Wife can raise it as their own. Women aren’t allowed to read, to write, to speak freely, to do much of anything, really. It’s the kind of situation that could make you want to kill yourself, but the government’s one step ahead of you there. The windows of Handmaids’ bedrooms are shatterproof.

Dressing for dystopia: The costumes of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Maybe it’s better in the Colonies, but readers never find out. Part of what gives Atwood’s novel its power is its spare, lean storytelling: Until a postscript from the future of this future, we see only what Offred sees, we know only what she knows. The Colonies, and everyone who occupies them, exist somewhere off the page that readers cannot go.

In adapting The Handmaid’s Tale for a new Hulu series, premiering Tuesday night, executive producer and writer Bruce Miller was faithful, in many ways, to the book. But one of the first changes he and the creative team agreed on was that the story needed to be updated. In Offred’s world, the present is 1985. For a modern-day audience to feel as close to Offred as possible — for her life and her fear to feel as real to us as it does to her — the present had to be this present: 2017. And that change sparked a series of other changes, most notably that the cast of characters populating Offred’s world got significantly more diverse.

O-T Fagbenle as Luke in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” CREDIT: Hulu

Offred is still white (Elisabeth Moss, perfect). Her rabble-rousing, gay best friend is now a black woman, played by Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley. Offred’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is also black; their daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), to whom Offred yearns to return, is biracial. And while the most powerful oppressors we meet early on — the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) — are white, there are people of color in every caste in Gilead. This is a nightmare future vast enough for everyone.

When adapting material as beloved and iconic as The Handmaid’s Tale (in spite of, or perhaps especially because, it has been adapted many times before), any deviation from the text is a gamble — even with Atwood on board as a consulting producer who has publicly given her blessing to this version of the story.

“Absolutely, it is a big change,” executive producer and writer Bruce Miller said by phone when I asked about the choice to diversify Gilead. “This was a big, huge discussion, between me and Margaret and the writers. And there are a lot of factors.”

Miller first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college (“in a new fiction class, so that tells you how long ago it was”) and has been gunning to helm an adaptation ever since. So it’s not surprising to hear him say “the book is definitely our guidepost, and it isn’t just because we have blind fealty to the book — it’s because it’s good.” Miller notes that Atwood “is a very thoughtful person in terms of constructing a plot, so the decisions she made were ones that work for the show.”

“What’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show? I don’t know that there is any apparent difference when you’re watching.”

But once Miller and the writers made the decision to move the timeline of the novel up about 30 years, Miller said they asked themselves what’s changed since the book came out. The conservative evangelical movement, fairly homogenous at the time the novel was published, is “a little more diverse” now, Miller said. While it is “a generally very Caucasian movement still,” the leaders of Hulu’s Gilead are less fixated on race than they were in the book. As Miller put it, their worldview is: “Being a different color is not being a heretic. Believing something different is being a heretic.”

That a black woman would be eligible for Handmaid status fit easily into the ethos of Gilead: Fertility is the most precious resource, to be mined from whoever can provide it, regardless of race. “When you think about a world where the fertility rate has fallen precipitously, fertility would trump everything,” Miller said. “And we’ve seen that: When fertility becomes an issue, racism starts to fall because people adopt kids from Ethiopia and Asian countries and from everywhere.” An inclusive world adhered to the internal logic of the story more than a segregated one.

“The Handmaid’s Tale.” CREDIT: Hulu

As for Offred’s family, Miller said more diversity simply felt natural to him. “I didn’t know anyone who didn’t know someone who had a child of a different race,” Miller said, acknowledging that this might “just be my little bubble.”

“International adoptions, interracial adoptions, interracial marriages, it seems like just a much more diverse country than it was even 30 years ago. So I think people have gotten a little more comfortable with that idea, that someone’s child can be a different race from them.”

It’s one thing to read about a society in which everyone is white; it’s a very different experience to see that society on screen, in hour-long episodes, for weeks at a time. “There’s a very practical thing of, what’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show?” Miller asked. “I don’t know that there is any apparent difference when you’re watching.”

And then there’s the argument so obvious in its strength, you’d think the Oscars would never be so white again: “I wanted to cast the best actors I could,” Miller said. “Samira just has a light bulb inside her. And Moira in the book was a lot like Samira in real life: She’s a very engaged, incredibly outspoken gay woman. So those things matched up nicely. She just brings such charisma and sparkle.”

“But it really boiled down to this: Why would we be telling Offred’s story and not the story of someone [in the Colonies]?” Miller said. To do so would essentially be to deem the experience of this white character as more worthy of our attention than the experience of a black character.

It’s not just the world within The Handmaid’s Tale that Miller and his team needed to consider. For all the talk about of how alarming it is that the threat embedded within The Handmaid’s Tale feels as relevant today as it did in 1985, one arena where it seems progress is moving forward — in fits and starts, but still — is in the awareness, even outrage, surrounding the lack of diversity in Hollywood. The audience that will be consuming this show is more vigilant than ever about the implications of casting, or failing to cast, actors of color. We’ve reached a point, as audience members, where the absence of performers of color is far more distracting, not to mention off-putting, than their presence.

“Once you decide it’s going to be a diverse world, it doesn’t change the story,” Miller said. What it does, really, is enhance the story: It adheres to the spirit of the narrative instead of its letter, and the show is stronger for it.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” CREDIT: Hulu

This, one hopes, is something the entertainment industry will take away from Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale. Considering how many of our television shows and movies are based on existing source material — the percentage of new films and shows that aren’t based on comic books and TV shows or movies from the 1980s and 1990s seems to shrink with each passing day — Handmaid’s Tale is a case study in how flexible a director’s concept of what’s canon should be. Casting “the right person” for an iconic character doesn’t have to be so surface-level. An adaptation or a reboot doesn’t have to be that derivative. It could be, as this Handmaid’s Tale is, an opportunity to bring new resonance and complexity to an old narrative.

Audiences are already hungry for this. Think of how people have been clamoring for a black James Bond since before Daniel Craig announced his retirement. Or, more recently, think of the backlash to Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix: Yes, it was keeping with the comic books upon which the show was based to cast a white actor (Finn Jones) in the lead role. But Iron Fist was created in 1974. The series failed to adapt to modern sensibilities and, as GQ put it, that meant it was still “about a rich white guy stumbling onto a city that embodies the Orientalist martial arts fetishism of the ’70s and beating Asian people at their own culture.” It was widely panned.

“When you think about a world where the fertility rate has fallen precipitously, fertility would trump everything.”

Iron Fist is hardly the only story that could benefit from more conscious casting. So many of these iconic narratives — especially from comic books and fairy tales — would be all the more meaningful and relevant if the lead characters were played by people of color. Imagine a Superman reboot starring a Latino actor. What is Clark Kent’s perennial struggle if not that of an undocumented immigrant who arrived in the United States through no fault or desire of his own, desperate to assimilate and contribute to his new home but thwarted and rejected at every turn? Would that be so blasphemous, or would it make a new Superman movie actually worth watching for the first time in decades? It’s not like the Supermen of late have been hitting it up, up, and away. Do you even remember who played Superman before Henry Cavill? No, you don’t, but here he is. He was a white guy with a very Christopher Reeve-like jaw, and he was such a forgettable Superman he is now appearing on The CW’s fleet of super-shows playing a different superhero.

Our era of reboots is littered with such missed opportunities. Did Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast really need both Belle and the Beast to be played by white actors? If so much of Belle’s identity is rooted in the idea that she is an outcast in her “provincial” town, wouldn’t that theme have come through more vividly if she weren’t a white girl like all the other white girls in her neighborhood?

Henry Cavill as Superman in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” CREDIT: Warner Bros. | Emma Watson as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” CREDIT: Disney

The only reason to insist that these characters stay white is if their whiteness is key to who their identity; most of the time, it’s not.

A new adaptation presents an opportunity to do exactly that: Adapt to a modern worldview, ditching whatever dated, closed-minded, or now-irrelevant choices were made in the source material. Directors and showrunners who can appreciate that chance, instead of squander it, could save us from the sameness that drags down so many franchises flooding our screens. And some shows, like The Handmaid’s Tale, are already doing just that. Take Riverdale, the CW’s sudsy series inspired by the Archie comics, which reimagines Josie and the Pussycats as an all-black girl group. The TV Land reboot of 1988 cult classic Heathers is taking similar liberties with its originally all-white clique: Heather McNamara will be a black lesbian, Heather Duke a genderqueer person originally named Heath.

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale a case study in understanding what is and isn’t vital about a story: It elevates what is essential and edits the rest accordingly. Critics are already enamored with the three episodes made available for review. Maybe the success of the series will inspire those in Hollywood overseeing the adaptations and reboots to come to think more expansively about the worlds they’re building. Under His Eye.


Making dystopia diverse: How Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ updates the classic was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

No Picture

As White House stonewalls Russia probe, GOP oversight chair accuses Flynn of criminal acts

April 25, 2017 aurorax 0

Not even a month ago, President Trump said Flynn was victim of a “witch hunt.”

CREDIT: CNN screengrab

Following a review of classified material provided by the Department of Defense on Tuesday morning, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) accused former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn of violating the law by accepting payments from foreign governments without receiving consent from Congress, and then not properly disclosing them on a security clearance application.

“It does not appear to us that that was ever sought nor did he ever get that permission… As a former military officer you simply cannot take money from Russia, Turkey, or anybody else, and it appears [Flynn] did take that money,” Chaffetz said during a joint press briefing with House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), referring to the $33,750 check Flynn received from Russia state-funded media outlet RT for speaking at a December 2015 event in Moscow also attended by Vladimir Putin.

“It was inappropriate, and there are repercussions for the violation of law,” Chaffetz added.

Republican and Dem House Oversight chairmen believe Mike Flynn broke the law by taking money from Russians without permission https://t.co/knyHFyKZpT

 — @davidmackau

Cummings echoed Chaffetz’s sentiment.

“We cannot discuss the contents of the documents we just saw because they are classified, but we can say this — they are extremely troubling,” he added. “I believe these documents should be declassified to the fullest extent possible without compromising sources and methods.”

While speaking with MSNBC following the news conference, Chaffetz appeared to soften his “violation of law” statement a bit, saying it “doesn’t appear as if [Flynn] complied with the law.”

Q from @Kasie: Do you think Michael Flynn broke the law? Chaffetz: “Um…it doesn’t appear as if he complied with the law.” https://t.co/YDQ8alMSMf

 — @BraddJaffy

During the news conference, Cummings discussed the White House’s response to a letter Chaffetz and Cummings sent on March 22 asking for information about Flynn’s security clearance application, documents “referring or related to [Flynn’s] contacts with foreign nationals,” documents “referring or relating to [Flynn’s] receipt of funds from any foreign source,” and “efforts by [Flynn] to seek permission or approval for the direct or indirect receipt of payments from any foreign source.” Each of those requests was denied by the White House on April 19.

White House is denying the House Oversight Committee’s requests for docs related to Michael Flynn & his foreign financial ties -via @mkraju

 — @CNNJason

“Despite all of these very troubling developments, last Wednesday, on April 19, we received a response from the White House refusing to provide any of the documents we requested,” Cummings said. “We received no internal documents relating to what General Flynn reported to the White House when they vetted him to become national security adviser and we received no documents relating to his termination as national security adviser for concealing his discussion with the Russian ambassador. In short, the White House has refused to provide this committee with a single piece of paper in response to our bipartisan requests, and that’s simply unacceptable.”

Cummings says the White House has refused to provide Oversight committee with any documents relating to Flynn: “That’s simply unacceptable” https://t.co/FNSohysGmj

 — @davidmackau

One “troubling development” that’s emerged since April 19 is that the Turkish man Flynn received a $600,000 deal to lobby on behalf of while he was advising the Trump campaign has business ties to Russia.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that the man, Ekim Alptekin, negotiated a 2009 aviation financing deal with Vladimir Putin. Alptekin “has in recent years helped to coordinate Turkish lobbying in Washington with Dmitri ‘David’ Zaikin, a Soviet-born former executive in Russian energy and mining companies who also has had dealings with Putin’s government, according to three people with direct knowledge of the activities.”

“This unusual arrangement, in which Alptekin and Zaikin have helped steer Turkish lobbying through various groups since at least 2015, raises questions about both the agenda of the two men and the source of the funds used to pay the lobbyists,” Politico adds.

In March, it emerged that Russia state-funded media outlet RT paid Flynn, who is a retired Army lieutenant general, to give a speech in Moscow.

Flynn, who parted ways with the Trump White House in February after it became clear he lied about communicating with the Russian ambassador about sanctions before inauguration day, had previously denied he had taken money from Russia for the speech. The New York Times reported that Flynn taking payments from a foreign government “might violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without consent from Congress.” Flynn never sought or received such permission.

Chaffetz had been extremely reluctant to conduct any oversight of Trump during the early weeks of Trump’s presidency. But after he announced last week that he will not seek another term in Congress, he co-authored a letter requesting the Trump Organization turn over documents detailing what processes Trump’s business has implemented, if any, to make sure the president isn’t profiting from foreign governments who want to curry favor with him.

The Republican House Oversight Committee chairman’s acknowledgement that Flynn didn’t comply with the law comes less than a month after Trump tweeted that his former national security adviser should ask for criminal immunity.

Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!

 — @realDonaldTrump

Shortly after Chaffetz and Cummings held their news conference, Robert Kelner, Flynn’s lawyer, released a statement saying, “General Flynn briefed the Defense Intelligence Agency, a component agency of DoD, extensively regarding the RT speaking event trip both before and after the trip, and he answered any questions that were posed by DIA concerning the trip during those briefings.”

But whatever record of those briefings that was in the classified documents reviewed by the House Intelligence Committee apparently wasn’t satisfactory to its Republican chairman or Cummings.


As White House stonewalls Russia probe, GOP oversight chair accuses Flynn of criminal acts was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.