Diversity Is Coming to Downton Abbey

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 26 2013 1:32 PM

Diversity Is Coming to Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey.
Guess who's coming to tea.

© 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation.

It looks like a little bit of diversity will be heading to Downton Abbey in its upcoming season. According to British tabloid The Sun, a casting call has been issued in search of the show’s first black character, Jack—“a real man (not a boy),” according to the somewhat awkwardly worded notice. The role will require him to be “very handsome” and possess the ability to “sing brilliantly.” (Jack is a club singer.) This should come as exciting news to many fans: While creator Julian Fellowes hasn’t faced the same pressure as, say, Lena Dunham, some viewers have been critical of the show’s rather limited color spectrum for a while now.

This is familiar territory in today’s world of television, of course—putting aside Girls, set mostly in the diverse world of contemporary Brooklyn, Mad Men has similarly been accused of whitewashing the past by not creating significant roles for minority characters. The relative avoidance of any sustained, direct confrontation with race led us to speculate last year on the slightest of hints that a black character would finally have a substantial part in the fifth season. (A black secretary was indeed introduced and featured prominently in one episode, but any hope that the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would seriously face the charged racial dynamics of the mid-’60s was sorely disappointed.) Likewise, this season of Girls gave Dunham’s character a black Republican boyfriend (and one very honest scene). Then the couple broke up. (Thankfully, people of color have since continued to realistically populate the various house parties and coffee houses of the show’s present-day Brooklyn.)

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While blacks have lived in Britain for centuries, it’s obviously less surprising to see so little diversity on Downton Abbey, given its rather insular narrative world. The majority of the series’ action takes place in the secluded house and estate in the early 20th century, with only occasional ventures into the village and beyond. But last November, Fellowes did publicly entertain the idea of adding more people of color to the hit series. “You have to work it in in a way that is historically believable,” he said. “But I am sure we could do that. The show certainly ought to have an Indian character from that period.” (No word yet on whether he intends to extend the diversity beyond the one reported character.)

What does this mean for Downton Abbey creatively? Will it, like Girls and Mad Men, bring a black character aboard for just an episode or two, only to relegate him to the background or offstage completely for the rest of the series? Considering what happened to some major characters at the end of Season 3, new storylines are inevitable, but we’ll have to wait and see how Jack fits into the world of Downton. He may be just what the show needs to stay fresh going into its fourth season. Perhaps he can befriend wild child Lady Rose, who last season showed an appreciation for London jazz clubs.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.