As the world prepares to witness the upcoming nuptials of British royal Prince Harry to mixed-race American actor Meghan Markle, we have already experienced the public obsession with what many have described as a “fairytale.”
The New York Times opined about what Markle might mean to young black girls in London. British tabloids gleefully dug up her past and shined awkward spotlights on various members of her family. And yet, it was a Lifetime movie, Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance, with its cheesy and awkward storytelling culled from various media sources about the couple, that dared to offer a subversive interpretation of this interracial couple and what that might mean for both the future of the British royal family and the rest of us.
The TV movie, starring Parisa Fitz-Henley as Meghan Markle and Murray Fraser as Prince Harry, pulls out all the stops when it comes to romantic clichés: from the Out of Africa inspired date number two in Botswana (which in real life was date number three) to the “stop-the-plane” Bodyguard in reverse moment where Markle prevents her prince from leaving Toronto before he heads for London—and out of her life forever! And what is a romantic movie without the prerequisite down-on-one-knee proposal during a chicken dinner—dramatized, of course, from what the couple revealed in their first televised interview post engagement?
At the same time, this movie managed to highlight the racial tensions surrounding the couple in some intriguing ways. There was the “blackamoor” brooch incident involving Prince Harry’s cousin, Princess Michael of Kent, which was reimagined as an incident at Pippa Middleton’s wedding wherein Prince Harry gallantly confronts the British empire’s problematic history of colonizing Africa. (Ironic, especially considering how very early in the courtship, he whisks Markle away to Botswana in a style that is all too colonialist in the way the Brits have claimed Africa for themselves.)
Nevertheless, the movie gets points for not shying away from racial issues, not just in connecting this colonialist history with the racial struggles of the U.S. that Markle’s own heritage represents, but also in the way Prince Harry tackles racism head-on when he releases an official statement that basically told all the racist media and trolls to back off from his lady love. Given that I distinctly remember this statement being released on Election Day 2016, and how it warmed my heart before the world was turned upside down, I must give props to those white allies who use their various privileges to take a stand.
But apart from these dramatizations—including racial micro-aggressions Markle experiences at social gatherings or how she discusses her mixed-race identity in their intimate moments—is the moment when she, as Prince Harry’s new fiancée, finally meets his grandmother, the Queen, who must give her blessing. Here, Lifetime is careful to present the monarch in the most charming and loving way—but the real clincher is when an enlightened and progressive Queen Elizabeth shows off to Markle one of her ancestral portraits of Queen Charlotte, wife to King George III, and admits that she, too, was mixed-race.
Judging from Black Twitter, we were all stunned that, as many have said, Lifetime “went there” by asserting a mixed-race heritage in the British royal bloodline through the words of a reigning monarch. Whether or not we are to believe the real Queen of England would have ever admitted as much, what becomes clear is that this was a project as invested in the decolonization possibilities of racial demystification around whiteness and blurred racial purity lines as it was in the assimilation promises of an African American princess entering into a reigning European royal family.
I remember the first time I had seen a portrait of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). I was touring Buckingham Palace the summer I had visited London during the Olympic games in 2012, and, after viewing numerous paintings of various monarchs and their kin in the palace, I came across Queen Charlotte and did a double take. I had noticed the wide nose, the thick lips and a little frizz in her hair. Wait a minute, I thought. Is she? No, really, is she? By the time I toured a different palace earlier this year—the Scone Palace owned by the current Earl of Mansfield in Perth, Scotland—the tour guide not only proudly showed off the painting of Elizabeth Dido Belle (1761-1804), the mixed-race aristocratic subject of the recent 2014 movie Belle, but also pointed out a portrait of Queen Charlotte and went into intricate details about her possible African ancestry from the Portuguese side of her family.
Interestingly, Elizabeth Dido Belle has become a highlight at the Scone Palace tour, as well as the Kenwood House tour in Hempstead outside London, where she was raised during the eighteenth century. Thanks to Afro-British screenwriter Misan Sagay, the movie Belle was conceived and written before it was then directed by fellow Afro-British filmmaker Amma Asante. They found a way to insert black women into the cultural fabric of British history, even if only presented through the period costume drama reminiscent of a Jane Austen film. Popular culture was able to draw out the history of Dido—and likewise, Lifetime has now drawn out the mixed-race heritage of Queen Charlotte and the royal family by extension.
This may seem trivial, considering contemporary struggles of black Londoners—those in the Windrush generation may face deportation in the wake of post-Brexit immigration struggles, and the rise of white supremacist ideologies and extremist reactions to communities of color on both sides of the Atlantic are troubling. But black women and girls who choose to celebrate Meghan Markle’s ascension into royalty are doing so for reasons that are more complex than simply aspiring towards assimilation.
Knowing that Markle is fair enough to pass as white, or at least as non-black, has never stopped people of African descent from celebrating those of us who were light enough to squeeze through doors of racial discrimination and segregation. They are celebrating the chipping away—ever so slightly—at institutions that once hung big “whites only” signs both explicitly and implicitly. They are celebrating the destruction and deconstruction of “racial purity” myths—whether in contemporary pairings like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle or in the historical revisions provided in the portrait of Queen Charlotte.
Given the centrality of Markle’s black mother, both in the Lifetime movie and in the upcoming royal wedding, black women and girls most of all are celebrating that a daughter of a black woman, whether “pure African” or “mulatta” or “quadroon” or “little drop of Negro blood”—all these women who throughout Western culture, on both sides of the Atlantic, have often been relegated to the status of slave, servant, rape victim, concubine, mistress, common-law woman, side piece, sex worker, girlfriend, baby mama, anything-but-“wife”—are now finally being chosen and validated as a marital partner, as a princess by marriage and duchess by title.
Whether or not Meghan Markle, a self-proclaimed feminist, can really change the heteropatriarchal structures of the British monarchy, much less the white supremacist institutions that have kept it alive, representations matter. Even though this reigning queen reversed a hereditary order that now allows a daughter to keep her place in line to the throne, most of us are realistic enough to know the limitations of one individual. However, as far as symbols go, this coming together of differences—racial, ethic, national, class and cultural—eloquently captures the contradictions and possibilities of our contemporary millennial era.