We want more movies about BIPOC stories, including historical figures. But Hollywood acts like it doesn’t know where to start. Enter “Make This Movie,” where great movie ideas get pushed into the ether.
We’ve seen a ton of films about white British war heroes, but there are a ton of non-white heroes from the British commonwealth who also deserve their flowers in movie form. One such war hero is Mary Seacole.
Seacole was a British-Jamaican woman who became one of the most well-known nurses and businesswomen in the Commonwealth. Using her knowledge passed down to her from West African and Jamaican “doctresses,” Seacole used herbal medicines and other medical help for British soldiers during the Crimean War. Her skills as a nurse also have led many to believe she was the first nurse practitioner in England since nursing schools in the country were set up after the end of the Crimean War.
She wrote her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, in 1857, and is one of the earliest autobiographies by a multiracial woman. Seacole was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991, nearly 100 years after her death, and in 2004, she was named the greatest Black Briton.
Instagram account @blackhistorynonstop, wrote about Seacole’s life and her accomplishments. To quote the account:
Mary Jane Seacole is unequivocally one of the most famous black nurses ever. Mary ‘Mother ‘Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her mother was a practitioner of traditional Jamaican medicine and had a boarding house. Mary Seacole would play a major part in looking after patients of both the yellow fever and cholera epidemic in Jamaica.
From young, Mary Seacole would use her dolls to practice medicine and in 1821, she began to travel the world, soaking up medical knowledge at each stop. She sailed to England and asked to be an army nurse to wounded British soldiers in Crimea (now part of Ukraine).
The war of Crimea was fought between Russia and an alliance made up of France, the Ottoman Empire, the United Kingdom and Sardinia as a result of regional power struggles within Europe.
The War Office of the UK initially refused her request to help wounded soldiers, she funded her own trip and set up the British Hotel
- a place of healing for sick soldiers, Mary Seacole would also often selflessly help soldiers on the Crimean battlefield.
Mary Seacole would pass at the age of 75 in her Paddington home. In 2004 Mary Seacole was given the very condescending award of being the “greatest black Briton.”
The big question, of course, is who could play Seacole in a film. Seacole had many adventures before helping soldiers in the Crimean War, which could lead a studio to cast someone younger and put them in aging makeup as Seacole’s life story unfolds. But, if a film simply focused on Seacole’s time as a nurse during the Crimean War, the casting director should look for someone who is between 40 and 60 years old (give or take some years on either side). Seacole was 48 at the time the war started, but I think there are quite a few older actresses who can still play younger than their actual age.
She was also multiracial and described herself as “Creole” due to her Scottish and Jamaican heritage. She is said to have proudly described herself as being of African ancestry, writing in her book, “I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related–and I am proud of the relationship–to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and those bodies America still owns.”
One problem: Hollywood might have a colorism problem, leading studios to prioritize hiring and supporting lighter-skinned actresses over darker-skinned ones, but it also has an ageism problem, meaning the majority of Black actresses (of any hue) who are cast the most in films are ages 40 and below. The younger you are, the more “viable” you’re considered to be, and the older you are, the more you’re considered ready to be pushed out to pasture. Older actresses are often relegated to roles that don’t allow them to stretch their acting chops. And if you’re an older Black actress, specifically one who has been discriminated against by the color line present in film and TV production, you could be an actress who isn’t even considered for meatier roles. For instance, there are actresses who have extensive stage careers, but aren’t ever considered for the same “Meryl Streep”-type roles simply because they’re considered suitable for “Black only” projects.
A role like Mary Seacole could give an older Black actress, specifically one who hasn’t been deemed acceptable to mainstream audiences by Hollywood, a grand opportunity. There are too many actresses who are talented, but aren’t even recognized by the industry the way they should. A role like Mary Seacole could give an older Black actress the time to flex their acting muscles in the way they’ve always wanted to.
With that said, here are three ideas for actresses who could possibly play Mary Seacole. My choices range from trusted favorites to more contemporary actresses, all of whom have talents worthy of any big-budget biopic.
Harry is best known for her roles on 227 and Sister, Sister, but she started her career on Broadway in Richard Wesley’s Goin’ Through Changes. Harry also has another talent, opera; according to her bio on IMDB, she graduated from New York City’s High School of Music and Art with a concentration in opera.
Her stage and operatic background shows that she has immense talent, but something I’ve gathered from some of her interviews is that she does desire acting challenges that Hollywood has yet to give her. Her latest role on Pose as one of Pray Tell’s (Billy Porter) aunts seems to be a role that gives her the depth she’s been craving.
S. Epatha Merkerson
Merkerson is not just a great actress, she’s also rather down to earth, from what I gathered after speaking with her for the Birmingham Times several years ago. Merkerson is probably best known for her time on NBC’s Law and Order and, currently, Chicago Med.
According to her IMDB bio, Merkerson graduated from Wayne State University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. She later moved to New York to start her stage acting career before joining Law & Order. Outside of her TV acting career, she also has numerous Broadway and off-Broadway credits, including August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, for which she earned a Tony Award nomination. She has several awards to her name as well, including a Drama Desk Award for The Piano Lesson, an Obie Award for her 1992 performance in I’m Not Stoopid, and a Helen Hayes Award for her starring role in John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler.
Merkerson also played Lydia Hamilton Smith in the film Lincoln, detailing Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s decision to end slavery. Smith was a free multiracial Black woman who became the housekeeper for white abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. It’s not known exactly if Smith developed a relationship with Stevens, but the movie seems to portray that as the case. Some people have also thought of Smith as Stevens’ common-law wife. Seeing how she has immense stage experience, as well as experience with historical drama, Merkerson seems like a great choice for Seacole.
Jasmine Guy is best known for A Different World and films like Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights, but she got her start on the stage with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Broadway. According to her IMDB bio, she has had a storied career in television like her counterparts Harry and Merkerson. In recent years, she’s starred in shows popular with younger audiences such as BET’s The Quad, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, and the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, to name a few. She also was the speaking voice for cynical secretary cat Sawyer in the WB animated film Cats Don’t Dance (Natalie Cole provided Sawyer’s singing voice).
Fans of A Different World know Guy is spectacular at crafting specific characters, as we’ve seen with her performance of Whitley Gilbert. She has also shown audiences that she is equally great at drama, starring in the lead role of Alex Haley’s Queen. So clearly, Guy could handle the seriousness necessary to portray Seacole. But we haven’t seen her in many truly dramatic roles since Queen. I say Hollywood should take another look at Guy’s breadth of talent and consider her for some biopics. Ditto for the other women listed here.
Ellis was most recently seen in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, wowing audiences as Chicago mother-turned-Afrofuturist heroine Hippolyta Freeman. Ellis is also currently working in films like the upcoming Richard Williams (aka Venus and Serena Williams’ father) biopic King Richard as the Williams sisters’ mother Brandi, Lifetime’s The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel as matriarch Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, and upcoming dramatic TV series 61st Street.
What I first saw Ellis, I was watching her performance in Canadian-American miniseries The Book of Negroes, which related the story of Aminata Diallo, a former slave who escapes to Canada and catalogues the names of British Loyalist former slaves, earning them safe refuge to Nova Scotia. Her performance is a great example of Ellis’ ability to take on complex subject matter, particularly that of historical Black figures, and translate it to mainstream audiences. So why not give her the role of Seacole?
(Ellis is also seemingly nice as well–I interviewed her for Shadow And Act several months ago, and she was very lovely to talk to.)
Scott has proven herself as a capable actress in films such as Why Did I Get Married?, Get On Up, and TV shows like HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, BET+’s First Wives’ Club, and the CW’s Black Lightning. She is also starring in upcoming films The Outlaw Johnny Black, an untitled television movie (with her as the star) and Ocean Ride for Lauren. In her roles, Scott is able to give a “lived-in” feeling to her characters–by which I mean she is able to imbue a relatability and comfort, even if her characters are villains, like Black Lightning character Lady Eve. She brings this to her music, so it makes sense she’d put it in her acting as well.
But this lived-in, comforting feeling is just what an actress needs to bring to Seacole, who saved so many lives during the Crimean War. If we want to believe Seacole is a healer with gifted hands, it makes sense to cast someone who has the ability to heal her fans through her music and acting.
Who would you cast as Mary Seacole? Give your opinions below!
For more information on little-known historical figures of color, check out my book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans, published through Mango Publishing, available now!