When I first saw the trailer for Bridgerton, the next Netflix-funded production from the streaming service's growing library of original content, I was intrigued. I had been a mild fan of Downtown Abbey, and I generally love a quality period drama. Besides, we hadn’t seen a decent period piece in ages. But what made Bridgerton stand out wasn’t just its genre, but it featured black people.
A lot of black people. In prominent positions in British high society.
I had never seen a black male lead, albeit a light-skinned one, in a period drama set in Regency-era England. You had a black queen dressed in an elegant Regency-era costume, sitting on a golden chair and dispensing instructions to her white servants. Just what kind of period drama was this! Even if it was going to be total rubbish, I had to check it out to see how they would handle and even explain all these black faces in an aristocratic setting, in a period where Britain had its hands all over the slave trade.
In my opinion, anyway, having watched the first six episodes of Bridgerton, I can report that it's not an epic fail. It has high production values with its dazzling costumes and detailed and vibrant settings. The dialogue is witty, and the performances are excellent across the board. But what about its black characters? How are they treated?
It's the treatment of its black characters that makes Bridgerton both refreshing and very confusing at the same time.
To address racism or not to address racism?
By the time I got to episode 3 of Bridgerton, I had accepted that the show was based in some alternative reality, sort of like Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse where you had different spidermen and spider women from a different universe. In my mind, Bridgerton took place in another universe where black people and white people co-existed in Regency London, and everyone just accepted it as normal. How else could you explain the presence of dark-skinned people in a ballroom party, not servants but high ranking members of society, or a black woman in one of the highest positions of the land during a period where England was very much involved in the slave trade.
I was on board with this, but then at some point, the show started to acknowledge race. Or at least slightly jab at the issue. There is a scene where Lady Danbury, played by Adjoa Andoh, tells a young Simon Basset, the black romantic lead, that he must be excellent because people like him and her cannot merely hide or blend into the background. This dialogue seemed to imply that they had to be exceptional because of their race.
Another time where race is called out, and it's very blatant, comes midway through the series when Lady Danbury tells Simon Basset that “We were two separate societies divided by colour until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, Your Grace, conquers all."
These attempts to address race took me out of the story and the world the creators have crafted in Bridgerton. If you're going to address race, don't do it half-heartedly and without commitment. I understand that Bridgerton exists as light-hearted escapism, which it accomplishes, but then trying to sprinkle in more serious anecdotes about race don't mesh well with the show's overall tone.
During these instances where race is highlighted, it feels as though the creators thought they needed to mention the issue in a production filled with black people. But by doing this, the whole point of colour-blind casting, which the producers of the show have gone on record to say was why they cast black actors, rings false. If it were genuinely colour-blind casting, the producers would never have brought up race in the first place during any part of the storyline.
Black people as window dressing
The more I watch Bridgerton, the more I am entertained. There is no point where I am bored with its story of romance, matching-making, high-society antics and scandal of course. But the more I see the black extras in the background; it dawns on me that this is what most of the black people in this drama are – background characters.
Apart from about four, most of the black characters in Bridgerton don't have substantial speaking roles. You can't call them characters even but extras. These black people in high British society seem to exist as window dressing – their purpose is to make Bridgerton's visual aesthetic different from the other period dramas that have come before it. As a result of this, however, the casting of black actors then feels very perfunctory and opportunistic, since diversity is all the rage these days.
That being said…
Even though I have issues with Bridgerton’s handling of race, I am still binge-watching it because it is endlessly entertaining and mostly well-acted and well-written. And it's excellent, and even refreshing to see black faces featured in an expensive production, dressed in Regency-era clothing and looking very dapper. Even if the producers just wanted to populate the setting with black people, bringing some melanin to proceedings and winning brownie points for diversity, at least those black extras look fantastic while strutting around in exquisite castles and lush garden parties.