Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” brings together the best of stage performances with cinematic presentation, but while I fully appreciate the beauty of the stark black and white images, the binary of diversity on the screen is troubling considering the demographics.
I’ve seen many version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play and this one is certainly worth seeing. Denzel Washington adequately acquits himself as the titular character. He is revealed after we witness a disorienting whiteness become clouds and eventually unveil a witch (Kathryn Hunter) who may be one or two. The voice is grainy and the appearance is androgynous. Like a foghorn emerging from the mists, this voice is more commanding than Macbeth (Denzel Washington), Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) or King Duncan’s (Brendan Gleeson).
This weird sister’s image is linked with black birds. If you’re not aware of how the natural world works, in places without buzzards, ravens and crows are the harbingers of death. Unsurprisingly, in folklore both have been associated with the blood-soaked fields of war. They were also seen as messengers of witches and demons. A murder of crows or a conspiracy of ravens will gather, circling above the dying, and dead, waiting for their opportunistic picnic. The unkindness of ravens insult that which was once mortal. We don’t see these black bird picking at their victims in a literal sense. There’s nothing so unpretty as the murderous intent revealed slowly in Macbeth and with alarming alacrity in his Lady (Frances McDormand).
If you’re unfamiliar with the play, the first act opens with thunder and lighting as three witches convene to discuss Macbeth. Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, is a general under the King Duncan of Scotland. He and Banquo had led their armies against the Thane of Cawdor, the traitorous Macdonwald whom we never see. When Macbeth and Banquo, meet the witches, they great him as both the Thane of Glamis and the Thane of Cawdor, but also predict that he will be king. The witches also predict that Banquo will be lesser than Macbeth, but greater because while he will not be a king, he will beget kings. When the two generals meet Duncan, the first of the witches predictions come true, Duncan bestows upon Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor. Duncan, a kinsman of Macbeth, is due to visit Macbeth’s castle and there Macbeth, telling his wife of the witches predictions decides to kill Duncan to become king.
In Act II, Macbeth murders Duncan in his sleep and Lady Macbeth frames Duncan’s sleeping servants. Macbeth murders the servants before they can account for themselves. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee Scotland. With the rightful heirs to the throne gone, Macbeth claims the throne.
This Scotland is far away from the damp, the moss and the mysterious lochs. Instead we find ourselves enclosed in the hard geometry of man and the machinations of murderous intent. The sets by set designer Tim Croshaw (with set decoration by Nancy Haigh) and cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel owe a lot to German Expressionism, but synthesized through Minimalism. There are points where the stage will greet nature. A field of grasses will offer refuge to a frightened young boy, a survivor of an evil ambush. The forest will walk toward the castle where the crown Macbeth wears grows too heavy.
In Act III, Macbeth decides to have Banquo murdered, but Banquo’s son, Fleance escapes. Later, during a banquet, Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo and appears mad before his guests, with Lady Macbeth attempting to explain Macbeth’s actions as a harmless sickness that comes and goes. By Act IV, Macbeth again seeks out the witches and they give him three new predictions: Beware of Macduff, that no man born of woman will be able to harm him and that Macbeth will be safe until the Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Afterward, Macbeth learns that Macduff has fled to England and as a repercussion, Macbeth orders the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children.
In the final act, Lady Macbeth has gone mad, washing her hands constantly trying to clean off imaginary blood. Macduff allies himself with Malcolm and the English forces. The soldiers are ordered to camouflage themselves using branches from the Great Birnam Wood. Although Macbeth kills Young Siward, when he meets Macduff, he learns that Macduff was born by Caesarean section and thus, Macduff will kill Macbeth as the witches predicted. Elizabethan audiences would know that James I of England was supposedly descended from Banquo.
In the battle scene, Washington’s Macbeth is arrogantly confident although he has already seen the advancement of the Great Birnam Woods and his face-off with Corey Hawkins’ Macduff is a moment of manly megalomania. Still, Washington’s Macbeth doesn’t rise to the level of some more recent portrayals such as the 2015 38-year-old Michael Fassbender’s portrayal in Justin Kurzel’s film (adapted by Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie). Kurzel aimed at realism in this epic historical drama and Lady Macbeth was the 40-year-old Marion Cotillard. Here Macbeth is on the edge of a midlife crisis and his ambition is to begin a dynasty.
With the 67-year-old Washington and the 64-year-old McDormand as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” seems more like a last chance, a desperate grab for glory. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is a woman, past the age of childbearing, who desperately wants to give her husband something, having failed to produce progeny–something achingly underlined by the witches prediction for Banquo and even the murder of Macduff’s son.
This isn’t Washington’s first foray into Shakespeare on the big screen. He was cast as the prince in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Keanu Reeves played his evil half-brother, Don John, but the real focus was on the witty, word-sparring nobleman Benedict (Branagh) and the strong-willed Beatrice (Branagh’s then-wife Emma Thompson). Branagh’s 2013 production (co-directed with Rob Ashford) of “Macbeth” for the Manchester International Festival, with Branagh playing Macbeth opposite Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth, was part of the National Theatre Live programming (Kingston was 50 and Branagh was 53). As a cinematic play, Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is cooler, more stylized and Washington’s performance suffers in comparison to Branagh’s turn.
Demographics and the Question of Diversity Casting
Neither Branagh’s nor Fassbender’s foray into the Scottish play attempted to cast for diversity. The casting of Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” attempts to be less than color blind by trying to make people seem related by looks (e.g. the casting of Ethan Hutchison as Macduff’s son), but it also seems to operate on a binary system of diversity as Black or White.
- Black: Denzel Washington, Corey Hawkins (Macduff), Moses Ingram, Robert Gilbert (US and British), Ethan Hutchison (Macduff’s son), James Udom (Seyton), Sean Patrick Thomas (Monteith), Olivia Washington (children’s nurse), Wayne T. Carr (Lady Macduff’s murderer)
- English (Alex Hassel as Ross), Bertie Carvel (Banquo), Harry Melling (Malcolm), Richard Short (Siward), Ralph Ineson (Captain)
- Zimbabwe-born British Miles Anderson (Lennox)
- Irish: Brendan Gleesom (King Duncan)
- White American: Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth), Kathryn Hunter (witches), Jefferson Mays (Doctor), Susan Berger (Lady-in-waiting), Stephen Root (porter) Lucas Barker (Fleance), Nancy Daly (Lady Macbeth’s Nurse), Jacoby McCarthy (Wheyface)
Closer to Scotland than the sub-Saharan Africa would be West Asia and North Africa, but geography doesn’t seem to be part of the logic of this casting. Looking at the demographics of where Coen lives (reportedly in Marin County), the casting of people from Great Britain and the US in categories of Black and White make little sense either.
According to Marin County demographics, while the majority are 85.3 percent White alone, there are 6.6 percent Asian alone, 2.8 percent Black or African American and 16.3 percent Hispanic or Latino. People who are two or more races are 4 percent. That means one would expect few Black or African Americans. Even in the United Kingdom, the demographics would demand greater representation of people of Asian descent. According to the 2016 Census Asian or Asian British were 7.19 percent of the population and Black or Black British were 3.3 percent. Of the Asian or Asian British a little over two percent were of Asian Indian descent and another two percent were of Pakistani descent.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” was filmed on Warner Bros. sound stages. In Los Angeles County, Asian Americans are a larger majority (15.4 percent) than Black or African Americans (9 percent). Latino/Hispanic are 48.6 percent. White alone are 70.7 percent. National demographics have White alone at 76 percent (White alone and not Hispanic/Latino is 60 percent), Black or African American at 13 percent, Asian alone at 6 percent and Hispanic/Latino at 18 percent.
If you have 27 roles, 13 percent would be four, but nine percent is three. Forty-nine percent would be 13 roles out of 27 or 18 percent would be five roles. Four roles would be 15 percent.
While the best person should be cast for each role, the practice of casting diversity as the inclusion of Black or African American actors is not diversity according to either national or geotargeted populations. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a fine example of black and white cinematography, but also an unfortunate reminder that race is often viewed as a binary of Black and White, limiting the roles and conversations about what diversity is or should be.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival (24 September 2021). It was given a limited release on 25 December 2021 in the US.