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“Hamilton” Comes to Murder on the Orient Express

“Hamilton” Comes to Murder on the Orient Express

Written by: Monique Jones

Yes, black people did things in the 1930s and Murder on the Orient Express’s Dr. Arbuthnot is here to show you!

When you think of “big blockbuster of the season,” you’re probably not thinking of Murder on the Orient Express. If you’re anything like me, you’re a David Suchet fan (aka the actor who created the seminal portrayal of master detective Hercule Poirot), and you’re not thinking about seeing Murder on the Orient Express.

Without Suchet, what’s the point?

That’s how I thought until I saw the exclusive Entertainment Weekly photos from the film. Now I’m looking forward to seeing this movie on the big screen all because of the appearance of Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot.

The casting of Odom as a 1930s doctor is fantastic, even though you know that the closer we get to the film’s November 10 release date, there will be more “This isn’t accurate to the time!” reactions. Part of what makes Odom’s appearance in this film is because of the fact that it’ll make people learn that, yes, black professionals did exist before the 1970s.

Black doctors like Odom’s Dr. Arbuthnot have existed forever; it’s just that America—and much of Western society in general—has been so segregated for so long that all of the accomplishments of black people, including doctors, scientists, mathematicians, and other stellar glass ceiling breakers have yet to be put into film, much less acknowledged by mainstream society as a whole. Who invented the three-signal traffic light? A black person. Who took America to the moon and back? Black women. Who brought electricity to the masses with the carbon filament in light bulbs? A black person. Whose work led to the modern day pacemaker? A black person’s work. Black society’s contributions to the world of science and medicine go on and on and on. While we are taught about white America’s inventions in schools, black achievement goes largely unrecognized.

Also, to speak more broadly, black people, in general, were a part of Western society in other ways than just as slaves, former slaves, servants to rich white people, sharecroppers, or beggars. There were black people in all parts of society, from the very upper crust to the lower class. In America, for example, there was James McCune Smith, who, like Dr. Arbuthnot, was a physician. However, Smith practiced during the 1800s. Smith was also an apothecary, abolitionist, and author as well as the first African American to hold a medical degree and the first African-American to run a pharmacy in the country.

Another example of black excellence: Greenwood, Oklahoma was known as Black Wall Street, the place where the middle-to-upper class black Americans did their business and lived an elite life. That is, until the Tulsa Race Riot occurred, which wasn’t a “riot” so much as a domestic terrorist act to keep black individuals from reaching the same status of whites in America.

In Europe, the black diaspora could also be seen from the very bottom of the totem pole, all the way up to royalty, take for instance Queen Charlotte of England, who reigned in the late 1700s to early 1800s. She was a direct descendant of the black branch of the Portuguese Royal House, Margarita de Castro y Sousa, and despite the attempt to whitewash her history, she hailed from the black diaspora in Europe.

Another example includes Dr. John Alcindor, who is a near-contemporary to Dr. Arbuthnot. The Trinidadian-born Alcindor settled in London and, after working in hospitals, opened his practice in 1907. He practiced medicine until his death in 1924, at which point he was working as the senior district medical officer of Paddington, a London borough. In other words, Alcindor oversaw the health professionals of Paddington as the head government official of that district’s health department.

What makes Dr. Arbuthnot even cooler is that it’s Odom portraying him. Odom is making a career out of portraying black characters in history, whether that’s as a race bent Aaron Burr in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, Tuskegee Airman Declan “Winky” Hall in Red Tails, or as a doctor who could also be a murder suspect in Murder on the Orient Express.

I would say that Hamilton has done a lot to help change people’s minds about seeing black characters in “unconventional” historical roles. From where I’m sitting, it’s helped people reassess what they think about when they think of black actors or actors of color in general playing fully realized characters in a costume drama film or Broadway show. No longer are we just afforded the background roles; people are now beginning to see blackness in a broader, historical context that allows for the “atypical” casting of actors like Odom in Murder on the Orient Express. It’s the Hamilton effect put to the big screen.

With all of this said, I’m certainly going to make sure I have my money ready for a ticket to see “Murder on the Orient Express.” Do I like that my ticket will help fund Johnny Depp—who we should still remember as Amber Heard’s (alleged) attacker—and will give the false opinion that I approve of Kenneth Branaugh as Weird Mustache Poirot, regardless of how much I love Branaugh in his Shakespeare roles? No. But I want to support Odom and the good Doctor Arbuthnot, because it’s not often you find a black dude in a period film who is just as rich as the richest white guy in the film.

Monique Jones is an entertainment blogger/journalist. She’s written for Entertainment Weekly, Black Girl Nerds,Racialicious, and many others. She runs JUST ADD COLOR (originally called COLOR) and has introduced a new online magazine, COLOR BLOCK Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @moniqueblognet and the official Twitter for JUST ADD COLOR and COLORBLOCK Magazine,@COLORwebmag.

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View Comments (11)
  • Monique….dont be judging Johnny Depp, Heard is a gold digger, and a known liar!

  • if only that was true, this black washing history for to attract the negro audience. There is no way in 1934 that a negro could get into a first class train. It is not racist to not have a person of colour in a historic fiction. The dotoctor is supposed to be Greek, which as a Greek Armenian, I find it disappointing that a Greek is replaced to pander to negros. History is not something you can change, so stop trying too. I did like the article, and thought it was very well written, and I had no idea negros invented so much, but on the topic topic of the film, I have to disagree.

  • About the black doctor. Guy even resembles Leslie a bit “Allan Glaisyer
    Minns (1858 – 16 September 1930) was the first black man
    to become a mayor in Britain.His son Allan Noel Minns (1891 – 1921),
    also a doctor, was one of the few black officers to serve in the British
    Army during the First World War.”Leonidas Berry (1902–1995) was also a
    doctor. He invented the Eder-Berry biopsy gastroscope in 1955. His
    invention made it easier for doctors to collect tissue from the inside
    of the stomach without surgery.” http://blogs.redcross.org.uk/uncategorized/2014/10/curious-tale-black-doctor-paddington/

  • You don’t seem to be getting the point. it is wonderful that people today are shown that African-Americans even in the 1930’s weren’t just some cotton pickers or Uncle Tom’s, but creative and intelligent people (as any sensible person today would reply: obviously!). A great lesson for many yet to learn.

    BUT the question at stake is: would it be possible that in 1934 a man of color were aboard a first class train, the lavish Orient express of all places? And then the answer ultimately is: highly, HIGHLY unlikely. It’s a shame that it was like that, no question, but still – these are the socio-historical facts. And when you shoot a historical drama you ought to stick to the facts of the period and not to your politically correct convictions of today.

    (So, sorry to say so, but only referring to your slightly patronizing comment: Your posting shows you might be out of touch with what went on 80 years ago.)

  • The route of the Orient Express is through foreign countries and does not come anywhere near the segregated American South. There were countries outside the US at that time where interracial marriage wasn’t illegal and no segregation or racism to the degree in America at the time.

  • I saw Leslie Odom as a token and a distraction. No way could a black have ridden the Orient Express during those times, unless they were a servant to one of the passengers. The passengers were ALL white or Asian and rich.
    I disapprove of non traditional casting, and I believe it is always a distraction.

  • Hank you could have quickly googled and got that information in a few seconds ! Anyway, below is a sample of the sources;

    https://www.oh-i-see.com/blog/2014/05/05/the-magic-and-mystery-of-the-orient-express/
    site states:

    “American singer Josephine Baker was a frequent traveler on
    board the Orient Express.”

    http://www.cnn.com/travel/article/can-any-train-ride-match-the-orient-express/index.html
    states

    “Josephine Baker was involved in an Orient Express rail accident in 1931 whenHungarian fascists destroyed a section of a viaduct near Budapest; she gave an impromptu concert to calm the survivors.”

  • I saw Murder on the Orient Express the other day and spent the whole film trying to remember if the book had a black doctor. It was annoying to be honest.

    I read the book years back in high school. I remembered, very well, the subtext of the Jewish origin of the Countessa, the Movie Star and Daisy, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember a Black doctor. I remembered something about India. Was he Indian in the book I wondered?

    Sure, as a Jewish woman, I remembered the Jews, but what about other minorities? Have I gotten more racist and notice race where I didn’t before? Or was I more “woke?” Instead of focusing on the movie, I spent the entire time wondering if I was more or less racist than I’d been in high school because surely they couldn’t have made up a Black character.

    Oh, but they did. A few Black characters, as I highly doubt the border control in 1930s Yugoslavia had Black soldiers. Seriously?

    There have always been wealthy Black people, but it doesn’t fit in this context. Christie’s idea of minorities was having Italians, Greeks and Jews written in. She wrote disparagingly about all until Hitler took over (and then made more sympathetic Jewish ala “Orient Express”).

    Everyone deserves to have their story told. This wasn’t the time or place for racial affairs.

    “Get Out,” now that is a beautiful look at the topic…

  • You ask “would it be possible that in 1934 a man of color were aboard a first class train, the lavish Orient express of all places?” When you check the facts, the answer is not “highly unlikely.” One reason is that black Josephine Baker frequently rode on the Orient Express in the 1930’s..
    Ms. Baker was a black woman who didn’t pass for white (someone once
    called her “too skinny and too dark.” ) With her fame and money she
    could sit VIP section. So a British black doctor who saved the lives of
    black and white soldiers on that same train isn’t so far fetched
    A second reason why black Ms. Baker or a black doctor could be on board is that the route of the Orient Express was through
    foreign countries and the train did not come anywhere near the racist
    segregated American South
    There were countries outside the US at that time with no segregation or racism to the degree in America

  • The question asked was ‘:” would it be possible that in 1934 a man of color were aboard a first class train, the lavish Orient express of all places?” For two reasons, the answer is yes and not “highly unlikely.
    The first reason it is possible is that in the 1930’s black Josephine Baker frequently rode the Orient Express, and with her fame and money could ride VIP. Miss Baker was called “too skinny and too dark” and did not pass for white.
    The second reason it is possible for a man of color to ride the Orient Express is that the route of the famous train was not anywhere near the racist segregated American South but through countries without Jim Crow and segregation

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