‘Gilded Age’ Director Used Subtlety to Make Black Experience Realistic
Salli Richardson-Whitfield recently spoke with Insider about her work on “The Gilded Age.”
The director said she zeroed in on subtle moments and interactions to hint at racial inequality.
“We fought to keep certain things there because we wanted it to feel real,” she said.
If one thing is guaranteed to draw Arthur Scott (John Douglas Thompson) from Brooklyn to East 61st street on “The Gilded Age,” it’s news that his daughter Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) has returned to Manhattan.
In episode three, “Face the Music,” the formerly enslaved pharmacist attempts to persuade Peggy, who is working as a secretary on the Upper East Side, to return to Brooklyn for her mother’s birthday. But he cuts himself off mid-sentence once he spots a white couple approaching them on the street.
Arthur and Peggy, who are both Black and standing in an all-white neighborhood in 1882, step aside to provide space for the couple to pass.
“They shouldn’t really look them in the eye. They need to step out of the way because bad things could happen to you back then if you didn’t maintain the norm,” Salli Richardson-Whitfield, the episode’s director and an executive producer on the series, told Insider.
Peggy and Arthur resume their conversation as though nothing happened. No further dialogue is needed, after all; Subtleties, from the characters’ down-cast eyes to their hushed silences, do a fair amount of the talking in Julian Fellowes’ latest creation.
“We fought to keep certain things there because we wanted it to feel real,” Richardson-Whitfield said. “We didn’t want to sugarcoat it, but we didn’t want to bang everybody’s head over.”
Michael Engler, an executive producer and director on the show, added, “There are a lot of moments like that in the show that bring it alive without it becoming a treatise or a manifesto about racism.”
One such moment arrives in the Richardson-Whitfield-directed fourth episode, “A Long Ladder.” Agnes’ niece Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), a New York transplant by way of Pennsylvania, shows up to Peggy’s home in Brooklyn with a thinly-veiled donation: a bag of old shoes.
Upon entry, the Upper East Sider realizes Peggy’s family isn’t struggling at all, despite assumptions she makes based on the Scotts’ race.
The ensuing argument between Peggy and Marian not only highlights the barriers between the women, but also steers the audience away from Fifth Avenue and into the outer borough in an “organic way that’s not forced,” the director said.
“We wanted to have Peggy in this world, but have it make sense that these two women would be friends and not have it be some ridiculous story. Because once it doesn’t make sense, then you’re taken out of it,” Richardson-Whitfield added.
For Benton, that meant pushing Marian and Peggy’s scenes “past a white hero narrative or a magical negro narrative” to become a “fully nuanced, fleshed-out representation of the interiority of Black life at that time,” the actress told Insider.
Going into the project, she said she “felt really strongly about there being Black women on the creative team.”
Because regardless of Fellowes’ well-meaning intentions, Benton explained that having an all-white, all-male team crafting the show’s Black characters would have inevitably led to “obstructed views and blind spots.”
So, Benton, Richardson-Whitfield, cowriter Sonja Warfield, and historian Erica Dunbar teamed up behind-the-scenes to accurately portray a world that many people never learned existed.
They made multiple changes to the script, which included adding the real historical figure T. Thomas Fortune and incorporating more scenes between Peggy and her mother to build their relationship.
“I’ve played a lot of women in the 1800s, oddly enough. None of them have been written to be Black women,” said Benton, who is known for her stage performances in “Hamilton” and “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
She continued: “I felt very voraciously intent on Peggy being represented as richly as possible.”
“The Gilded Age” is currently available to stream on HBO Max, with new episodes premiering weekly on Mondays at 9 pm.