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TV Is Unwhitewashing History One Character, Period, and Genre at a Time

From “Les Miserables” and “Harlots” to “The Spanish Princess” and “The Terror,” TV producers are restoring the historical narratives of people of color.

Chantel Riley of "Frankie Drake Mysteries," David Oyelowo of "Les Miserables," and Rosalind Eleazar of "Harlots"

Chantel Riley of “Frankie Drake Mysteries,” David Oyelowo of “Les Miserables,” and Rosalind Eleazar of “Harlots”

Ovation, PBS/BBC, Hulu

For “The Spanish Princess,” an adaptation of two Philippa Gregory historical novels set in Tudor England about Catherine of Aragon, Frost and co-showrunner Matthew Graham turned to books by Onyeka to develop characters of color who would have fit in during that time. In particular, they discovered the story of the real-life Lina de Cardonnes (played by Stephanie Levi-John in the series), a high-ranking noble woman who acted as Catherine’s lady-in-waiting and companion.

“There was a character that was referenced in Phillipa’s books who was what they call a dueñas or a lady-in-waiting to Catherine. Her name was Catalina de Cardonnes and she was just this larger than life character who was depicted as white Spanish,” said Graham. “Then we just did a bit of cursory research and discovered that it was based on Lina de Cardonnes and that she was African Iberian. She was a black lady. So, we were certainly like, ‘Wow, this is a bigger story and a more interesting story than we can possibly imagine.’”

‘The Spanish Princess’ Trailer: Starz Royal Drama Spotlights the Formidable First Wife of Henry VIII

This discovery of the larger part that people of color have played throughout history has been increasing the more people look into telling marginalized stories. The author of “The Miniaturist” Jessie Burton and Netflix’s “Anne With an E” creator Moira Walley-Beckett had similar epiphanies and added black characters in significant roles to their stories set in the Dutch Golden Age and Edwardian Canada, respectively.

"The Spanish Princess"

“The Spanish Princess”

Nick Briggs/Starz

In many of these cases, ignorance or acceptance of the dominant narrative could explain the lack of representation in these TV shows. The absence of photographic or film evidence made it easier to whitewash the presence of people of color.

But there’s really no excuse with period dramas set in the 20th century and beyond, when plenty of visual records show the diversity present. As with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign started by activist April Reign, the biggest problems facing more inclusive TV lay in challenging the mindset at the studio level and changing who’s behind the camera.

As seen with many of the shows that are including people of color in historical narratives, the show’s creators are often women, people of color themselves, or part of the LGBTQ community. When marginalized groups help each other, this can address intersectionality.

For example, Carol Hay and Michelle Ricci co-created the Jazz Age mystery adventure show “Frankie Drake Mysteries” coming to Ovation on June 15. Not only did they make a show about Toronto’s first female private detective, but they also cast Chantel Riley as Trudy, Frankie’s partner who happens to also be a black woman.

“When Shaftesbury [Films] came up with this idea and decided to have a black female lead, it was mind-blowing to me because you never really hear about black folk or Asian folk, in that time,” Riley said. “We touch on the Asian community, the black community, even the Indian community as well. That’s why I was really attracted to this particular show, because no one’s really doing that in this particular era.”

Chantel Riley and Lauren Lee Smith, "Frankie Drake Mysteries"

Chantel Riley and Lauren Lee Smith, “Frankie Drake Mysteries”

Russ Martin/Ovation

In some cases, actors have had to step behind the cameras themselves to increase the opportunities for people of color. Daniel Dae Kim left “Hawaii Five-0,” and the first series that he produced afterward is ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” which has provided numerous on-screen opportunities for actors from marginalized groups.

Similarly, Oyelowo became an executive producer on “Les Miserables” to take control of how his role of Javert and the other people of color were portrayed. Oyelowo also co-produced and starred in the period film “A United Kingdom.”

“I wanted to make sure that me being in [‘Les Miserables’] wasn’t going to be a token thing. I wanted to make sure that people of color were integrated through the story in an organic way that didn’t feel imposed,” he said.

“But also, something very important to me was the American distribution. I wanted it to be on a channel that was worthy of the work that everyone was putting into it. And so, I had a hand in it going to PBS Masterpiece. Anything that takes me away from my kids for any period of time better be worth it. And so, some of the times I produce in order to develop. Some of the times I produce in order to be able to have a say in how things are cast, how they are marketed, how they are distributed. And that’s basically been the case with this.”

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