Hallmark Brings the Black Diaspora Into Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

The historical advisor and creative director of Hallmark's Sense and Sensibility discuss preserving the essence of Jane Austen.

Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Deborah Ayorinde, Bethany Antonia, Beth Angus in Hallmark's Sense and Sensibility
Photo: Steffan Hill | Hallmark

Hallmark Channel is capping off a month of original films themed around Jane Austen’s works with the premiere of a new feature-length adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. The classic story about whether young women should choose husbands based on romantic notions of love or practicality has been adapted for both television and film several times before. Many fans may remember either the 1995 film adaptation directed by Ang Lee or the 2008 BBC and PBS television miniseries starring Dominic Cooper and Charity Wakefield. 

This Sense and Sensibility stands out from the other recent period adaptations of Austen’s works, however, as it’s produced by Hallmark’s Mahogany brand, which is devoted to producing original films and series with Black screenwriters, actors, directors, and other creatives. Unlike Netflix’s 2022 Persuasion adaptation, which used the controversial strategy of “color-blind casting,” Hallmark’s Sense and Sensibility deliberately sought out Black actors for principal and supporting roles. Deborah Ayorinde stars as Elinor Dashwood and Bethany Antonia stars as her sister Marianne. Akil Largie plays Colonel Brandon and Dan Jeannotte plays Edward Ferrars. 

Den of Geek spoke to the film’s historical advisor Dr. Vanessa Riley and creative director Tia A. Smith to find out how the project balanced adapting the universal themes from the classic novel and making a production the wider Black diaspora can identify with.

Riley’s role as a historical advisor and “serious history nerd” was to assist set designers and the costuming department on styling to ensure onscreen details both large and small conformed to the Regency Era. She has spent the past decade researching the era for her Regency-set historical fiction, romance, and mystery novels. This movie is her first time serving as a historical advisor for a film or television period drama.

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Smith’s job on set was to make sure all of the different departments were on task and coordinated with one another. Sense and Sensibility was filmed in the fall of 2023 spending 20 days in Bulgaria for interior scenes and 15 days in Ireland for the exteriors. 

“I was so excited to work on this project knowing that people from the African diaspora…would be able to play these grounded characters that would also be able to show vulnerability, as opposed to some of the other experiences that are seen on the landscape,” Smith said. 

The process of adapting Sense and Sensibility began over two years ago. The Senior Vice President of Mahogany Toni Judkins believed that the network could make its mark on the Austen canon with an adaptation of the novel but it took a while for her pitch to be accepted by the other top executives. The plans were finalized in the summer of 2023 and that’s when Judkins approached Smith to be the creative producer.

Every period drama based on a classic novel has a choice of how much original material to weave into its interpretation of the text. The creative team of Sense and Sensibility chose to preserve the backbone of the novel. 

“It was a creative choice to say, ‘We’re going to stick to the essence of who Jane Austen is. We’re going to make sure that Marianne feels like Marianne, that Eleanor feels like Eleanor,'” Smith said. 

There have been many debates over the years as to whether Austen adaptations or Regency period dramas should acknowledge the existence of racism in the era or not.

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“The question everybody will get is, ‘How does this world exist?’ We’re showing you in the artwork, we’re showing you in the tablescapes how this world exists. England called it ‘fruited cake,’ but it’s [Caribbean] black cake. It’s the same thing. We let the paintings and sets speak for us,” Riley said.

Fans will find quite a few historical Easter eggs in the artwork and also some portraiture of the actors if they look closely at the interior scenes. 

“We don’t need to invent anything to explain our presence when the history is already there,” Riley said. “There’s a painting of one of the battles of the Haitian Revolution on the walls but it was sanitized onscreen because Hallmark doesn’t allow explicit violence. During the same time the Regency happens, Queen Louise and King Henri of Haiti are sitting on so much money that they say they have more cash on hand than the King of England. You can get the opulence you need just by introducing the real history, but the problem is most people don’t know real history.”

Austen fans are immediately going to notice how the costumes shape the characters and setting of the era. Smith and Riley worked with the costume designer Kara Saun and hairdresser Kim Kimble to ensure that the design took into account Black hair textures and colors to complement varying skin tones. 

“There’s a certain amount of vibrancy, swag, and color that we have to Mahogany that we wanted to also make sure translated, even though it was a Regency piece,” Smith said. “You’re going to see a lot more color and Vanessa made sure that some of these colors we wanted to use were invented [at the time],” Smith said. 

The characters wear bonnets, mob caps, and other headpieces more consistently than in previous modern adaptations. This stemmed from Riley’s advice and research as well. Kimble used textured wigs, and the costume designer  Saun added small details such as the silk the Dashwood sisters used to wrap their curls at night.

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“We found portraits of people with braided chignons. We found people with embellishments where the hair is up when you’re being presented and you’re going out,” Riley said. 

One challenge the production team encountered was that many of the outfits available to rent from U.K. costume houses did not accommodate diverse body types. Saun made 68 custom outfits for the principal actors on a tight deadline. The color palette even extended to the clothes the Dashwood women wore at home. Normally people in that era would spend money on the clothes others would see but Saun designed nightgowns that were more detailed than the plain chemises seen in other Regency/Austen dramas.

While the Sense and Sensibility creative team had creative freedom to center Black Austen fans, Hallmark still established a few boundaries as a brand. The budget was smaller than the recent film adaptations which influenced the decision to not use U.K.-based filming locations. Secondly, Hallmark is well known for its comforting and escapist dramas. Productions tend to avoid depicting excessive violence or dead bodies. This is why there is a time skip between Mr. Dashwood’s final appearance and their stepbrother taking total control of their inheritance and house. This policy also resulted in a duel scene being cut from the U.S. version of the movie. It will possibly be the international version if fans are lucky enough to see it (once plans are finalized for international distribution).

Still, Sense and Sensibility will disrupt existing stereotypes within the fandom of what to expect from Hallmark productions while featuring familiar faces and style elements for longtime viewers. It may be hard for some fans to tell that the film was not produced by the BBC or ITV.

Will there be more predominantly-Black cast adaptations of other Austen novels or even other historical romances by Black authors? Both Smith and Riley want to work on more period pieces, however the success of their future endeavors hinges on viewers embracing Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility premieres Saturday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. ET on Hallmark Channel. It will also be available to stream on Hallmark Movies Now.

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