One of the most curious things about “Harry & Meghan,” the new Netflix documentary about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex who stepped away from the British Monarchy, is how ordinary the couple appears. Harry chases after the kids in a stroller, Meghan feeds the chickens in the backyard of their Santa Barbara home. She calls him “H,” and he teases her about being late for their second date. The first three episodes that premiered Thursday appear to peel back the privacy of their lives for an honest glimpse into their world. But in reality, the series’ first three episodes feel like a close-up on previously seen footage.
In January 2020, three months before the worldwide COVID lockdown, Prince Harry Windsor and Meghan Moutbatten-Windsor (née Markle) divested themselves from the British monarchy. By September, while most of us were locked in our homes exploring Tiktok, the couple quietly signed consecutive multi-million dollar deals with both Netflix and Spotify. The latter features Meghan’s Award-Winning podcast “Archetypes.” The former gave birth to their new production company Archewell, which produced “Harry & Meghan” a six-episode docuseries produced by the couple about their life together.
Directed by Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus (“What Happened Miss Simone?”), the series is a montage of captured Facetime videos, texts, stills and sit-down interviews. The series’ first three episodes take a myopic look at their relationship. Everything from a secret trip to Botswana after their second date, to their long-distance relationship, right up to their wedding day.
There are no scathing accusations or difficult questions like in the couple’s previous Oprah interview. Instead, the press is the villain in this first part of their story. Prince Harry blames the paparazzi and their relentless pursuit of his family as both the cause of his mother, Princess Diana’s death and the reason for the stress his wife and his children have felt. Although we have heard these stories before, what “Harry & Meghan” provides is a bit more context.
For instance, Harry warned his then-girlfriend Meghan not to talk to any paparazzi after a casual greeting to a photographer led to headlines that she was basking in the attention. Friends and former castmates of the USA Network series “Suits,” on whuich Markle starred for seven seasons, recount the boldness of the Royal paparazzi, which turned on set security from standard Canadian police to a personal security detachment for Meghan, usually reserved for high-ranking officials.
The series also confronts that Meghan’s father, retired Hollywood lighting designer Thomas Markle, caught up in a paparazzi scandal. He mysteriously decided not to walk his daughter down the aisle after selling benign pictures to the tabloids. The pair posit that paparazzi had even stolen his phone when they received a series of nonsensical texts from his number.
Although most fans of the Royal Family are familiar with the elite press corps known as the “Royal Rota,” the doc has a segment wholly devoted to the 40-year-old institution for the uninitiated. The Rota is a small group of designated British press publications that each take turns exclusively covering Royal events. And according to Harry, aside from “The Telegraph,” it comprises all British tabloids.
Of course, this insinuates that the tabloids have permission from the Royal Family to make up stories about them to a certain extent, but that fact is never fully confirmed. Instead, it reveals that both Prince Harry and Prince William are the first to grow up under this contractual obligation with the media. One that Meghan inadvertently married into. “Anyone who steps into the public eye, especially…female and Black, is fair game in their minds,” says David Olusoga, author of “Black and British,” featured in the series.
Harry was ill-equipped to prepare Meghan for the multi-generational misogyny and press barrage that is an apparent “rite of passage” for the women of the Royal family. And neither was ready for the racist abuse from social media and the press.
It’s hard to tell precisely what narrative “Harry & Meghan” wish to convey in these first three episodes. Take the issue of racism, for instance. On the one hand, we get a mini-history lesson of the Black experience in Britain starting with the slave trade and even touching on the death of Stephen Lawrence from academics and journalists like Olusoga.
On the other, we witness snippets of Meghan’s carefully reconstructed childhood as a racially ambiguous girl in the States. “They made it such an issue when I went to the UK,” Markle says of her ancestry, “but before that…most people didn’t treat me like a ‘Black Woman’” (her quotes). It seems that the Princess’ sheltered upbringing shielded her from navigating the microaggressions preserved for darker-skinned Black women in America and was wholly unprepared for the onslaught that ensued.
Is the issue that Markle was naive to think that an institution built on slavery would accept her? Or did the Brexit-fueled climate in which the couple’s engagement was announced make her an easy target? Harry also admits he was less knowledgeable than he thought he was. “I thought I had an awareness of issues, to unconscious bias,” he laments.
Created for an American audience, “Harry & Meghan” offers nothing new for “royal superfans.” Still, for those not as familiar with the pomp and circumstance of Windsor Palace, it is fascinating. In the same way that Beyoncé controlled her narrative in “Beyoncé: Homecoming,” it’s clear that Harry and Meghan are attempting to do the same. “Books are written about our story by people who I don’t know,” Markle said at the top of the series, “Doesn’t it make more sense to hear our story from us?”
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle should be commended for taking control of their own lives, but that control also means they get to write and edit their story as they see fit. We can only hope that the next three episodes of “Harry & Meghan” will reveal new chapters instead of rewriting old ones.
The first three episodes of “Harry & Meghan” are now streaming on Netflix, with the final three episodes set to debut on Dec. 15.