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Earlier this year, Netflix announced that Bridgerton, a show I created and ran, was the streaming giant’s biggest series debut ever. I was astounded. How could this Regency period piece that had consumed the better part of the last three years of my life be capturing the zeitgeist in such a big way? I’m convinced it’s due in no small part to the show’s intentionally inclusive world — one where every viewer, no matter who they are, could see themselves onscreen. A world that’s not color-blind, as some have suggested, but one that’s color-conscious.
My pitch for Bridgerton was straightforward: I wanted to turn the period genre on its head and reimagine it in a new and exciting way. One that included characters of different colors and backgrounds. One that explored the topic of race. I wanted gay people to exist in this world. I wanted to expand this entire universe. So I created a multihued, multi-ethnic Regency period world just as diverse as the one in which we live today. My show would be about love. Joy. Triumph. It would be a show that says everyone is worthy and deserving of all of those things, and more.
It sounded really lovely, of course. But how I’d actually do it admittedly took some time.
The period pieces I had seen looked the same. Sure, you’d spot the occasional person of color — but usually in the background, serving food or helping some porcelain-skinned young lady get dressed. Certainly not as lead characters. Certainly not getting their own happily-ever-afters. Bridgerton‘s source material, while a rich and delicious read, was unsurprisingly about people with fair skin and piercing blue eyes. Race, as a description and subject matter, was never mentioned.
In 2018, I toured Wilton House in Wiltshire, England. Standing alone in the opulent Double Cube room, I was awestruck by its stateliness. It was in that moment that I knew I had to have a royal component in this show. And so I created the character of Queen Charlotte. Part royal, part Beyoncé, an original creation, not in the books. I was aware of the historical theories of the actual Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry. She was, some historians argue, a descendant of a Black branch of the Portuguese royal family, England’s very first queen of color. It was revolutionary — not just as a real, historical theory but also as the basis for the show. This was how I became determined to start the entire series. In this room. With our heroine Daphne’s being presented to the queen, the most powerful person in this world, a woman of color.
The construct for this world was born. It meant that the color of your skin would not determine whether you were high-born or low-born. It meant lords and ladies, dowagers and dukes, of all different colors and backgrounds, could exist in this world. This would not be a color-blind world. These characters of color that audiences would see and relate to onscreen were real.
My goal of reinventing the period drama through a color-conscious lens was taking shape. But then several members of my brilliant cast reached out suggesting I do more. That’s when one of the most unexpected and satisfying collaborations of my career happened.
What followed was one of the most poignant and transformative days I had during the making of this series. Together with every single actor of color on the show in one room, I was able to listen to everything everyone had to say over a long afternoon of tea and other English goodness. My job was to simply sit, listen and learn. It was emotional, powerful and completely necessary.
Many of those in that room felt the show could go further in terms of its exploration of race. The show, they agreed, was already so beautifully eloquent when looking at things like class, gender and sexuality. But couldn’t there also be an acknowledgment of color onscreen?
The question humbled me. They were right. We could do even more to turn the genre on its head and dig even deeper into the stories of the characters the show aimed to include. So the things my cast talked to me about that day found their way into the scripts. Into the characters’ backstories. Into the world itself. As Lady Danbury puts it: “We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us.”
Those involved in TV know what a surreal process it is. Hundreds of some of the hardest-working people you’ll ever meet are brought together and, somehow, a living, breathing, piece of moving art is magically born. To the person overseeing it all, it’s terrifying. But also deeply rewarding. Especially when your actors feel comfortable enough to come to you with what’s really on their minds.
The show would not be what it is today if that profoundly collaborative afternoon with my cast had not taken place. I can resoundingly say that Bridgerton — with all of its color, beauty, love, joy and triumph — was made all the better for it. And now, I get to carry that treasured collaborative experience with me into season two, and what lies next for me as well.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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