She Wins: Here’s to Powerful Black Women Leaders on Screens

Casting people of color provides jobs to talented actors who would otherwise be overlooked, but mere “inclusion” in the frame is insufficient.

Viola Davis as Nanisca, a Dahomey leader, in The Woman King.

With the 80th Golden Globes days away, Viola Davis is among the Best Performance nominations for her role in The Woman King, and the only Black female actor nominated in the Motion Pictures-Drama category.

Davis plays the Agojie general of an all-female warrior unit—it was refreshing to see another example of Black women portrayed beyond the strong Black women trope. In this role, Davis embodies the fierceness of this leader, while delivering a performance characterized by maternal softness and emotional vulnerability—traits often reserved on screen for white femininity. 

Historically, for many white people, Black women were hypersexual, unnaturally asexual, or animalistic to warrant their rape and enslavement. The Black female slave was not marriage material, and her gender role was as a workhorse and machine for reproduction. Conversely, for many, white womanhood was shaped by the “Cult of True Womanhood,” which defined “true” women as pious, pure, submissive and domestic. 

Though notably not nominated for any Golden Globes this year, Bridgerton received 15 Emmy Award nominations in 2022, and this spring another powerful Black woman from the enterprise, Queen Charlotte, graces the screen.

With fans excited for the Bridgerton spin-off prequel, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, tentatively hitting Netflix in May, expectations for Her Majesty may be mixed.    

India Ria Amarteifio as Queen Charlotte in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. (Liam Daniel / Netflix)

Audiences first saw the Black queen in the massively successful first season which dropped on Netflix on Christmas 2020. Played by actor Golda Rosheuvel and based on a real historical figure, the queen elevates people of color into the 19th century England British aristocracy.

As a film director and professor of filmmaking, I analyze visual stories symbolically. While Bridgerton notably casts Black women as the most influential players, a dissection into the storytelling reveals it to be a show that writes and shoots white and Black women differently.

With deliberate choices, the show creators center white womanhood as the most desirable, beautiful and marriageable, and uses Black women as her most stalwart advocates, with a loyal maternalism reminiscent of the minstrel mammy. 

Queen Charlotte is the most prominent woman in the show, yet she functions to highlight the qualities of the white female lead, Daphne Bridgerton. When the Bridgerton debutante presents herself at court, Her Majesty bestows her approval with three magic words: “Flawless, my dear.”

The first line spoken by the Black queen is to declare the white woman’s perfection. This point of view continues through the dialogue of the show’s next powerful Black woman, Lady Danbury, played by actor Adjoa Andoh, who lavishes Daphne with praise and tirelessly plots for her social wellbeing. 

Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte on Bridgerton. (Liam Daniel / Netflix)

While some may see this moment as a Black woman’s ability to decide the fate of a white woman, one must look beyond the status given to her character and instead at the ideology she is expressing. She is not merely one Black character who admires a white character, but one of the two most powerful Black women affirming her worth alongside the rest of the cast. 

The show does not treat the beauty of Black womanhood with the same delicacy.

Cut to the introduction of Ruby Barker’s character, Marina Thompson. This character is significant because Marina is the only young, eligible Black woman with a significant storyline in the series.

This fact is remarkable because, although plenty of nonwhite women populate the aristocracy and even adorn Queen Charlotte as ladies in waiting, the only prominent Black women are past middle-age. By making the Black female key players older, none compete with the budding white women in the romantic arena. 

Marina is a distant cousin of the Featheringtons—a rival family of the Bridgertons—who take her in as a charity case. When Marina appears, Penelope, one of the white Featherington daughters, remarks that “she’s beautiful.”

On the surface, the white woman affirms the Black woman. However, the Featheringtons expected a hideous girl, hoping that “Miss Thompson is more presentable than the legions of unkempt animals she has spent her entire life tending to back home.”

When Penelope sees that Marina is prettier than a farm goat, her statement in context is merely a defied expectation. In contrast, the favor bestowed on Daphne by the show’s Black matriarchs is not attributed to anything she possesses. Daphne simply exists as this inherently beautiful “diamond of the first water,” and her right to lead the marriage market emanates naturally from her being. Everyone, especially society’s Black women, recognize it and continually affirm it. 

The contrast between Daphne and Marina extend beyond these first moments. It is surprising as a viewer that a Shonda Rhymes production would make the only prominent young Black woman pregnant. The Black woman has the illicit sexual experience outside the bounds of propriety, while the white leading lady is written with such a childlike sexual innocence that she must be taught to masturbate—and a Black man is her teacher.

The Black duke, played by Rene Jean Page, teaches Daphne how to pleasure herself. It seems Black people just inherently know about sex, while the virginal white women must learn these carnal pleasures.

When Daphne studiously masturbates for the first time, the scene opens with a closeup of a white rose and continually cuts between her sexual experience and a crystal chandelier. We are asked to observe the white woman’s sexuality as a romantic, spiritual act, not a carnal one. 

The presence of diverse casts can disguise implied white supremacy if viewers ignore the ideological subtext. Part of Bridgerton’s fantasy is its (mostly) colorblind society, yet interestingly, the fantasy doesn’t extend to patriarchy which it keeps intact.

There is no point in placing Black women in positions of power if they are putting a mammy on the throne.

This move makes white women’s whiteness invisible. In this colorblind world, whiteness doesn’t exist, but women are still oppressed by men—both white and Black.

White women are let off the hook for whiteness while Black men occupy positions of privilege over her because they are male. Whiteness becomes even more a figment of the imagination than the show’s escapist romance. In stories engaging in gender considerations without discussing white supremacy, the white woman simply replaces the white male in leading society and making all other Black women in her image. 

Bridgerton is an opportunity to reevaluate diversity, equity and inclusion on the screen. While casting people of color provides jobs to talented actors who would otherwise be overlooked, mere “inclusion” in the frame is insufficient.

If they are “included” in a white world, they will be written and shot to keep whiteness as the focal point. For Rhymes and Chris Van Dusen, creator and executive producer of Bridgerton, there is no point in placing Black women in positions of power if they are putting a mammy on the throne.

Hopefully its prequel this spring is different. In the meantime, may Davis win her well-deserved Golden Globe for playing a different brand of Black woman leader.

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Rachel Bass is a two-time Directors Guild of America award-winning director, professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts, and public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.