Historical dramas finally show black and LGBTQ characters thrive. Here's why that matters

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the potential run of HBO's "Gentleman Jack." It is a standard drama series.

When you think about black people in Tudor times, what do you see? Do you picture them in 19th-century France? How about lesbians in Regency-era England? Can you imagine TV series about lesbian land owners, black noblewomen in the Tudor court or black officers in the French police? Well, this spring they're all here.

When Hollywood turns its attention to the past, it usually paints the same portrait: extremely white, straight affairs, from "The Tudors" to "Pride and Prejudice." When we see characters of color or LGBTQ characters, they are often slaves, victims or villains, as in "Downton Abbey" and "Roots."

But three new dramas are challenging that norm. In PBS's new (non-musical) adaptation of Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables" (Sundays, 9 EDT/PDT, times may vary) obsessive lawman Javert is played by black actor David Oyelowo. In Starz's "The Spanish Princess" (due May 5), a miniseries about Catherine of Aragon in Tudor England, one of Catherine's ladies in waiting is a black, Moorish noblewoman.

Stephanie Levi-John as Lina on "The Spanish Princess."
Stephanie Levi-John as Lina on "The Spanish Princess."

And HBO's "Gentleman Jack" (Mondays, 10 EDT/PDT) is a series about Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), a Regency-era British landowner who lived openly as a lesbian and married a woman.

These series go further than just including members of marginalized groups in the cast: They portray black and LGBTQ people as powerful, respected figures. It's a small but vital step forward in pop-culture representation that pushes viewers to reconsider who was important to our history, and why.

"I was kind of taken aback (when I got the script) because I’ve only ever seen examples of black people at this time being solely slaves," says Stephanie Levi-John, who portrays Lina de Cardonnes on "Princess." "To be honest, it made me smile. I felt like this was about time."

Levi-John notes that she had to fill in the details of her character because she was hard-pressed to find much historical documentation that delved into Lina's life. Evidence of black people in the Tudor era has been whitewashed right out of the historical record; it was hard enough for the writers to find out that Lina existed at all.

Levi-John hopes the series urges historians to dig deeper.

This creative editing of history isn't limited to powerful people of color. "People try to write women like Anne Lister out of history, because (her sexual orientation) was an embarrassment," says "Jack" creator Sally Wainwright. "You know she got married to another woman in 1834, it’s pretty clear that there were attempts made to obliterate both of them from history."

Wainwright has been trying to make "Jack," (the title is Lister's nickname), for 17 years, but says she had to wait for modern sensibilities to catch up with Lister's life.

When she first pitched the series, there was "no interest at all. But now I pitched it and it was picked up really quickly," she says. "The discourse has changed now. We do talk about gender and sexuality now in a much more caring and accepting way."

Instead of finding previously hidden faces from the historical record, "Les Misérables" recast one of the most famous characters from literature as a black man, which changes the dynamic of the famous battle between Oyelowo's Javert and Jean Valjean (Dominic West). So many times we've seen a black man forced into slavery and pursued by white men, but the cast flips the dynamic, finding new dimensions to a 150-year-old story.

Plenty of stories focus on black and LGBTQ pain, and they're often exploitative and repetitive. Empowering characters like Lina and Anne makes the series both more inclusive and more compelling. Both "Princess" and "Jack" employ their unique characters to tell stories we've never seen before.

"I didn’t realize how important this was going to be, for me personally ... and I think for a lot of the audience as well," Levi-John says. "It’s the representation of being able to see yourself within history."

None of these series are perfect. "Les Misérables" lacks the narrative propulsion of other screen adaptations and "Jack" doesn't make its other characters nearly as interesting as Anne.

But they make enough of an impact that the next time Hollywood mines the historical record for entertainment, it might look past the usual white gentleman and suffering slaves.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Historical dramas finally show black and LGBTQ characters thrive. Here's why that matters