Wuthering Heights and its Black Heathcliff

I actually liked Andrea Arnold’s 2012 film of Wuthering Heights. No one could be more surprised by that than me. But in the use of a black Heathcliff does it lose more than it gains?

504Wuthering Heights has been notoriously difficult to film in the past. Versions that concentrate too much on the plot become overly complex at the expense of the passions and the setting, while films that get the despair and the longing over-simplify the story. Whichever way the film-maker chooses to go there is the danger of making a film that is far too long and slow.

Arnold, I believe, succeeds in making a film that is also minimalist and evokes much emotion with little action or dialogue. It duly suffers the consequences as well as it is too long and too slow. I did not mind this until the last quarter of the film where it all caught up with me and I wanted it to end swiftly, which is not the desired effect at a time when the story is climaxing. At 129 minutes, it isn’t actually an excessively long film. Even so, you certainly feel every minute and I think I had more patience than most for this film.

One could, with a little cynicism, say that the experience of viewing this film is fitting for a story of repressed characters who do not say what they feel and do not do as they want and subsequently suffer the consequences of assuming what the other feels and means.

Arnold’s best achievement of this film lies in evoking the silent character of the novel – the landscape. Harsh, rugged and rustic, it is brought to life very well in the numerous foggy and rainy scenes and the time Catherine and Heathcliff spend alone exposed to the prevailing gusts. We experience the naked violence of both man and nature in frequent glimpses of animal cruelty as well as open-air love-making and birth-giving.

One thing I did not care for was the cinematography. The shaky-POV-camera just seemed very art-house-cliché, very film-student and it was overused. Several times, we switch from a dark scene in the depths of night to a bright foggy morning, which made me want to groan with stinging eyes at every occurrence. Many of the techniques utilised in the film were repetitive and became tiresome towards the end.

The most controversial aspect of Arnold’s film is the use of a black Heathcliff

In the novel Heathcliff’s ethnicity is not known; he is described as being ‘dark-skinned’ and ‘gypsy in aspect’. It should be remembered that in the mid-nineteenth century a description like ‘dark-skinned’ included a lot more ethnicities than it does today. Mediterranean Europeans – Spaniards, Italians and Greeks – for instance, were not considered ‘white’.

The Heathcliff of the novel is an outsider, his low birth gives him no freedom to pursue his desires. But in this film the prejudice against Heathcliff is made explicitly racist.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand it has made the story more accessible. It allows for the brutal treatment of Heathcliff to have greater impact via the racial slurs that are levelled against him. On reflection however, those who might have been most influenced by such accessibility and impact probably wouldn’t bother to see this film. And, in the use of a black Heathcliff, the prejudice becomes oversimplified as it can be easily explained away as racism, when the prejudice in the novel is subtle, complex and as unfathomable as, in a perfect world, racism should be.

But then again, at the time it was written was the prejudice towards Heathcliff as unfathomable as it appears to modern eyes? Is it at all necessary to alter? I am writing this while watching an old episode of The Sopranos and am reminded that the distinction between Northern and Southern Europeans (and the distinction amongst North American descendants of both) still exists.

I am still undecided.

Just to be absolutely clear; I am not suggesting that Heathcliff – a fictional character – should not be played by a black actor. He can be played by whoever. Nor am I saying that writers can’t adapt a story with a particular focus; this is often inevitable and sometimes even an unintentional consequence of adaptation. All I am saying is that the combination of casting and adaptation means that an important aspect of the original – the prejudice towards Heathcliff  – has gone from complex to simple and that has both pros and cons.

Overall, this attempt at Wuthering Heights is not terrible. It’s alright, I would not watch it again though. It could have been much more if its length had been pruned more severely in the editing, if the filming had been less clichéd and more innovative and, by doing these, if the main point of discussion had been reduced to debate over the casting of Heathcliff.

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7 thoughts on “Wuthering Heights and its Black Heathcliff

    • Actually, I did not say that at all. I questioned the value of accessibility when the film was clearly not made or marketed to the general audience but was promoted as a festival film. But “thanks” for your comment.

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  1. Heathcliff doesn’t seem to be Southern European. He was described as a “Lascar” which meant an East Indian sailor back then. “Gypsies” are also originally from India. It’s even possibile that he’s black, he was found in Liverpool during 1770s and there was a massive slave trade back then.
    He was denied shelter by Lintons in a crucial scene of the novel : “he’s just like the son of the fortune teller who stole my tame pheasent, put him in a cellar papa”, “a little Lascar”, “strange acquisition my neighbour made”, “wouldn’t it be kinder to the country to hang him” ; Hindley constantly calls him “gipsy” , which is considered a racial slur by some today, just like the N-word. So there is explicit racism in this book. People say these things, no subtlety or courtesy, this is not an Austen novel. I personnaly think that he was non white. What would a Mediterannean street urchin would do in Liverpool during 1770s ?

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    • I was not implying that I believed Heathcliff to be a Southern European – I only used Southern Europeans as an example of how perceptions of what is ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ has changed over time.

      You are right that there are several possibilities as to what race Heathcliff is, but since it is never made clear, I do not think we can call the treatment of Heathcliff “explicit racism”. The prejudice towards Heathcliff might be based on class, race, ethnicity, etc, or more likely a combination thereof. I think this ambiguity is to the strength of the novel since we can all place ourselves in Heathcliff’s shoes and it makes the voice of the prejudice against him that much indefensible.

      That aspect of ambiguity is lost in the film however, where the prejudice towards Heathcliff is mostly based on race alone.

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      • Yeah, it’s a little bit more complicated in book, ı still believe that he’s non white though.

        Why can’t we call it racism though ? He was dark skinned , he was discriminated because of it ?

        The thing is Lintons name their suggestions about his etnicity while outing him from their house. In my opinion this scene is the most important along with “I am Heathcliff” and the ghost scene . This scene is the one which caused the seperation of Cathy and Heathcliff and started the tragedy. I think his race is important for the book since it caused his rejection from the civilized world at the first place.

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      • I think we are going to have to agree to disagree here.

        I am not suggesting Heathcliff was white – the novel quite clearly describes him as ‘dark skinned’.

        I am not saying Heathcliff did not experience racism. I am saying that we can’t say his discrimination was only because of race nor is race the focus of the discrimination. I was also disputing whether we can call the racism “explicit” as you did earlier.

        The fact that Heathcliff is an orphan and has no family name, no heritage, with no wealth and uncertain social class/status is also a large part of the discrimination towards him. Heathcliff himself knows this, after all, why would he bother to return? His race has not changed. His ethnicity has not changed. He has not discovered his lost family. Instead he returns once he is wealthy and he thinks that will make a difference.

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