A review article by Marlene Daut for Avidly. Here are some excerpts. Follow the link to the complete article. Thanks, Gordon, for bringing this to my attention.
Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels are mostly populated with white people like the regency-era England where they take place. The London of Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton tv series for Netflix, in contrast, is a multicultural mecca, sprinkled with Black characters of various skin hues, as well as a smattering of east and south Asians walking around silently in the background. There is even a Black queen and a Black duke.
In the world of fiction—whether on the page, stage, or screen—such ahistoricity does not necessarily have to be an issue. We should not evaluate a work of art by how well it matches reality, or how faithful it is to history. But a work of art can and should be judged by the inspiration behind its creator’s vision. And this is where Bridgerton has a Caribbean problem.
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Period romances like Bridgerton are designed to appeal to those who seek to lose themselves in the sumptuous visual pleasures characteristically offered in representations of nineteenth-century British royalty on screen. While I understand the impulse many Black people share, to see ourselves represented in this genre that has traditionally excluded us, contrary to what television usually features, an awe-inspiring world of Black nobility did actually exist in the nineteenth century.
In fact, watching how Bridgerton uses uncanny blackness in a desperate attempt to fill the void left by the overwhelming whiteness of Quinn’s novels, I kept thinking how easy it would have been instead to draw upon the many complexities of elite Black life in the nineteenth century—the kind that was at the heart of the Caribbean’s only modern Black kingdom. Created by Henry Christophe, a former general of the Haitian Revolution, Haiti’s first and last king reigned over the northern part of the country for the entire period commonly defined as the regency: 1811 to 1820.
If people want to see Black aristocracy on screen, then why not just put them in nineteenth-century Haiti where they really lived?
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On October 8, 1820, King Henry committed suicide in the wake of a conspiracy formed by members of the Haitian aristocracy who sought to join the rival republic in the south ruled over by the king’s enemy, President Jean-Pierre Boyer. As heir to the throne, Prince Victor-Henry was executed 10 days later. Not long after, Queen Marie-Louise and her daughters fled the now unified Republic of Haiti, first relocating to London, where they initially stayed with the famous British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and his wife, Catherine Buck. A real Black queen taking up residence in England did not fail to cause scandal.
The Clarksons were friends with William Wordsworth, author of the famous sonnet, “To Toussaint L’Ouverture,” and his sister Dorothy. However, when Dorothy wrote a letter to Mrs. Clarkson in October 1822 containing a racist poem mocking Queen Marie-Louise— “Sable princess, ebon bright”— the Clarksons stopped speaking to the Wordsworths. Unable to reconcile with the climate, both racial and environmental, Marie-Louise opted to take her daughters and spend the rest of her long and solemn exile in Italy.
While fiction does not have to be realistic or historically accurate to be enjoyable, Bridgerton’s creators clearly knew they could not have rich Black nobility frolicking around racist nineteenth-century Britain without an explanation. But with endless creative choices available, why hinge the intrigue of the Black casting so tenuously on the facile suggestion that it was the real-life marriage between George III and Queen Charlotte (who is reputed to have had some very distant African ancestry) that ended slavery for the Black people of the British West Indies, when in that same historical reality it took Toussaint Louverture and an entire army to produce that outcome for their French Caribbean counterparts? With all its expensive clothing and jewelry, and its beautiful and probably award-winning set design, Bridgerton’s prettiest trick may just be that it gives interracial love a power it has never had: to create freedom and equality for Black people.
That Rhimes got the green-light for a program that centers romance between Black and white people in nineteenth-century England might still seem progressive to many. Yet, to me, there is nothing particularly provocative or pathbreaking about taking an existing novel’s white characters and simply making them Black. Hollywood has already given us such reversals many times over with films that feature Black Annie and Black Cinderella.
No, what Bridgerton ultimately offers is a shallow representational ruse, one that promises the power of original and creative storytelling only to deliver mere visibility—Black actors inserted into a white storyline. Indeed, what looks like a step forward might actually be a step back, especially, if it encourages more Hamilton-esque colorblind “inclusion.”
As I indulged in the spectacle of Bridgerton myself, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Hollywood still refuses to show us: a luxurious nineteenth-century Black kingdom created by and for Black people. And I fear that Bridgerton, by having taken up precious industry space with a fantasy of Black aristocracy in England, might in the end make it harder to produce a series about real-life Black aristocracy in the Caribbean.
It’s too bad because we really could have it all. The Kingdom of Haiti had what everybody likes about aristocratic period dramas—love, loss, and betrayal, along with tons of bling—but with actual historical depth and ample material for cultural and political reflection.
Image: Portrait of King Henri Christophe of Haiti (1767-1820) with his Wife and Daughter, oil on canvas, circa 1811