Artist recasts famous films with Black, queer and Asian stars: 'Representation is everything'

Erin Donnelly
·6-min read
John Boyega shared Zoe Hsu's illustration of him and Nathalie Emmanuel as Rose and Jack in Titanic. (Image: Courtesy of Zoe Hsu)
John Boyega shared Zoe Hsu's illustration of him and Nathalie Emmanuel as Rose and Jack in Titanic. (Image: Courtesy of Zoe Hsu)

A young artist’s illustrations reimagining period dramas and other famed films with queer, Asian and Black performers in the lead roles have been given a boost by John Boyega — whom she recast in one drawing to replace Leonardo DiCaprio as tragic Titanic heartthrob Jack.

Boyega appears in white tie opposite former Game of Thrones actress Nathalie Emmanuel (replacing Kate Winslet as Rose) in artist Zoe Hsu’s version of the Oscar-winning film’s memorable grand staircase scene.

“My kind of night,” the British actor said of Hsu’s work, which he shared with his 2.4 million Instagram followers.

“As an Asian-American, I have always been interested in promoting diversity within art, since I myself know what it’s like to not see yourself in media and there’s been a movement within the art community of redrawing popular characters as people of colour,” says Hsu, who calls Boyega’s recognition of her work “honestly unexpected but amazing.”

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But Hsu’s now-viral series all started with a different alternative leading man entirely: Dev Patel, currently defying conventional casting as the title character in Armando Iannucci’s latest film, The Personal History of David Copperfield.

Hsu envisions the English actor of Indian descent as another waistcoated literary fixture: Mr. Darcy.

Dev Patel and Letitia Wright as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. (Image: Courtesy of Zoe Hsu)
Dev Patel and Letitia Wright as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. (Image: Courtesy of Zoe Hsu)

“I had seen a tweet suggesting that Pride and Prejudice be recast with Dev Patel and [Black Panther star] Letitia Wright as the leads and as a person with a deep love of period films and the two actors, I just really latched onto the idea and knew I wanted to create visuals for the idea,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment of the inspiration for her new art series. “This then led to me thinking, ‘I wonder what it would look like if other period films were casted with minorities?’”

A scene from Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women, meanwhile, now sees Hunter Schafer, the trans actress who stars in Euphoria, as Jo, while Filipino-American Spider-Man: Homecoming actor Jacob Batalon portrays Laurie. Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet play the characters in the film.

“I felt that Schafer could capture the same wispy free-spirited energy of Jo March as Saoirse had done,” says Hsu. “I also had wanted to cast Schafer because it's often implied that Jo March is a queer character and I thought it would've been fitting to have a queer actress play her. For Laurie, Batalon had shown with his work in the Spider-Man films that he could embody the same gentle and carefree energy as Timothée Chalamet’s performance. I also wanted to show not only a POC [person of colour] but a plus-size POC as the male lead love interest since Hollywood tends to typecast fat actors as sidekicks or comic relief.”

Hunter Schafer and Jacob Batalon as Little Women's Jo and Laurie. (Image: Courtesy of Zoe Hsu)
Hunter Schafer and Jacob Batalon as Little Women's Jo and Laurie. (Image: Courtesy of Zoe Hsu)

Moving to horror films following her period piece miniseries, Hsu replaced Shelley Duvall with Lupita Nyong’o as The Shining’s Wendy Torrance; the swap felt fitting given the latter’s critically acclaimed turn in Jordan Peele’s Us last year.

“To me, representation is everything,” says Hsu. “Our world is so diverse, yet Hollywood just keeps producing the same white stories with the same white actors and it's frankly embarrassing that they’re still so behind in diversity. The period genre especially has been almost exclusively white and when there are POC periods, the POC characters always have to play either subservient or traumatic roles and I’m just tired of seeing that. People of colour shouldn't have to be traumatised every time they see themselves on the big screen; they should be able to see themselves joyful, falling in love, being the heroes and all the other cliches of those classic period romances.”

She also resists the argument that casting, say, a Black actress as the lead in a Jane Austen adaptation, or Patel as a Victorian-era riches-to-rags protagonist, shouldn’t be done because it doesn’t accurately reflect the history of that period.

Lupita Nyong'o takes over for Shelley Duvall as The Shining's Wendy Torrance. (Image: Courtesy of Zoe Hsu)
Lupita Nyong'o takes over for Shelley Duvall as The Shining's Wendy Torrance. (Image: Courtesy of Zoe Hsu)

“My series isn't about historical accuracy or the logic of the situation,” she says. “It’s about having minorities occupy spaces in the film industry that were only meant for the cis straight white. Genres like period romance, horror, fantasy, et cetera, have been practically untouchable for people of colour and I want to illustrate how we can change that.

“Many people have problems with putting POC in these roles because it’s not ‘historically accurate,’ but half of these movies aren't historically accurate anyway,” she points out. “Costumes are often inaccurate in order to make them more visually appealing, but nobody is throwing a fit over that because those people don't really care about the history, they just don’t like seeing POC in the places of white people. You can’t just nitpick at what things have to be accurate for your own benefit. If we’re already willing to allow historical inaccuracies already, then why not just lean into it? In many cases the characters are fictional anyway — why should it matter if they are played by a Black person, an Asian person, a Latinx person?POC actors deserve to be presented with the same opportunities that their white peers are handed.”

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She adds that her drawings aren’t saying that a Black or queer performer would automatically improve on a role, or that classic films need to be remade.

“The drawings are more like suggestions for what could be possible,” Hsu says. “I want to see POC being cast in sweeping love stories like Titanic, I want to see queer people telling queer stories, I want to see minorities taking back their power and saving the day instead of just being there to aid the white leads.”

Of her reimagined Titanic starring Boyega and Emmanuel, she says, “I can only hope some Hollywood casting director sees it and gets inspired.”

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