Why The Diversity In Still Star-Crossed Is So Important

Photo: Manu Trillo/ABC.
When I first tuned into Still Star-Crossed, which premiered last night on ABC, it felt strange. The Shakespearean drama continues the feud between the Montague and Capulet families — yes, the one that led to Romeo and Juliet’s untimely deaths — in Verona, Italy. The new series, based on the young adult novel of the same name by Melinda Taub, was developed by Heather Mitchell, who writes for Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. Just as you would expect, Shonda Rhimes is in the mix as one of the show’s producers. I am of the firm belief that Rhimes, with her incredible storytelling abilities, is the Shakespeare of our generation. Even though a teen-friendly fantasy series is a huge departure from Rhimes’ usual repertoire, it makes perfect sense to me that she would play a hand in remixing one of his classic works.
It wasn’t this mashup of minds that felt weird to me. It was the unapologetic presence of characters of color — another staple of Shondaland — that gave me pause. Romeo is Black, but his father is not. In fact, the Montagues, Capulets, and royals of Verona have families that are more diverse than entire seasons of Girls. Juliet is white but her cousins, Rosaline and Livia, are Black. Prince Escalus is Black and so was his father. I can’t put my finger on his sister, Princess Isabella’s, race but I don’t think she’s white either. It’s the kind diversity that colleges dream of putting on the cover of their admissions brochures.
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A Black Romeo to a white Juliet makes sense in a 2017 reimagining, but not like this. Our current climate would be perfectly suited to a love affair strained by racial divide, especially if the Capulets produced generations of police, and the Montagues operated a safe house for Black immigrants, or some similar setup. However, that isn’t at all the premise of Still Star-Crossed. The Montagues and Capulets are just two wealthy families battling it out over the things that wealthy families go to war over: money and power. The showrunners offer no explanation for this diversity. And why should they? It’s fantasy.
Yet, I still expected them to, at least for the first 30 minutes or so. One ramification of our so-often whitewashed entertainment industry is that this casting stood out to me as unnatural and out of place. People of color aren’t supposed to exist as main characters in stories like Romeo & Juliet unless there is an unofficial warning that this is “the Black version.” The Wiz is a perfect example of this. Similar casting choices for Wicked would have felt weird to me, too. Even though white people get to play Egyptian queens and Japanese manga characters on screen, seeing Black characters in Still Star-Crossed took me some time to adjust to.
By the time the premiere ended, I finally stopped questioning whether or not it made sense that people who looked like me were on the show. It's a new television fantasy world that may take some getting used to, but we deserve it.
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