Bridgerton Race Takes On. The heart, however, is escapism.
The Netflix hit departs from most period drama's homogeneous casting, imagining a 19th-century Britain of aristocrats and black royalty.
The quick-witted Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) tells her protégé, the Duke of Hastings, "We were two distinct societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us." She maintains, "Love, Your Grace, conquers all." "Look at all it is doing for us, allowing us to become."
This dialogue between the main Black characters of the show occurs in the fourth episode of "Bridgerton," the first series created by Shonda Rhimes as part of her powerhouse Netflix contract, the first overt mention of race in a tale that revolves around the Duke, a Black man named Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), and his romantic courtship of Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter in the plot.
The casting diversity of the show is its most instantly striking attribute, not only in aristocratic black characters such as the Duke and Lady Danbury, but also in the businesswoman 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 dynamic social caste structure that makes up the early 1800s London version of the show.
"Bridgerton" is not Rhimes's first dalliance in a British period drama with a multiracial cast. She created "Still Star-Crossed" on ABC in 2017, a tale that started after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and focused on their cousins, Benvolio Montague and Rosaline Capulet, who were forced to marry to repair the family rift. While Benvolio and Rosaline are purposely cast as an interracial pair, for social commentary, race was neither a point of contention nor grist. Instead, in order to embrace the colorblind Verona of the past, audiences were asked to suspend our contemporary racial biases. (Among others, this tactic was largely unsuccessful; after just one season, "Still Star-Crossed" was canceled.)
On the other hand, the "Bridgerton" characters never seem to forget their blackness, but still recognize it as one of the many facets of their personality, though still flourishing in Regency society. In order for a British costume drama to succeed, the show's popularity shows that people of color do not have to be erased or exist exclusively as victims of racism.
"Before moving on to be a co-executive producer on "Scandal," Chris Van Dusen, the "Bridgerton" showrunner, was a writer on Rhimes's "Grey's Anatomy," a show that both remembered but did not completely revolve around the interracial tensions of the romantic relationships of Olivia Pope. Van Dusen positions us in an early 19th century Britain governed by a black woman, Queen Charlotte, using the same approach to his adaptations of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton novels (Golda Rosheuvel).
"It made me wonder what that might look like," Van Dusen told The New York Times about the display in a recent feature. Would she have used her influence in society to elevate other people of color? Is it true that she gave them titles and lands and dukedoms? ”
For historical precision, such a move pushes back against the racial homogeneity of hit period dramas such as "Downton Abbey," which the executive producer of the show, Gareth Neame, insisted was important. "It's not a multicultural time," he said to Vulture in a 2014 interview. Suddenly, we can't begin to populate the show with people from all kinds of ethnicities. It wouldn't be accurate.
For British period shows, "Bridgerton" offers a model in which black characters will flourish inside the melodramatic plot lines, lavish dresses and bucolic elegance that make those series so enticing without having to be servants or enslaved. In turn, this might generate opportunities for gifted performers who in the past have avoided them.
"The actress Thandie Newton told the Sunday Times of London in 2017, "'I can't do' Downton Abbey,' can't be in' Victoria,' can't be in' Call the Midwife,' "Well, I could, but I don't want to play someone who's being abused racially." She added, "There just seems to be a desire for things about the royal family, things from the past that are understandable, but for people of color, it just makes it slim pickings."
"Bridgerton" has its own blind spots for all its inventions. I considered it curious that only the black characters are talking about race, an artistic choice that risks upholding the very white privilege that it tries to undercut by allowing its white characters to be free of racial identity.
The duke is more circumspect when Lady Danbury expresses her positive confidence in the power of love, countering that black advancement is fragile and reliant on the whims of whatever white king is in control. But you have to turn to other recent British period dramas that featured integral Black characters, such as "The Spanish Princess" and "Sanditon, to actually see narrative evidence of this precariousness."
"The Spanish Princess" on Starz takes place in Tudor England and features Stephanie Levi-John as a black woman named Lina who came to England as the lady-in-waiting of Catherine of Aragon. The show thoughtfully fictionalized her struggle between her loyalty to Catherine and her love for her Moorish husband, Oviedo, and their twin boys, based on a real historical figure, as xenophobia grows in the kingdom, and the marriage of Catherine to King Henry VIII unravels.
In a historical era in which slavery and race were not inextricably related to each other, the series is set in the 16th century. Here, the brown skin of Lina merely suggests her foreignness rather than her oppression, providing us with insight into how such disparities were perceived and encountered before the trans-Atlantic slave trade codified anti-Black racism in Europe (and the Americas).
Nevertheless, the long arm of the slave trade has entered the British seaside resort of the title by the time we reach the early 19th-century world of PBS's "Sanditon." Adapted by Andrew Davies from an unfinished Jane Austen book, "Sanditon" extends the story of Austen's first Black heroine, Miss Georgiana Lambe. In the manuscript, identified briefly (and offensively) 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 riches and exotic beauty make her the most sought after young woman on the south coast of England. Ultimately, I considered Georgiana's rarefied status to be the greatest representational challenge of the show: I also found myself ignoring the enslaved labor that produced it as I reveled in her splendor.
Yet there is ethnic trauma. Despite the publicity she gets, because of her ethnicity, Georgiana is eventually isolated in England, an experience that I considered more believable than Marina Thompson's (Ruby Barker), another biracial debutante who in "Bridgerton" is also alone in court.
In Amma Asante's excellent 2013 film "Belle," or in the role of Pippa Bennett-Warner on Hulu's "Harlots," who lives as a free but formerly enslaved Black woman in London in the 1780s, other complicated portrayals of Britain's involvement in the slave trade can be found.
I'm still looking forward to the 'The Long Album' miniseries debuting on PBS later this month. It unfolds at the dawn of emancipation in Jamaica in the 1830s, based on Andrea Levy's novel of the same name. It is another English tale and the central role played by its Black subjects in constructing their riches and grandeur under the rule of King George and Queen Charlotte, while we will probably see far less corsets and balls of society.
"Bridgerton ultimately opts for "Downton" escapism over a nuanced exploration of real-time racial dynamics by avoiding both slavery and the fervent British abolition movement that flourished in London in the early 19th century, mostly relegating such aspects to the past of the story." We learn in flashbacks that his newfound status ruinously consumed the first Duke of Hastings, demanding absolute perfection, to the point of verbal assault, from his wife, who dies in childbirth, and his son, who stutters as a child. "(Shades of "Scandal" Papa Pope, who once warned his daughter, "You've got to be twice as good as them to get half of what they've got.")
Given the success of the show, with more seasons presumably to come, I'm curious how much "Bridgerton" is willing to abandon Quinn's novels to fill in the worlds of his other Black characters, especially Black women such as Lady Danbury, Queen Charlotte and Madame Delacroix. They are the most interesting characters of the show and they remain largely unexplored. Will they finally be given as much complexity as the duke? Like Daphne's whole family?
In a culture in which the acts and behavior of all its characters are dominated by gender and sexual mores, I want to see how these women have learned to manage those same systems differently from anyone else. Since I could not help but think that history ends up validating the cynicism of the Duke and his sense that Black change is always a fragile thing, despite the convictions of Lady Danbury that love conquers all.
Who knows, however? Perhaps if I knew how Lady Danbury or Queen Charlotte came to be, I'd be so sure that I'd be able to finally bask in a history that I haven't seen before.