Nathalie Emmaneul on Missandei’s death and the need for representation on TV


Game of Thrones star Nathalie Emmanuel always comes through. “If you fail to have a diverse cast at this point in history… That is a choice.”

Nathalie Emmanuel played Missandei of Naath for six straight seasons on Game of Thrones, but she probably got the most attention right at the end of her story, when she was executed by Cersei Lannister at the gates of King’s Landing, as her Queen Daenerys Targaryen watched. “I loosely know that Dany avenges her friend,” Emmanuel joked to Vogue — she still hasn’t watched the final episodes. “I’m not sure that Missandei had any idea what she started…”

“Avenges her friend” is putting it pretty lightly. Daenerys laid waste to King’s Landing, only one of a succession of controversial moments that marked the final stretch of the show.

But for many, it was Missandei’s death that stood out most. As director Ava DuVernay pointed out, she was the only prominent woman of color on the show, so for her to meet so violent an end stung.

Speaking to Essence, Emmanuel admits that, at the beginning of her run on the show, she “probably wasn’t as aware as I maybe should’ve or could’ve been” about how much people looked up to her as a representation of people of color. “I was a much younger, inexperienced woman then, and I didn’t realize how big of an impact it would be on a platform like that. Because I’m like, ‘I know what it’s like to be a woman of Black mixed heritage in this world. I know what that means, I’ve lived this life.’ Then, you go into a space like that and suddenly you realize what it really means because you’ve got millions of people, reacting and responding to it.”

By the time Missandei died, she was in a different place. “I definitely understood beforehand what my role meant to people, but the days after that episode really brought it home,” Emmanuel told Vogue. “I loved that character, and I wish she had had a happy ending – but Westeros is this brutal, heartless world, so you have to keep that in mind. When it comes down to it, the backlash stems from the fact that, when there’s so few non-white characters on-screen, a death like that registers as a massive loss.”

"It definitely caused me to reflect a lot more – about race and diversity more generally. At the end of the day, if there’s ever a show on the level of Game of Thrones again, representation has to be part of the conversation from the beginning. That way, there’s no single person who has to represent every other person of colour. It’s a conversation I used to have a lot with Jacob [Anderson], who played Grey Worm, the only other major non-white character in the series. We were always really conscious of how much our being part of Game of Thrones mattered to people. It made us really protective of Missandei and Grey Worm."

I think we’re a while off from having another show as popular as Game of Thrones, but we’re already seeing some fantasy shows making more of an effort to include representation. For example, Netflix’s Cursed cast actors of color to play King Arthur and his sister Morgana, and one of the main characters on The Witcher, Yennefer, is played by an actor of mixed English and Indian heritage.

For her part, Emmanuel remembers how important it was for her as a girl to see people who resembled her in the entertainment industry. “I literally remember seeing the Spice Girls and seeing Mel B and being like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a brown girl in it. She’s got an Afro and she looks like me,’” she told Essence. “And so when it comes to representation, when I started pursuing this career, I always knew that my being anywhere was important.”

And because it’s important, it means that Emmanuel has a responsibility to people of color everywhere. That can be daunting, but is ultimately something she welcomes. “Sometimes I feel completely ill-equipped to handle it because I’m like, ‘I’m just one person, how can I possibly represent everyone of color? That’s just impossible.’ We’re such a beautifully diverse group of people. It’s a huge responsibility and it can be a little overwhelming and a little scary, but I’m always trying to be engaged with conversations that don’t necessarily center around me and my experience.”

Emmanuel is regularly eloquent on these kinds of topics, so I don’t think she has to worry overmuch about misrepresenting people. The question now is what to do next:

"Now is the moment for everybody to educate themselves about systemic racism. If I’m able to identify my privilege – as a mixed-race woman; as someone who’s cis-gendered and able-bodied; as someone who is financially secure at this point in her life – there’s no legitimate reason why anybody else should fail to engage. These conversations about the need for more representation across the board have been happening for a long, long time. If you fail to have a diverse cast at this point in history… That is a choice. You’re making a statement. It’s like, really? Okay, cool."

Die Hart is out on Quibi now!

Nathalie Emmanuel: Emilia Clarke “had my back” after sexist comment on Game of Thrones set. dark. Next

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