The storyline of “The Gilded Age” begins less than 20 years after slavery was abolished in the US, and so the creative forces behind the historical series would have been well within their rights to feature a Black family struggling post Reconstruction.
But, instead, there is the well-to-do Scott family, whose characterization is a breath of fresh air to many viewers, especially African Americans.
“It means a great deal to me to have Black folks tune in to ‘The Gilded Age’ and to feel represented,” Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the show’s historical consultant and one of its producers, told CNN. “We’re in a moment where we need to see dignity, where we need to reconcile with the violence and the trauma of segregation, of anti-Blackness, but also to see how these men and women who lived in the 19th century managed to live with that and still not be dehumanized by it.”
The parallels between that long ago time period and the highly-charged conversations being had in the country at the moment about race are hard to ignore.
The HBO series (HBO is owned by CNN’s parent company) takes place initially in New York City in 1882, with the struggle between the “old money” families and the newly rich who want entry into the elite society at its center.
One of the characters, Peggy Scott, played by Denée Benton, is a young Black woman who is an aspiring writer.
Viewers soon learn she is the daughter of successful parents played by stage-winning actors Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson.
Armstrong Dunbar said it makes sense to portray such a family in a show about wealth, especially given that the Black elite and middle class are often “not considered when we’re telling this kind of larger story about America and about Black America.”
“I feel like the Scott’s story is a really nice counterweight to the storylines of the (wealthy and White) Russells or the van Rhijn households,” she said. “And ultimately this is all about how people are attempting to find wealth, hold onto wealth and pass that wealth on to future generations.”
The historian credits the show’s director and executive producer Salli Richardson Whitfield (who is Black) and creator Julian Fellowes with wanting to portray the Scott family.
Fellowes is well known as the creator of “Downton Abbey” and his and Richardson Whitfield’s involvement was one of the things that inspired Baltimore Sun journalist John-John Williams IV to watch “The Gilded Age.”
“I like [‘The Gilded Age’] better than ‘Downton Abbey’ actually,” Williams said. “They haven’t just inserted a Black person in, like in traditional pop culture when you have the Black friend and they would have no story. They would just be on screen.”
“[The character of Peggy Scott] actually has her own life and her own story and she exists independent of the white lead and I think that’s really important,” he added. “She’s a rich character with her own secrets and her own mysteries just like everyone else on the show and I think that’s ideal. That’s what makes the show really, really pop.”
“The Gilded Age” airs Mondays on HBO and streams on HBO Max.