Netflix’s smash-hit series Bridgerton, a Regency-era romance based on the hit novel series by Julia Quinn, certainly seems to break barriers when it comes to race. In this semi-fictionalized world, created under Shonda Rhimes’ new mega-deal at the streaming service, race does not preclude a person from belonging to a certain class—a point of contention for those arguing the series is historically inaccurate. In the first episode, viewers meet a Black male lead, Regé-Jean Page (a real-life Disney prince if I ever saw one), who plays the Duke of Hastings. He is the most eligible bachelor of the bunch but has sworn off marriage—until he meets Daphne Bridgerton, a sought-after white girl whose future becomes intertwined with his.
While at first glance, Bridgerton is a color-blind fantasy free from all racial discourse, creator Chris Van Dusen told the New York Times, “That would imply that color and race were never considered, when color and race are part of the show.”
But that’s not apparent to viewers until the third episode: When explaining the importance of love, Lady Danberry, one of the show’s Black matriarchs, reveals that their white king fell in love with a Black woman, Queen Charlotte, and their bond was the reason their utopian society was devoid of racism. As Lady D says the story goes, the king’s love for Queen Charlotte brought the country together and allowed people of color to gain titles and be treated with dignity and respect.
And that’s the first and last time we hear anything about race or racism in the entire season.
In that same Times interview, Van Dusen explained that his idea for this version of Regency England came about when he learned that the real Queen Charlotte may have been the descendant of a Portuguese royal family with African ancestry. “It made me wonder what that could have looked like,” he said. “Could she have used her power to elevate other people of color in society? Could she have given them titles and lands and dukedoms?”
But that line of thinking is a castle built of air. As any American living through the Obama years can tell you, a country being led by a Black person doesn’t suddenly make racism go away.
While watching Bridgerton, I kept wanting more. I wanted more explanations of how race factored into this society and what Queen Charlotte’s position actually did for people of color. I wanted more than a one-off comment.
But for all of Bridgerton’s race-related flaws, I was, however, pleased to see that the series got one thing right: the true demographics of England. BBC period dramas like Downton Abbey, North & South, or any movie starring Keira Knightley in a corseted ball gown will have audiences believe that only white people lived in England. But for an empire that has colonized so many nations all over the world, it’s a false narrative. Black and brown people have had a presence in England for centuries. And they weren’t just servants and slaves. Bridgerton shows this with the character Will Mondrich, a Black boxer based on real-life famous boxer Bill Richmond, who rose to success in 19th-century England.
That kind of representation does add layers of nuance and perspective to a genre that has been so, so white for a long time. I was struck by the powerful image of a Black queen being attended to by a white footman and delighted to see a white woman elevate her status by marrying a Black duke.
Other period pieces are trying to feature more diverse representation too: PBS’s latest Jane Austen adaptation, Sanditon, follows Georgiana Lambe, the only Black character ever written by Austen, who is born both into wealth and a prejudicial society. Although unlike Bridgerton, Sanditon does acknowledge racial dynamics in its version of the Regency era. Mr. Malcolm’s List, a forthcoming film about a wealthy suitor in search of the perfect wife, will employ true color-blind casting with stars like Constance Wu, Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu, and Gemma Chan. Then there’s the film adaption of Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield, which stars Dev Patel in the titular role.
While all these productions will undoubtedly come with flaws of some kind, it brings me joy to critique them because it still is such a rarity to see diverse characters reflect that time and space. I just hope one day we have an abundance of period dramas that are truly representative and we are free to criticize them for their content rather than just by how diverse they are or aren’t. And my Netflix queue is more ready than ever.
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