At its core, “The Duke and I” is a story of overcoming the shadows of the past, learning how to love oneself and how to be truly selfless. These themes are timeless, but would the rest of the story be embraced by today’s bingeing audience? I had my doubts. “The Duke and I,” like other 20-year-old books, is not without its struggles — including issues of drunken consent and patriarchal condescension. Plus, the last bonnet Regency series with a hint of diversity, “Sanditon,” was canceled after one season.
It was hard to imagine the average TikTok TV viewer getting hooked on eight episodes of a world of fancy dress, old-fashioned manners and a high-society crowd for which marrying well was a woman’s only goal.
Personally, reading “The Duke and I” puts me into the fantasy of a Regency where dukes are young and plentiful, numbering more than the 28 that actually existed. But there’s a double-edged sword when we rely on pop culture for history. The fallacy codified by all-White versions of period pieces makes people believe in a world in which people of color did not exist. As much as I love the BBC’s 1995 miniseries adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” — I may qualify for the Guinness World Record for most back-to-back viewings — every episode misses the 20,000 free Blacks living in London, who would have worked in the houses, run shops in the markets or just milled about the streets watching Darcy search for Wickham.
To be stripped bare, “The Duke and I,” like most historical romances, does not invite me, a Black reader, to the balls. I can still enjoy the romance, root for the protagonists, celebrate the courtships. Yet when I close my eyes, I don’t see my dark hands clutching the carriage seat or holding a goblet of ratafia in the company of the gentry.
While women like Dorothy Kirwan Thomas existed — a formerly enslaved island queen who became one of the richest women in the colonial West Indies, not to mention a mistress to a future English king — beautiful brown women typically aren’t portrayed entering drawing rooms to a violin serenade of Mozart’s 40th Symphony (or, for that matter, Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You”).
Perhaps we are moving toward a day when reading a diverse historical, like one of Beverly Jenkins’s romances, featuring brown faces bestowed with lovely gowns and happily-ever-afters, is not subversive, but natural and true.
When Shondaland announced the “Bridgerton” casting and Instagrammed the sets, I think I did a cartwheel. I was giddy: a Black duke, bold and bright costumes, a Black queen, the bubbly Bridgerton siblings, beautiful “Bangs” (Black Twitter’s affectionate nickname for Daphne), and more Black people and people of color.
A portion of my romance-loving friends groused about the casting. A noisier set complained about the ahistorical choices of certain fabrics and colors or men forgoing dancing gloves at balls. There may have been a smidgen of bellyaching from those who lack true period knowledge or a sense of humor.
The rest of us, the dreamers, held our collective breaths until 3 a.m. Christmas Day and streamed the show. With over 63 million viewers in one week, the Bridgerton Brigade, lovers of this masterful work, grew. The staging and the careful choreography of the scenes, with fireworks and synchronized dance, enhanced the storytelling. The costumes deepened the characterizations, for the clothes talk as soon as a person enters a room. Who doesn’t love Bridgerton blue?
The response to the show — the rabid acceptance of the series, the worldwide feenin’ for the Duke of Hastings and the outcry for Season 2 — exists because this televised world possesses romantic and racy plots that don’t focus on race. In Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” people are snubbed because of their lack of status, not their skin color. Anthony Bridgerton can’t be with opera singer Sienna, the woman he craves, because of her social standing. Lord Berbrooke wants Daphne Bridgerton only to marry up.
This Regency rewards work. Genevieve Delacroix runs a successful dress shop and has the luxury to turn down clients. Boxer Will Mondrich can be a 50 percent partner with a scandalous lord.
Race is celebrated. Regé-Jean Page, Adjoa Andoh and Golda Rosheuvel play Black characters, not amorphous shape-shifters with tans. “Bridgerton” entwines culture into the story but without the burden of the colonial past. With everything from the solidarity dap, the arm tap between Hastings and Mondrich, to a jeweled Afro-pick comb, Black is on the screen. It’s bright and happy and shiny in a post-racial afterglow.
The duke, the lady and the baby-face queen — these characters’ struggles are not framed by slavery or prejudice. The Duke of Hastings is broken, consumed by a vow made against a horrid father. Lady Danbury’s pain is physical. Her knees aren’t as adept as her meddling. Queen Charlotte seeks excitement to avoid hours of dwelling on her husband’s mental illness. These troubles are universal. They hit at the soul. Viewers of color can feel safe watching the story without waiting for that moment when our breath is punched from our lungs because of an epithet, an othering action or plot point constructed on historical pain, pain that still runs deep.
If “Bridgerton” had been cast exactly like the book, I would’ve watched and enjoyed it. Many others would, too. But would the series have attained such a cultlike status? Probably not. What Shonda Rhimes has achieved is a testament to “Bridgerton” being not just exceptional but inclusive, too.