Are racially diverse casts the future of period dramas?

Shonda Rhimes’ hit series Bridgerton has now been renewed for up to eight seasons. This is not surprising considering over 63 million households binged the 19th century period drama over the festive period. Whether it was an ill-advised selection for the family or snuggled up on the couch alone, most of us were surprised by its modern portrayals of sex, gender, and race. Period pieces tend to go hand in hand with exclusively white casts and the occasional low ranking Black servant if there is any representation of Black lives at all.

Amongst all the buzz and outrage over a lack of historical accuracy, perhaps we need a moment to look into whether there are any historical precedents for the Black characters Bridgerton depicts. While records suggest that enslaved and waged workers represented the vast majority of Black people during the regency era in England, independent Black lives were present in minorities. 

One example of an independent and successful Black man is John Rippon who attended Bristol Baptist College and went on to print over 200,000 copies of his selection of Psalms and Hymns, Rippon’s Selection. Rippon lived comfortably as a respected member of the clergy and the highest authority on the hymns of Isaac Watts. This was in the late eighteenth century which predates Bridgerton by almost half a century. However, John Rippon’s independence was rare for its time. More generally it seems that the Duke of Hastings is correct in his assessment that racial equality at this time often hinged on the help of those privileged by their race. As a result, granted freedoms were often unpredictable and constantly under threat.

Royal or noble Black women such as Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte are not so easy to find in history. One often forgotten Black figure in history is Princess Aina of the Egbado clan and Yoruba royalty, who was ‘gifted’ to Queen Victoria by Captain Frederick E Forbes. Although she was recognized as royalty by Queen Victoria, she was removed from court, raised by guardians, and forcefully married to a widow ten years her senior. This took place long after Bridgerton’s era. Essentially, while there is precedent for a Black princess, the agency that the characters in Bridgerton experience is less historically accurate within the context of 19th century London. So the question remains, is the representation of Black characters in Bridgerton problematic if it is historically inaccurate?

If we consider the consequence of continuing to cast only historically accurate casts for these popular series, the answer has to be no. If preserving historically accurate casting in period pieces means a lack of employment opportunities for any person of color today that is problematic. Racebending, a practice by which casting directors select merited actors regardless of race, allows for more diverse casts that are representative of the current context.

Where were these concerns when women were barred from acting and were played exclusively by men in Shakespeare’s company? He is still one of the most successful playwrights of all time and he is guilty of ‘genderbending’. Modern adaptations seldom receive criticism for including female cast members which is totally historically inaccurate. Not to mention, we have seen creative license used in popular series such as The Crown, which depicts the actual English monarchy and figures that are alive today. How much of The Crown is verifiable? The conversations held behind closed doors were certainly not documented somewhere for a future Netflix series.

Is it morally acceptable in 2021 for Black actors to be limited to low-ranking characters if they want to audition for period pieces? Fair employment opportunities also mean a diversity of characters should be made available and appointed based on merit, not skin color. I can get over historical accuracy for this reason just as we got over women getting on stage and creative recreations of the royal family’s private life.

It seems unfair for Black children to never see themselves represented in a period piece because it would be unrealistic, when the entire series is fiction. It will be interesting as the series progresses to see whether the conversations about race extend beyond Black characters into white privilege. Perhaps this would allow the 63 million households who have binged the show to extend their own conversations beyond racially diverse casting into the conversations about how to create a more equitable society more generally.

Image: OpenClipart-Vectors / 27402 images via Pixabay