At the height of the civil rights movement, “Star Trek” won an inaugural Image Award from the NAACP for its positive depiction of race relations in the future. Decades later, entertainment programs are challenging our perception of the past by casting actors of color in roles once considered lily white.
And, like the original “Star Trek,” they are being recognized by the NAACP.
“Bridgerton” and “Hamilton,” part of an adventurous group of period productions that includes “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and Hulu’s “The Great,” garnered multiple nominations each this year. Proving the staying power of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s original vision, spin-offs of that 1966-’69 series also received three Image Award nominations in 2021.
In “Hamilton,” a filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical that began streaming on Disney Plus in July, a multi-ethnic cast portrays well-known figures from the Revolutionary War era, their diverse skin tones bringing added frisson to discussions of immigration and America’s founding fathers. Netflix’s “Bridgerton” opted for a more color-conscious approach: Based on a series of romance novels set in Regency-era England, it is at heart a fantasy, with race relations veering into “what-if” territory. In this lavish production, executive produced by Shonda Rhimes, Black characters such as Simon (a simmering Regé-Jean Page) can be dukes and woo a very pale debutante (Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne) in 1813 without too much ado about the color of their skin.
Despite the fantasy elements, the depiction of Queen Charlotte as a woman of color did raise some eyebrows from purists. Although many historians believe the wife of King George III had African ancestry, her background is still very much a debated point in England.
Golda Rosheuvel, who portrays Queen Charlotte in the series, credits Rhimes and showrunner Chris Van Dusen for the diverse world they envisioned for the adaptation of Julia Quinn’s novels.
“If you have somebody of color at the top of the food chain, does that not allow the barriers to be pushed out to create a bigger space for Black and brown people to be celebrated and shown in a positive light?” she queries.
She considers it empowering for people of color to see themselves depicted in a lavish period production such as “Bridgerton,” and is quick to make a distinction between color-blind and color-conscious casting. “We cannot be blind anymore,” she says. “We have to see color.”
Castmate Adjoa Andoh, nominated for her supporting performance as Lady Danbury, strikes a similar note. “I push back against colorblind casting,” she says. “There’s no blindness. I’m clearly the color I am.”
If anything, Andoh argues, the inclusive world of “Bridgerton” is more true to history than the all-white presentations of the past. “London was this incredibly vibrant trading hub, there was trade going on of all kinds,” she says. “And so in a way, what the Netflix show and the Shonda Rhimes team have done is they put the history back into history.”
The “Hamilton” cast, meanwhile, has been watching their production draw more plaudits five years after their Broadway performance was captured on film. Daveed Diggs, nominated for an Image Award in addition to one for SAG, revels in the fact that he plays Thomas Jefferson in the production, as well as Marquis de Lafayette. He considers it “some sort of odd poetic justice” he portrays “what I imagine that Jefferson feels about himself, except in the body and voice of a Black man,” Diggs recently told Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast. “There’s a whole ‘Twilight Zone’ moment going on there that brings me a lot of joy.”
Diggs is competing against castmate Leslie Odom Jr. in the actor for a TV movie or miniseries category. Odom, incidentally, also figures prominently in “One Night in Miami,” a movie that grapples with race relations circa 1964. The film was nominated in several Image Award categories, including best film.
Two years after the meeting depicted in “One Night in Miami,” “Star Trek” debuted as part of a series of primetime programming that depicted a multi-racial world, a 1966 page one Variety story noted.
“Interestingly, it is it the non-contemporary and non-American programs on all networks that have tended to make the widest use of Negro and other non-white performers,” the story observed, calling out “Star Trek” as one of the examples.
Fifty-five years later, producers are exploring diverse worlds in the past — and future — with race relations once again center stage.