Telling People Apart

A problem that I don’t think film-makers fully appreciate is the difficulty, occasionally, of telling characters apart. If one is a Dalek and one is a Victorian lady, there is no problem, but if both are humans of the same gender and similar age (and neither is played by an astronomically famous star) muggles like myself can get confused between hero, hero’s best friend, villain, and casual bystander. Watching a film intended for the cinema on a TV screen doesn’t help. The problem can be exacerbated if both/all characters are, say, soldiers, or peasants, or (extreme case) nuns.

I was very familiar with The Lord of the Rings in book format, but it still took me more than one viewing of the first film before I was confident in distinguishing those curly-haired scallywags, Merry and Pippin, from each other.

The problem is less serious with books, as the author helpfully tells you who’s doing and saying what, but it is still easier to remember a character if you know what they’re supposed to look like in your head.

I’m not myself that good at writing vivid physical description, and I’ve found a bit of an issue with my Tales from Ragaris, which has given me something to ponder. On Ragaris, there are pale-skinned people (Anglo-Saxon type) and dark-skinned people (African-Caribbean) but the majority of the population is specifically stated to be brown-skinned and black-haired. In We Do Not Kill Children, I can count 14 characters (8 men, 6 women) who are all between the ages of say 20 and 55, all brown-skinned and all but two black-haired.

This means that a lot of standard bookish descriptors (blonde tresses, pink cheeks, mouse-brown hair, freckles etc) are invalid. I’ve had to fall back on things like number of limbs, scars, chubbiness or otherwise, and such, to distinguish them. It’s harder with women; men can at least be bald or bearded, or not.

Hmm. To revert to films, in our family we tend to watch superhero films, and I can never tell the difference between the Marvel heroes Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (played by Don Cheadle).

Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle are both black.

I have no such difficulty telling Iron Man from the Hulk, even when one is not suited and the other is not green. Admittedly these are both bigger roles.

Is it offensive for me, as a middle-aged white woman, to say that I get confused between two African-Caribbean men, more so than I would if they were white, but possibly no less so than I would if they were Chinese?

In Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, the character Hari Kumar, famously played on TV long ago by Art Malik, is British educated but ethnically Indian. It is a traumatic event for him when his best friend does not instantly recognise him in a crowd, but is this fair? Do all white people find those of a specific other race confusingly similar, or is it just me?

If it’s not just me, do people of minority communities in Britain notice this – that maybe even people who they know quite well don’t always recognise them instantly? How hurtful or annoying must this be?

Does it work the other way round? Maybe to a Chinese person I look exactly like any other middle-aged white woman.

I feel a little ashamed and embarrassed even to be typing this, as if I am confessing that my eyes are racist, even though my mind doesn’t want to be.

“Please forgive me if I don’t recognise you when I should.”

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS For those who haven’t seen it, my “interview” with Jem Bloomfield is here:

  • Clint Redwood

    4th March 2017 at 12:27 am Reply

    When I worked in the north-east briefly, I learned to recognise the difference in accent between Newcastle, Gateshead and Middlesbrough. Before that I had only been able to discern a “north east” accent.

    This was not racist, just “under exposed” to a locality.

  • Judith Leader

    4th March 2017 at 1:13 pm Reply

    I listened to a play on the radio, it was the detective Rebus I think. They obviously all had Scottish accents and I had to listen to it again as I couldn’t tell one character (male) from the other, first time round, I felt rather ashamed as this would not have happened had it been English.

  • Ellie

    7th September 2017 at 10:58 am Reply

    I have two international friends around my age at church (who have both sadly now moved away): Tiffany, who is from Hong Kong, and Miriam, who is from Uganda.
    Tiffany once told me that she thought John and I looked really similar, almost like brother and sister. I was quite surprised by this. Miriam, however, merely shrugged and said, completely deadpan, “They’re both white”.

    This story always amuses me and suggests that it all depends on perspective and familiarity!

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