Costumed period pieces have always been a form of escapism for most viewers, back to a time where women wore beautiful gowns, elaborate hairstyles, and enjoyed afternoons in the drawing room entertaining gentleman callers. But as a Black woman, for me there was always a feeling of dread knowing someone who looked like me would likely be a servant or a slave on screen. I could never fully picture myself in that world until recently. In the last decade there has been an emergence of color-conscious casting in period dramas. Here are the best period pieces featuring Black leads:
Where to watch: Netflix
Bridgerton burst onto the scene Christmas Day 2020 and immediately took the world by storm. Based on the romance novels of Julia Quinn, Bridgerton follows the love lives of the eight Bridgerton siblings. Season 1 focuses on the eldest daughter, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), as she formally enters society in London during the Regency era. The young ladies of the Ton must be presented to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) at the start of the social season. In Bridgerton,the Queen is played by a Black woman. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes leans into the speculation that Queen Charlotte was multiracial, descending from the Black branch of a Portuguese Royal House. The presence of a powerful Black Queen in 19th-century Europe was revolutionary for viewers.
Daphne is declared the Diamond of the season by the Queen and becomes sought after by every eligible bachelor in London. After a series of unfortunate events, Daphne becomes a social pariah. She decides to join forces with the dashing Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings (Rege-Jean Page), a rake who has no desire to marry. Simon is the benefactor of Queen Charlotte’s decree allowing affluent families of color equal rights in society, and as such he is considered a prize for any young lady. Simon agrees to faux-court Daphne, taking the heat off him and propping up Daphne as a worthy match. Their “fake love” quickly becomes real, and the two must battle with their own inner demons if they want to live happily ever after.
2.Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Tale (2023)
Where to watch: Netflix
With the success of Bridgerton, a spin-off series entitled Queen Charlottefollowed. The series focuses on Queen Charlotte during two major life events: a young Charlotte (India Amarteifio) prepares for her impending wedding to King George (Corey Mylchreest) in 1761, and an older Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) grapples with a succession crisis after her granddaughter, the royal heir, dies in 1817.
Amarteifo perfectly embodies Rosheuvel’s fierce portrayal of the Queen but now she’s softened by the innocence of youth. Initially hesitant to marry the king, who is rumored to have a mental affliction, a chance encounter on their wedding day leads young Charlotte to fall in love with him.
As viewers, we also learn the origins of Charlotte’s friendship with Lady Agatha Danbury (Arsema Thomas, Adjoa Andoh), Simon’s godmother and, in her youth, a young woman struggling with the emptiness of married life. The show explores the strong bonds between two Black women who support each other during the darkest of times.
Where to watch: Max
Belleis inspired by the 1799 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle posing alongside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. The painting, commissioned by her uncle, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Justice of England, was considered unusual for the time as Dido, a biracial woman, was portrayed as an equal to her cousin.
The film follows Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as she is raised alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Dido was left in the care of her Uncle William (Tom Wilkinson) after her father, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) retrieves her following her mother’s passing and acknowledges her as his own. Educated, well-spoken, and beautiful, Dido enjoys the life of a lady but is often reminded of her station when she is excluded from attending dinner parties with guests as her presence may offend them.
After her father dies, Dido is left with a vast fortune. Now an heiress, she receives a proposal of marriage from Oliver Ashford (James Norton), the son of a scheming social climber and brother to Elizabeth’s bigoted suitor, James Ashford (Tom Felton). While excited at the prospect of marriage, Dido harbors strong feelings for John Davinier (Sam Reid), an aspiring lawyer who seeks an apprenticeship with William.
John helps William as he presides over Gregson v. Gilbert, a trial following the events of the Zong Massacre where slaves were thrown overboard in an attempt by the ship captain to collect an insurance claim. John and William disagree on the morality of the case, and he is dismissed, leading William to forbid Dido from seeing John again. Ultimately, her two worlds collide, and Dido is faced with the choice of living a life of privilege or using her influence to help people that look like her.
4.Interview with the Vampire (2022)
Where to watch: AMC+
Based on Anne Rice’s novel, Interview with the Vampire tells the story of Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson), an affluent Black man in 1910s New Orleans. After the tragic death of his brother, Louis meets Lestat de Lioncourt (Sam Reid), a charming stranger and, unbeknownst to Louis, a vampire. Stricken by grief and lust, Louis allows Lestat to transform him into a vampire. The two live as secret lovers, ostracizing Louis from his remaining family.
Conducting business by night, Louis grows his empire with Lestat by his side, but he also faces bigotry and homophobia as the nature of their relationship is revealed. Lestat is controlling and needy. After years under his thumb, Louis decides to leave. True to his manipulative ways, Lestat turns Claudia (Bailey Bass), a young Black girl Louis rescued and accidently bit, into a vampire and convinces Louis to remain and raise her as their child. For a time, the three become a happy unconventional family, but Claudia soon feels suffocated by Lestat and hatches a scheme with her beloved Louis to get rid of him.
5.The Spanish Princess (2019)
Where to watch: Starz
The life of Queen Catherine of Aragorn (Charlotte Hope), wife of King Henry VIII (Ruairi O’Connor), is well documented, but we have never seen the portrayal of her lady-in-waiting Lina de Cardoness (Stephanie Levi-John). In The Spanish Princess, Lina, a Moorish Noblewoman, accompanies Catherine as she prepares to marry the English heir, an arrangement that will ensure peace between England and Spain.
Among Catherine’s entourage is a handsome Moorish soldier named Oviedo (Aaron Cobham), who is smitten by Lina. Loyal to Catherine, Lina repels his advances and focuses on running Catherine’s household. Catherine weds the crowned prince and consummates the marriage, but she is secretly in love with his younger brother, Henry. After a sweating sickness rips through the court, Catherine’s husband is dead and Lina is left bedridden. Lina recovers under Oviedo’s care and the two fall in love.
Catherine and Henry decide to marry but her honor comes into question by the royal court. Catherine vehemently denies laying with her first husband and begs for Lina to vouch for her. Lina is confronted with telling the truth or ensuring the happiness of her future Queen and ultimately the fate of her country.