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1917 Didn’t Force Diversity, It Shed Light on History


Sam Mendes’ World War I masterpiece 1917 is a frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar, so I guess now is the time for people to come out of the woodwork with very bad opinions about it.

One such stupid opinion is that of Laurence Fox. Fox is an English actor you’ve likely never heard of (his credits include Victoria), son of another obscure actor, James Fox. The younger Fox appeared on the James Delingpole podcast (I don’t think I could make up a more British name) to whine about a scene in 1917 that included a Sikh soldier.

In the scene, traumatized and solitary soldier Schofield (George MacKay) finds himself on a transport with several other soldiers, including a Sikh soldier, Sepoy Jondalar, played by Nabhaan Rizwan. The moment isn’t emphasized, with the focus of the scene staying on Schofield, but it is noticeable and welcome to see a non-white soldier there.

For Laurence Fox, however, it was distracting and that’s where we come to his tone-deaf comments on diversity: “Even in 1917 they’ve done it with a Sikh soldier, which is great, it’s brilliant,” he said, “but you’re suddenly aware there were Sikhs fighting in this war. And you’re like ‘OK, you’re now diverting me away from what the story is’.” Apparently this guy can’t concentrate on a scene if there aren’t just white people in it. How terrible for him.

He went on to agree with the asshole host about “shoehorning” in diversity: “It is kind of racist—if you talk about institutional racism, which is what everyone loves to go on about, which I’m not a believer in, there is something institutionally racist about forcing diversity on people in that way. You don’t want to think about [that].”

Fox is wrong on so many levels here: Institutional racism is a thing—and a very real and big problem in both the UK and America—but even more pressing, the diversity in 1917 is not forced. It’s accurate and important. Sikh soldiers were a real and important part of World War I.

Thankfully, The MAMA Project, a UK organization dedicated to stopping Anti-Muslim violence, took time to educate yet another ignorant white guy.

Laurence Fox’s comments show the pervasive ignorance that comes from white privilege and living inside a bubble where white stories and people are the default and all that matter. It can be argued that 1917 does not go far enough in terms of diversity. The whole film could have been about a Sikh as easily as it was about a white man, but it is also a story based on Mendes’ own grandfather, so some of the whiteness of the film can be explained. What can’t be said is that the diversity in the film is too much. It’s a subtle, great addition to the film. It makes the movie better and it matters to audiences.

Rahul Kohli, who we loved on iZombie, tweeted about the impact of the moment.

1917 is not just an incredible film because it’s about war, but because it is a film about humanity. It follows a single person relentlessly and painstakingly through the hellscape of World War I and recognized that it wasn’t an all-white world. In doing so it shed light not just on the horrors of the war, but the people who fought in it, Sikhs included.

Fox, for his part, has been educated on this and actually apologized, even if it was wishy-washy.

Hopefully, he won’t be the last person that learns from this film.

(via: Yahoo entertainment, image: Universal)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.