My painstakingly curated cast for a “colorful” version of of the hit movie Downton Abbey.
Surrounded by Streaming Services
OMG! There seems to be as many new streaming service announcements in the news as there are scandals coming out of this administration (right out the gate you have my signature Trump snub for every movie and/or TV blog post.) Last week Tyler Perry tweeted this:
And NBC Universal is entering the fray with their service, Peacock (can I just say that that is the DUMBEST name for a streaming service. Who are the marketing people over there? This may be very Beavis and Butthead of me, but I chuckle every time I hear it. Peacock. Peacock. Peacock. Say it ten times fast and see if you don’t start busting up. But, I digress).
With all of these streaming services hitting the proverbial airwaves, Netflix’s hegemony continues to be challenged (I hear Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s Fried Chicken are working on streaming services! )
[Editor’s note: Technically that’s a joke, and I originally had no plans to explain that it was a joke; except that the world we live in can be so bat-shit crazy sometimes, that it’s actually necessary to explain that two chicken fast food restaurants launching a streaming service is indeed a joke.]
Cracks are already starting to be shown in Netflix’s armor when back in July they announced their first drop in U.S. based subscribers (despite the fact their overall subscriber base worldwide expanded).
I for one love my Netflix (well, technically, it’s my brother’s Netflix, but still, I love it). And I don’t want to see it fall to the wayside by the likes of any of all these plus, max, or peacock streaming services (is it just me, or am I seeing a human reproductive analogy-thing going on in the naming of all these services. Yes, yes, I know. I’m digressing again.)
So, I was sitting up in bed thinking about what would be a cool show for Netflix to create. Something that would help forever solidify itself as THE service to get. And then it hit me: turning white people’s beloved cinematic characters into people of color is becoming somewhat of an Olympic sport. Why not do for/to Downton Abbey what Lin-Manuel Miranda did for our founding fathers?
I propose that Netflix create an all-star cast of African-American actors (with a smattering of Asian actors) based on the hit Focus Features/Carnival movie Downton Abbey.
And I would call the show…
The movie version of Downton Abbey—which ended it’s 6-season run back in 2014—hit U.S. theaters last weekend and blew away the box office competition: Sly Stallone’s Rambo 5 (Rambo Last Blood, or what I like to call, Rambo Rise of the Machines, which if you’ve seen the poster for hit you’d totally know what I mean) and Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra, both got “bodied” by DA this weekend.
Those of you who follow me and know what my book is about won’t at all be surprised why this blogging blerd of a black man is a huge fan of a BBC drama about early 20th century British aristocracy. For the longest time I would not watch it because it seemed like it would be a boring, romance novel-like, Austen-esque romp of historical fiction that just wasn’t my cup of tea. Boy, was I wrong. It’s filled with scandal, drama, cat-fighting, rapier-like dialog, and impeccable acting. I was hooked from the very first episode and sad to see it end it’s run.
So imagine my sublime joy when I saw the trailer for a silver screen version.
Given the success of the film, I’m sure there will be a sequel. And this is where Netflix can come in and take advantage of the huge popularity. Sure, you still can have the sequel, but Hollywood is all about those Benjamins, and trust me, if you make a Hamiltonized version of Downton Abbey, you are probably gonna make enough money to buy the Crown Jewels. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I want to see this happen.
So out of the generosity of my heart, and my desire to ensure that I can continue logging into my brother’s Netflix, I have taken upon myself to get this poppin’ off with THE most important part of any “colorization” of a very white show: picking the right cast.
You cannot underestimate the importance of this decision. In order to do right by the characters they play, as well as the actors who made those characters iconic, it’s absolutely imperative to pick the right people of color to play their white counterparts.
So, let’s get this started. However, before I do. I have one rule. One which may be controversial.
No Black Brits
That’s right. No African-American Brits. (Wait. That doesn’t make sense. I guess I mean, No African-British Brits. Wait. Now that’s redundant. F*ck. You know what I mean. No black people born and bred in the UK.)
I think this is only fair. Far too many of y’all black Brits have been coming over the pond and taking jobs away from poor black American actors. So, as they used to say in old English, “quid pro quo.” (that might be Latin, but no matter. It’s an old language). I’m sorry, but I must insist.
Now, without further ado, my perfectly curated Hamiltonized cast of Downton Abbey.
Lord and Lady Grantham
Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross
I know what you’re gonna say: “But Ron! Anderson and Ross already play a popular TV couple on Black-ish. It seems extremely unimaginative to also cast them as the titular aristocratic couple.” But that’s precisely why they should play Lord Grantham and Cora Crawley.
There will already be a challenge to get people to accept a Hamiltonized version of this show. Anything we can do ahead of time to ease the transition is worth doing. Besides, it’s very common for popular TV show couples to be cast in movies as couples, especially when it comes to appeasing American audiences who are not particularly good when it comes to change and acceptance.
Mary is the older daughter of the Crawleys and sort of like the CEO of the Grantham estate. She’s a “modern day” woman, ahead of her time, with a fiery spirit and a commanding presence. Mary is a woman that doesn’t take shit from no man, and never lets her sex appeal distract you from the fact that she will go to town on you if you do wrong by her or her family.
Saldana has made a name for herself playing such strong-willed women: from Uhura in the JJ Abrams spawned Star Trek series, to Neytiri in Avatar to Gamora in the MCU; and even to her controversial, yet brilliantly performed role as Nina Simone in Nina, Saldana has both the presence and the talent to make a complicated and crucial role like Mary Talbot come to life.
Lady Edith Pexham
Lady Edith is the conflicted, often dour, and consistently troubled middle sister and “Jan” to Mary’s “Marcia.” In the early seasons, they were constantly at each other’s throats and even did some pretty foul sh*t to one another. Over time, their relationship improved and their bond grew stronger. Yet, despite Edith’s haunted spirit (at one point in the show she was even jilted at the altar), she also has the ability to bring the fire when necessary. (There was a time in the show where her feminism took hold and she even become editor of a magazine, which back in early 1920s Great Britain, was unheard of).
Orjii started her career as a stand-up comic, and like most comics-turned-actors, she is able to tap into a darker side and draw performances from inner pain. I think she does that brilliantly on the hit HBO show Insecure. Orjii would bring a level of humanity to the character of Lady Edith that would make both Edith, and her real-life alter-ego actor, Laura Carmichael, very proud.
Tom is the dashing, handsome, Irish Republican and radically political chauffeur who marries into the Crawley family when the youngest sister, Cybil, falls in love with him, runs off, marries him, and bears him a child. Naturally, she dies giving birth, leaving Tom a widower, and ripping the hearts right out of every one of us fans who had to sit there and see the beautiful, spunky, just and pure, family rebel, dear Lady Cybil die while giving birth to her child. (DAMN YOU LORD JULIAN FELLOWES FOR PUTTING ME THROUGH THAT!)
Over the course of the series, Tom earns the trust and genuine love of the very English Crawley family, despite his hot Irish blood and liberal political leanings. (Which makes it very confusing that he’s a “republican,” but, you know, the Brits do things different over there.)
This role calls for someone who is equally dashing, debonair, young looking, and able to play tough when necessary (there’s a scene where Tom has to throw down). Who better than the Boyega for such a role?
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Ron, didn’t you just say there are to be no black Brits?” And yes, I did say that, but come on. Boyega would be PERFECT as a black Tom. I can’t let a little rule like “no black Brits” keep me from making the absolute best choices for this cast. It’s too important. So I have to make an exception here.
Isobel Grey (formerly Crawley)
Isobel Grey is the upper-middle-class widow and in-law relative to the Crawley’s via her late husband. Her son, Matthew, fell in love with and married Mary Crawley, before dying in season 3 from a terrible, “I-gotta-go-make-movies” car accident.
Isobel has a very different outlook on life than the rest of the snooty Crawleys, and as such, is often at odds with the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley (the matriarch of the Crawley family). Because of that, Isobel and Violet often get into verbal sparring matches, and I can think of no better person to inhabit that role that the Anthony Anderson’s TV mother Jenifer Lewis. If you’ve ever seen her character Ruby on Black-ish, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Lady Maud Bagshaw is one of the last remaining heiresses of the Crawley family, cousin to the Grantham matriarch, Violet Dowager. She and Violet are at odds with one another, the reasons for which surround the mystery as to why Lady Bagshaw, aunt to Robert Crawley, has not formerly decided to leave her wealth to Robert, the oldest living male heir.
The role needs to be held by someone we can believe has the fortitude and will to stand up to and put in her place a woman as opinionated, strong-willed, and powerful as Violet Crawley. Angela Bassett is regal, renown, and comes pre-installed with the bad-assery necessary to stand up to violet.
Mr. Bates and Anna
Idris Elba and Thandie Newton
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Ron! You’re doing it again and breaking your own damn rule of ‘No black Brits?” Yes, I know I said no black Brits, but I’m sorry. Idris is just too fuckin’ cool NOT to be in this movie. Nope. Not gonna do it. For that reason, I must make a yet another exception to the aforementioned rule when it comes to Idris.
Also, there’s another aspect to Elba I like: he kinda comes from the same lower-class world as Mr. Bates, but he has a strong and stern appeal. Mr. Bates has a war background and a very dark side (I think he killed a man once). Elba can bring that same tough austere combined with charm and appeal that Brendan Coyle brings to Mr. Bates.
Now, before you start complaining about breaking my “No black Brits” rule again because of Thandie Newton, f*ck it! I’m scrapping that stupid rule. What the hell was I thinking? So, just ignore the aforementioned rule. Black Brits Welcome!
So with that stupid rule obliterated, I’m choosing Thandie because Anna is a shrewd and wise schemer when she needs to be. Thandie would be coming off her role as Maeve in HBO’s Westworld, who, like Anna, is a “servant” who longs for a better life.
Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes
Eddie Murphy and Alison Sealy-Smith
For years Mr. Carson was the head butler of Downton Abbey, running it like a well-oiled machine. At the end of the show’s run, he retired from his duties to live a quieter life with his love Mrs. Hughes (the head house maid alongside whom he worked all those years). Their story was sort of like the anti-Remains of the Day.
I think Murphy inherently brings with him a spirit not unlike Mr. Carson’s. For years he was Hollywood’s top comedic actor. And while he has by no means retired, it wouldn’t be off to say his career hasn’t had the best turn of events in recent years. However, word on the street is that his latest pet project, the Netflix original feature Dolemite is My Name, has Murphy returning to the silver screen with a powerful and redemptive performance of the 1970s blaxploitation actor, producer, comedian Rudy “Dolemite” Moore. In the movie, Carson also gets a chance to relive his glory days and reclaim the role and respect which made him fulfilled. Murphy playing this role would therefore bring a touching meta element.
Despite being an older, more respectable sort who all too well knows her place in the caste system which is early 20th century British society, Mrs. Hughes is not shy from speaking her mind and putting you in your place should you cross her—and she gets to show that fire and spirit in Downton Abbey when dueling it out with the Queen’s head maid.
I like Barbadian actress Sealy-Smith for this role first and foremost because she brings a long, vibrant, and rich acting career which includes significant Shakespeare performances on the stage (she’s also one of the women who’s played the voice of the mutant Storm in one of the animated versions of X-men). Sealy-Smith has both the acting chops and that fiery spirit you need for Mrs. Hughes.
Lastly, one of the things I personally like about Downton Abbey are the myriad British accents there are, and Mrs. Hughes has one of the most distinct. Sealy-Smith’s Barbadian accent will play into that perfectly.
Tom Barrow (head butler at Downton Abbey)
Barrow is a complicated man with a troubled soul. As a gay man living in 1920s Great Britain, where such a lifestyle was illegal, Barrow has to hide a part of who he is from the world. But in earlier seasons he was self-loathing, and that hatred of self poured out onto his treatment of his fellow servants. However, over time, as the audience came to understand his plight, his character and reception evolved.
You can’t have a Hamiltonization of Downton Abbey and not include the genius behind the original musical from which it would be inspired. Miranda’s character Hamilton was not too unlike Barrow. Brash and complicated, he could be both despised and loved.
For the uninitiated, another meta element to Miranda playing Barrow is that it’s strongly speculated that Alexander Hamilton had a homosexual affair with southerner John Laurens. In fact, the song “My shot” makes a direct allusion to this:
Burr, check what we got
Mister Lafayette, hard rock like Lancelot
I think your pants look hot
Laurens, I like you a lot
Let’s hatch a plot blacker than the kettle callin’ the pot
What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot
I think Miranda would bring that appeal to the character. And my next pick makes his Barrow all the more perfect.
Richard Ellis (the King’s head footman)
Leslie Odom Jr.
Without giving too much away (which the trailer kinda already does), it becomes pretty clear early in the film that Barrow and Ellis might end up having a thing for each other (I can neither confirm nor deny this plays out in the film. You’ll have to see it for yourself). The direction very clearly telegraphs that if nothing else, Barrow will have the hots for Ellis.
What better person for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Barrow to have googly eyes for than his best-friend turned arch nemesis from Hamilton, Odom Jr (who immortalized the role of Aaron Burr in the original Broadway rendition).
Mrs. Patmore (Downton’s head chef)
The Crawley family head chef is an often wisecracking albeit loveable woman who’s responsible for making sure the entire household is served Michellin Star-level 4-course meals. I love the idea of a beautiful, full-figured legend like Miss Devine playing such a loveable character like Patmore—cooking and serving up the best ham hocks, chitlins, greens, and grits for the Hamiltonized version of Downton Abbey.
Daisy Mason (Downton’s sous chef)
Nora “Awkwafina” Lum
Daisy is the bright-eyed, independent and spirited sous chef of the Crawley household who could give two-shits about the royal visit and thinks everyone else is categorically looney for acting so crazy for two people they don’t even know. In keeping with the theme of peppering in more racial diversity of this Hamiltonized script, I think Awkwafina is the perfect person to represent the free-spirited servant.
The NY-based rapper-turned-actor has been killing it lately, showing a depth and range to her acting from the wise-ass character Peik Lin Goh in Crazy Rich Asians, to her more subdued and emotionally heavy performance as Billi in this sumner’s The Farewell. In many ways, Awkwafina’s rise to fame is not unlike Daisy’s.
Andy Parker (Downton footman)
Andy is a low class footman whose illiteracy is revealed in season 6. The free-spirited and ambitious Daisy rises to the occasion to help him learn to read. The two fall in love and become betrothed (kinda). In the movie, Daisy appears to have doubts about whether Andy is the man for her.
I like golden for this role because he’s quickly becoming typecast as the go-to dashing lead Asian male. I like the idea of having him stretch his acting chops and cast hims slightly against type as the footman with the low self-esteem and the nerdy look.
Mr. Molesley (Downton footman)
Mr. Molesley is quite a character. A man who means well but is clumsy, often unsure of himself, and could trip over his own shadow. But he also has a child-like spirit and joy that is infectious and comes to light when he hears the royal family is coming to Downton. In fact, by far the best scene in the movie is equally laugh out loud funny and absolutely terrifying. I (and many other people in the audience) audibly gasped when it happened and it involves Mr. Molesley.
A tall and lanky gentleman with such a cartoon-like presence would be played beautifully by Key, and I would love to see a comedic genius like Key bring both his pathos and comedic timing to a character like Molesley.
Mr. Wilson (the King’s head valet)
One of the few white characters in Hamilton is King George. It’s not lost on me (or perhaps anyone), that a white person is cast as the defacto “villain” in a musical where all the Founding Fathers are played by people of color. So, in keeping with that theme, I can think of no better person to play the snooty, loud, demeaning, and condescending head valet of King George V as the jovial, loveable, BFF apparent to all of Broadway, James Corden.
Mrs. Webb (the Queen’s head house maid)
The royal head housemaid is kind of a caricature in the film. In fact, all the royal department heads are a tad cartoonish. It could be considered one of the criticisms of the film, except that they’re cartoonish is such a fun way. And Mrs. Webb (played by Richenda Carey) has a total “Wicked Witch of the West” kinda vibe from the minute she comes on screen.
I have to be honest. I came dangerously close to casting Tyler Perry as Madea or RuPaul’s Drag Drag Race winner Bianca del Rio. But the more I thought about it, I determined those two would be, shall we say, a little much.
Waithe on the other hand brings two great qualities. First and foremost, she can act her ass off and has a reserved toughness I think would bring a more authentic humanity to the character. Second, Waithe has proven with her Master of None performances that she can also bring the funny, when necessary. I’d love to see her go toe-to-toe with Sealy-Smith..
Monsieur Courbet (The Royal Chef)
Yes, I have already cast Key in another role as Mr Molesley. But, another aspect of Hamilton is the casting of certain actors in two roles. Daveed Diggs famously played both Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in the original Broadway run of the show. So, why not do the same for the Hamiltonized version of D.A.
As I just mentioned above, the royal staff can come off a bit cartoonish, and the most egregiously delightful cartoon of the bunch is the French and over-bearing chef. This dude is to French people what Step n Fetchit is to black people. Think about the most stereotyped, arrogant, and loud Frenchman, and you have Chef Courbet. From the over-the-top accent to the equally audacious personality, Keegan Michael-Key would be spot on.
Miss Lawton (the Queen’s lead dresser)
Miss Lawton is another one of the snooty royal handmaids who lords her status as personal dresser to the Queen over the Downton servants, in particular, Anna. But, of all the royal servants who replace the downstairs help, she is the most “complicated.”
McDonald could bring just the right balance of black bougie-ness (the equivalent of snootiness in the black community) with an air of humanity needed to give the audience just a touch of compassion (but not too much).
Lucy Smith (Lady Bagshaw’s maid)
Lucy is the maid to Lady Bagshaw and mysteriously has a very close connection to the countess. She brings an air of innocence and newness to the story that I think Bailey would naturally bring.
Also, as the subject of controversy over her casting as Ariel in the live action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, it seems fitting to give her yet another opportunity to participate in a film that will certainly piss off the MAGA-hats who will undoubtedly see this whole production as just another way for SJW commie libs to mess up yet another great American movie and TV show. 😂
Captain Chetwode is a mysterious bloke who appears to be interested in the plans and actions of Tom Branson. Knowing that Tom’s loyalty to his mother country of Ireland, and his liberal political leanings, is it possible that Chetwode has it in for Tom during the visit of the royals? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
But, you had me at “mysterious.” From his role as the fast food restaurant-owning murderous sociopath Gus in Breaking Bad, to his current role as The Narrator in Netflix’s Dear White People, from the minute Esposito walks on screen he’ll bring the dread and drama.
Princess Mary Countess of Harewood
Princess Mary has a sadness that she carries around due to the weight of being a royal daughter and being married to someone who appears to be a (much older) royal pain in the ass. You can see the sadness in her eyes, played beautifully by Kate Phillips.
Browning would bring a similar ethos to the role, a feeling she can tap into from her own personal life (last year she shared on the popular morning show “The Breakfast Club” that she is adopted, something she’d never shared publicly before.)
King George V and Queen Mary
Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey
Who better to play the two richest and most powerful people in Great Britain than the black equivalent among African-American royalty?
When Tyler plays a man, he has a very stately appeal, and he’s great at making cameo appearances of serious roles. Despite the fact that the movie is based on the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, they have relatively little actual screen time. Think about his role as the attorney in Fincher’s Gone Girl, or his role as an Admiral in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
What I like about Oprah as the Queen Mary (besides the obvious), is that she’s a talented actor and even though the Queen doesn’t have very much screen time, when she does, she brings a believable sense of compassion and wisdom. Oprah OOZES compassion and wisdom.
So, when looking for someone who embodies the very essence of black “royalty” there can be none other than Perry and Winfrey.
Also, I recently listened to the Focus Features podcast Zoom episode about the making of this movie. In it the recount the story of the actors playing the king and queen asking the director how to be “royal.” His response was that they didn’t have to be. The burden of making them feel like royalty fell on the other actors responding to them in a way that conveys it.
Who doesn’t get weak in the knees and an urge to bow our curtsey when Miss Oprah walks into a room? Then add Tyler’s aura to that>? Sheeeet, fuhgetaboutit!
The Dowager Countess
You may have noticed that I haven’t yet shared my casting for arguably the biggest star on the show, if not the favorite—the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, matriarch of Downton Abbey and mother to Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley.
In a show filled to the brim with strong women at a time when in reality women had very little power, Violet has a wisdom that comes with living decades in British aristocracy, having her fair share of trollups in her youth, and helping to shepherd a family into a new age. And her one-liners and quips are to die for.
She is played by Dame Maggie Smith, a cinematic legend in Great Britain (nay, the world), who is equally beloved in America both for her role as the Countess, but also as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series. So, it goes without saying that whoever I choose to play her role must be chosen with the utmost care. And for that reason, my selection for Violet Crawley is none other than…
Dame Maggie Smith
If you think for one second I’m going to get ANYONE to replace Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, may I be so bold as to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton to Daveed Diggs’s Thomas Jefferson in the song “Cabinet Battle #2”, “YOU MUST BE OUT OF YOUR GODDAM MIND…”
There ain’t no way in hell I’M gonna replace a legend like that. I don’t care HOW down, “woke,” and contemporary my cast is.
It’s pretty much the same reason why every voice actor for the remake of The Lion King replaced the original actor EXCEPT for James Earl Jones as Mufasa.
Maggie Smith is the “Mufasa” of Downton Abbey.
She is irreplaceable. End of story. Don’t you dare even mention it again.
But I know what you’re gonna say next: “But Ron, Dame Maggie wasn’t even sure she would return to a movie, and there’s a good chance she wouldn’t want to return for another movie. How do plan to get her back?”
That’s a great question. First, let’s not forget that you’re reading a blog post about a world where a Downton Abbey recast with a bunch of black folk exists in the first place. In such a world, is it really that far a stretch to also imagine Dame Maggie Smith happily returning, if for no other reason than the sheer joy she would have working on a set with so many talented and funny black people. Besides that, I’m also confident that between Tyler Perry’s charm and Oprah’s “black girl magic,” it can happen.
Who would be your picks?
Phew! So there you have it. My picks for a Hamiltonization of Downton Abbey, and a surefire way for Netflix to assure its continued world domination.
What do you think of my picks? Who would you change and why. Let me know on Twitter, Insta, Facebook, or the comments below.
Also published on Medium.