Here’s what we learned from Harry & Meghan’s Netflix documentary

Apparently, not much. We were expecting the many media outlets writing about the Harry & Meghan series to make more out of the few minutes dedicated to slavery and the impact of colonialism in Episode 3: almost two minutes (04:36 to 06:34) on the cost of slavery; about a minute and a half (06:34 to 08:15) on colonialism; and a little over two minutes on British artifacts that continue to glorify slavery, such as the infamous “Blackamoor brooch” (23:25 to 24:45).

Despite the brevity of these scenes, they are important because they serve as a springboard for deeper (albeit brief—it is a documentary series, after all) discussions on the lasting impact of colonization and the concept of Empire; the seemingly eternal blind spots (willed or unwitting) regarding inherited inequality due to the institution of slavery, and the monarchies’ role in its creation and promotion; and the unfortunate existence of unconscious bias and its workings. Most articles downplay the important historical and social connections established by David Olusoga, Afua Hirsch, and Prince Harry himself. One of the most significant statements that Hirsch makes in Episode 3 is that the roots of present-day poverty are based on the history of British wealth extraction “elsewhere.” She states, “Those in Britain who extracted that wealth continue in inter-generational wealth. Those from whom it was extracted continue to be inter-generationally poor. It’s a very clear economic relationship.”

In “Surprise. The Villain So Far in ‘Harry & Meghan’ Is Not the Royal Family,” Mark Landler The New York Times mentions the topic briefly: “’Harry & Meghan’ offers an unsparing look at Britain’s colonial and slave-trading past. Two prominent Black British commentators who appear in the film, David Olusoga and Afua Hirsch, said that legacy inevitably colored the reception that Meghan got in the news media.” The Daily Mail introduces the article by stating that the series “takes aim at British Empire and slave trade, Royal ‘unconscious bias’ and family rifts.” And in ‘”Harry & Meghan’ series trashes British tabloids, but spares royals — so far,” the Washington Post’s William Booth and Karla Adam write, “The series seeks to remind the audience of Britain’s legacy over colonialism and its role in the slave trade.” 

Of all the articles consulted so far, Eric Deggans’ piece in NPR establishes the most connections between the segments on slavery and racism today, while still leaving a lot to be desired. Here are excerpts from “Here’s what we learned from Harry and Meghan’s Netflix documentary.”

[. . .] There is, however, more generalized criticism here: In particular, over allegations the royal family failed to help Meghan learn the protocols of royal life and failed to intercede as she endured a torrent of racist stories in the press, because of her biracial heritage.” [. . .] Harry felt his family shrugged off the impact of such stories too readily, affected by unconscious bias.

Calling out unconscious bias of the royals

For some of his relatives, Harry says, the bruising press coverage “was almost like a rite of passage. [They said] ‘My wife had to go through that, so why should your girlfriend be treated any differently? Why should you get special treatment? Why should she be protected?’…I said, ‘The difference here is the race element.'”

[. . .] Still, it is a potent presentation. Particularly in another area where the docuseries delves deeply: race.

Tough truths about race

Harry & Meghan also spends a lot of time detailing how race works in Britain – outlining how conflicts over immigration issues have become a proxy for race in the country, how the country avoids talking about its past participation in the slave trade, how a lack of diversity in the tabloid press can contribute to stories rooted in prejudice and how racism often bubbles just beneath the surface in many interactions for people of color.

“One of the realities of life in Britain, is if you walk into a palace or a stately home, or any place that represents tradition, you are likely to be faced with racist imagery,” says Afua Hirsch, an author who is a woman of color. She appears briefly in the show commenting about a member of the royal family who attended a lunch with Meghan while wearing a piece of racist jewelry called a “blackamoor brooch.”

Another moment in the show features Black British people reacting with amazement and positivity over the possibility of a non-white woman joining the royal family. “Who dreamed that Britain would have a Black princess?” says David Olusoga, historian and author of the book, Black and British. “Could this be a moment in which, in essence, the royal family caught up with the rest of Britain?” [. . .]

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[Photo above by Chris Jackson/Getty Images.]

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