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Netflix’s Regency romp Bridgerton has captivated viewers worldwide since its debut last year with its jaw-dropping costumes, steamy sex scenes and, of course, the Duke of Hastings and his trusty spoon.
But as 82 million households tuned in in the first 28 days alone, one thorny subject just kept coming up – the usage of colour blind casting.
Also known as non-traditional casting, some viewers were apparently caught off guard by seeing Black actors in a show set during 19th century London.
The Shonda Rhimes hit boasts a refreshingly diverse cast; in addition to Regé-Jean Page as the Duke, the cast for the first season also included Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury, Golda Rusheuval as Queen Charlotte, Martins Imhangbe as Will Mondrich and Ruby Barker as Marina Thompson.
But despite enjoying huge success, it wasn't long before Twitter was awash with racist commentators questioning why the show featured Black people and complaining about 'historical inaccuracy'.
Now, ahead of the hotly-anticipated second season, historians are keen to remind viewers that many Black people lived in England at the time. Though they may not have been dukes or debutantes, they were there were here and they helped to shape Black British history.
Historical mystery writer and Regency expert Erin Johnson spoke to Tyla about the Black people who lived during this period, divulged their roles in society and celebrated some of the key figures you may not have heard of before.
The Regency era encompasses1811 to 1821, when King George III - who suffered from mental illness - was removed from power and Great Britain was governed by his son, the Prince Regent, aka King George IV. Bridgerton’s first season is set in 1813 and the second season will take place not long after.
Despite widespread misconception, there were Black people living in England at this time. The slave trade brought thousands of enslaved men and women to Great Britain from the West Indies and Africa and it was outlawed in Britain in 1807 and the institution of slavery ended in 1833.
For the Black people who were free, their jobs entailed working as sailors, shopkeepers, domestic servants, and some owned public houses.
After the American Revolutionary war, thousands of Black loyalist soldiers returned to Great Britain and settled in port cities like London and Liverpool.
“I think amongst the general public there is a preconception that Black people in Britain were predominantly slaves,” Erin explains. “Whilst that was sadly the situation for many, it’s not a blanket situation that covers everyone’s social status at the time.
“Some Black men became stars in the boxing ring, others became servants and landowners and in some cases, actors, sheriffs and clergymen.”
Erin notes that there are records of Black landowners and some clergymen and in 1818 the Prince Regent - who later became known as King George IV - appointed the first Black sheriff, Nathaniel Wells of Monmouthshire. There is even mention of a Black congregation at St Boltoph’s Church in London, dating from the 16th century.
And one of the most famous, high ranking figures is Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an African female slave and the white British naval officer Sir John Lindsay.
Dido was raised a gentlewoman and as one of their own family by the 1st Earl of Mansfield and his wife. “In the Earl’s will, [she] received her freedom and an annuity, making her an heiress,” Erin says.
Whilst she was not given every opportunity - due to her race and illegitimate social status - she held a higher status than a domestic servant in the household.
Though Dido died before the start of the Regency era in 1804, Erin suggests it is still important to mention her as a Georgian-era heiress.
But the diversity in Bridgerton has caused debates. Regé-Jean Page recently responded to the criticism with reference to Black actors not considering themselves suitable for period dramas. “I’d be twice as hard on my agent to get on the case. Because I think that’s the only way you end up with Bridgerton. You don’t get there unless you’re knocking on the door," he told GQ.
He emphasised that Black figures have been whitewashed from the history books and used the French Black soldiers fighting during World War II. “The reason you think history is white is because you’ve been lied to. It’s not that we’re being politically correct. It’s that we’ve been, very deliberately, politically incorrect.”
Actress Cynthia Erivo recently noted that many Black historical figures have been "erased" from our past, because it is white people who write history. Speaking on That Gaby Roslin podcast, the actress said: "I think for a long time Black historical figures have sort of been a little bit erased from history, even though they've done so much.
"I hope that more stories like [Tubman's] get told, because often, unfortunately, Black people and people of colour are not the ones writing the history books.”
Erin believes Bridgerton’s diverse casting is a positive sign of current times and it “challenges many people’s perceptions of what they imagined would have been historically accurate for the period.”
She added that all historical dramas or adaptations are depictions - or interpretations - of that particular era.
“I think Bridgerton’s colour blind casting challenged many people’s perceptions of what they imagined would have been historically accurate for the period.
“It’s natural to see a historical drama or adaptation and get a glimpse of how life could have been, without remembering it is a depiction and not necessarily fact.
“Netflix succeeded in showing us that by having colour-blind casting, these weren’t token characters; they were men and women with depth.”
Actress Simone Ashley will join the show as Kate Sharma in season 2, who is Anthony’s new love interest. Her family, who are of South Asian descent, will add even more diversity to the series.
While Bridgerton does have some characters based on real life people, including Queen Charlotte, Erin notes that the series is not meant to retell history.
“Bridgerton showed viewers a romanticised view of London's debutante season, set loosely within the timeframe of Regency London.
“But we need to remember that this show focuses on a very small section of society where the key players are the lords and ladies of the ton.”
Costume period dramas have captured our attention and a similar series, albeit more heavily rooted in real historical events, was 2021’s Anne Boleyn.
Jodie Turner-Smith took on the role o the ill-fated queen in the Channel 5 drama earlier this year. The casting of a Black woman to play a dead white queen drew vicious racist criticism.
Turner-Smith responded by suggesting that a Black woman playing someone who existed in history ‘makes people feel uncomfortable and upset.’
“Hamilton is a really great example of how amazing it is when you just open up the space to tell a story with non-white actors,” Jodie told Variety. “It makes that story that much more relatable, because it just becomes a human story and a story for all of us. Not just a story for white people.”
Erin says the backlash to the colour-blind casting in Bridgerton may have been lesser compared to Anne Boleyn because the Netflix romp is a “from the onset, a fictional story with vibrant costumes and a variety of cast members from different ethnic backgrounds.”
Whereas Anne Boleyn is a dramatisation of something that really happened, with most TV and film adaptations using white actors. Erin called Jodie’s casting ‘refreshing’ adding that a Black actress in the role "challenged people’s world view," she says, adding “that’s not a bad thing. The more diverse actors we see on screen, the better. There’s no reason why the majority of what we see on television needs to be white all the time"
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