In Netflix's Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes provides a blueprint on racial inclusion within period dramas

In Netflix's Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes provides a blueprint on racial inclusion within period dramas

In Netflix's Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes provides a blueprint on racial inclusion within period dramas

“We were two separate societies divided by colour until a king fell in love with one of us,” the quick-witted Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) tells her protégé, the Duke of Hastings. “Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become.” She insists, “Love, Your Grace, conquers all.”

Appearing in the fourth episode of Bridgerton, the first series produced by Shonda Rhimes as part of her powerhouse Netflix deal, this conversation between the show’s main Black characters is the first explicit mention of race in a story that revolves around the duke, a Black man named Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), and his passionate courtship of Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of the wealthy, white and titled Bridgerton family.

The show’s casting diversity is its most immediately striking quality, not just in Black aristocratic characters like the duke and Lady Danbury, but also in the entrepreneurial Madame Genevieve Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale) and the working-class couple Will and Alice Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe and Emma Naomi). All of them are central to the complicated social caste system in the show’s version of early 1800s London.

Bridgerton is not Rhimes’ first dalliance with a multiracial cast in a British period drama. In 2017, she produced Still Star-Crossed on ABC, a story that began after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and focused on their cousins Benvolio Montague and Rosaline Capulet, who were forced to marry in order to heal the family rift. Although Benvolio and Rosaline are intentionally cast as an interracial couple, the race was neither a point of contention nor grist for social commentary. Instead, viewers were asked to suspend our contemporary racial perceptions in order to accept the colourblind Verona of the past. (This strategy, among others, was largely unsuccessful — Still Star-Crossed was cancelled after only one season.)

In contrast, the characters of Bridgerton never seem to forget their blackness but instead understand it as one of the many facets of their identity, while still thriving in Regency society. The show’s success proves that people of colour do not have to be erased or exist solely as victims of racism in order for a British costume drama to flourish.

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Chris Van Dusen, the Bridgerton showrunner, was a writer on Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy before going on to be a co-executive producer of Scandal, a show that recognised but did not entirely revolve around the interracial tensions of Olivia Pope’s romantic relationships. Applying that same approach to his adaptations of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels, Van Dusen places us in an early 19th century Britain ruled by a Black woman, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel).

“It made me wonder what that could have looked like,” Van Dusen told The New York Times in a recent feature about the show. “Could she have used her power to elevate other people of colour in society? Could she have given them titles and lands and dukedoms?”

Such a move pushes back against the racial homogeneity of hit period dramas like Downton Abbey, which that show’s executive producer, Gareth Neame, insisted was necessary for historical accuracy. “It’s not a multicultural time,” he said in a 2014 interview with Vulture. “We can’t suddenly start populating the show with people from all sorts of ethnicities. It wouldn’t be correct.”

Bridgerton provides a blueprint for British period shows in which Black characters can thrive within the melodramatic storylines, extravagant costumes and bucolic beauty that make such series so appealing, without having to be servants or enslaved. This could in turn create openings for gifted performers who have avoided them in the past.

“I can’t do Downton Abbey, can’t be in Victoria, can’t be in Call the Midwife,” actress Thandie Newton told the Sunday Times of London in 2017. “Well, I could, but I don’t want to play someone who’s being racially abused.” She went on, “There just seems to be a desire for stuff about the royal family, stuff from the past, which is understandable, but it just makes it slim pickings for people of colour.”

For all its innovations, Bridgerton has its own blind spots. I found it strange that only the Black characters speak about race, a creative decision that risks reinforcing the very white privilege it seeks to undercut by enabling its white characters to be free of racial identity.

In the Downton Abbey movie, the Crawleys play host to the King and Queen. Image via Twitter

When Lady Danbury expresses her optimistic belief in the power of love, the duke is more circumspect, countering that Black progress is fragile and dependent on the whims of whichever white king is in charge. But to actually see narrative evidence of this precariousness, you have to turn to other recent British period dramas that featured integral Black characters, like The Spanish Princess and Sanditon.

Taking place in Tudor England, The Spanish Princess on Starz features Stephanie Levi-John as a Black woman named Lina who came to England as Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting. Based on an actual historical figure, the show thoughtfully fictionalises her struggle between her loyalty to Catherine and her love for her Moorish husband, Oviedo, and their twin boys as xenophobia rises throughout the kingdom, and Catherine’s marriage to King Henry VIII unravels.

The series is set in the 16th century during a historical epoch in which slavery and race were not inextricably linked. Here, Lina’s brown skin merely indicates her foreignness rather than marks her oppression, giving us insight into how such differences were interpreted and experienced before anti-Black racism was codified in Europe (and the Americas) as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

By the time we reach the early 19th-century world of PBS’ Sanditon, however, the long arm of the slave trade has reached the British seaside resort of the title. Adapted by Andrew Davies from an unfinished novel by Jane Austen, Sanditon expands the story of Miss Georgiana Lambe, Austen’s first Black character. Described briefly (and offensively) in the manuscript as a “mulatto” born to a white slaveholding father and enslaved Black mother in the British colony of Antigua, Georgiana in the series is an heiress, played by Crystal Clarke, whose wealth and exotic beauty make her the most sought after a young woman in England’s south coast. Ultimately, I found Georgiana’s rarefied status to be the show’s biggest representational challenge: As I revelled in her splendour, I also found myself forgetting the enslaved labour that created it.

But racial trauma remains. Despite the attention she receives, Georgiana is ultimately alienated in England because of her race, an experience that I found more realistic than Marina Thompson’s (Ruby Barker), another biracial debutante who also finds herself alone at court in Bridgerton.

A still from Bridgeton | Twitter

 

By avoiding both slavery and the fervent British abolition movement that flourished in London in the early 19th century, Bridgerton ultimately opts for Downton escapism over a nuanced exploration of real-time racial dynamics, mostly relegating such aspects to the story’s past. In flashbacks, we learn that the first Duke of Hastings was ruinously consumed by his newfound status, demanding, to the point of verbal abuse, absolute perfection from his wife, who dies in childbirth, and his son, who stutters as a child. (Shades of Papa Pope of Scandal, who once admonished his daughter, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.”)

With more seasons presumably to come, given the show’s popularity, I’m curious how far Bridgerton is willing to depart from Quinn’s novels in order to fill in the worlds of its other Black characters, especially Black women like Lady Danbury, Queen Charlotte and Madame Delacroix. They are the show’s most intriguing characters, and they remain mostly unexplored — will they eventually be afforded as much complexity as the duke? As Daphne’s entire family?

In a society in which gender and sexual mores dominate the actions and attitudes of all its characters, I want to see how these women learned to navigate those same structures differently shaped than everyone else. Because despite Lady Danbury’s beliefs that love conquers everything, I could not help but think that history ends up validating the duke’s scepticism and his sense that Black progress is always a fragile thing.

But who knows? Maybe if I knew how Lady Danbury or Queen Charlotte came to be, I’d be so convinced that I’d finally be able to revel in a past that I haven’t quite seen myself in before.

Salamishah Tillet c.2021 The New York Times Company