Netflix’s ‘Harry & Meghan’ Documentary Series: What Was the Purpose?

Before Meghan Markle went on her first date with Prince Harry, she scrolled through her Instagram feed.

As the current Duchess of Sussex explains in the first episode of the “Harry & Meghan” documentary series, “Let me look at what they are about in their feed, not what anyone else is saying about them”. “What they reveal about themselves: This is the best barometer.”

It could also be a dissertation statement about the series itself: their chance to tell their story on their own terms, years after they’ve had a lack of control over their narratives (or in Harry’s case, an entire lifetime). In the end, though, the six-hour, over-the-top Netflix documentary series spanning two consecutive Thursdays made us feel more for them than it was for them.

The show’s top-secret presentation (no reporters or critics got pre-screening), which was shrouded in mystery until the show aired, suggests this will be a tell-all event. We didn’t learn a lot of new information though, especially not near the level. The couple’s explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey in the spring of 2021.

Of course, not everything has to bring revelation after revelation. But such a high-profile series naturally comes with these expectations. Instead, the visually well-made documentary series directed by Oscar nominee Liz Garbus covers many well-documented areas. It confirms much of what we know about the horrific racism and misogyny Meghan has experienced from British tabloids and social media, aided and abetted by the royal family as an institution. As the duo claimed in the documentary series, Buckingham Palace officials essentially threw them—especially him—in front of the wolves.

As humans, we open a window at them, often quite affectionate (I chuckled at their on-the-spot imitation of Oprah visiting their little cottage at Kensington Palace: “No one would have believed that!”). And for the first time in the documentary, among many friends and confidants who spoke at length, we hear that Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, has taken a more three-dimensional picture of her.

Additionally, we get an insight into what’s going on behind the scenes at key moments. In the beginning, we see the speed with which the two try to get to know each other before they find out about their world relationship, and the lengths they must go to keep it secret. In the second half of the series, we see their decision to leave the royal family in early 2020 progressing rapidly. After proposing other plans to relocate to another Commonwealth country, but still fulfilling the royal family, they were years of construction. Missions away from the gaze of UK tabloids.

But it’s also striking how naive they are on various points, such as Meghan underestimating the full power of tabloid news by saying she didn’t realize until much later that people believed what they were reading. Or a moment’s reaction In a 2019 documentary for ABC When a reporter asked him if he was okay, it evoked a rare moment of intimacy about the cost everything had taken for him. According to Meghan, “I had no idea. He would be the thing that went around the world. It also describes when he admitted his first racial purity, a product of growing up with the relative privilege afforded by his white representation. At the same time, it’s hard not to have feelings for him as he truly thinks he can change the institution of the royal family – and his marriage to the family initially seemed to herald the dawn of a new day.

Throughout the series, there is additional historical context from Black British journalists and scholars about racism and colonialism and the continuing attempts of British institutions to look the other way and act as if everything is in the past. Again, this is hardly new information. But it can be helpful to have them all in one place, and incorporating that context elevates “Harry & Meghan” beyond other celebrity-directed documentaries.

But what was all this for? It’s hard to ask a viewer to spend six hours with this show. Ironically, the other Netflix show about the royal family – a dramatization, not a documentary – provided more topics for discussion. The final season of “The Crown”, about Harry’s parents’ divorce, was in some ways more interesting.

I absolutely sympathize with why this project is important to Meghan and Harry and really hope it brings some kind of catharsis for them. Perhaps for the first time in detail, the documentary series exposes the established system by which they must respond and the lack of control over what they can say (or, more often, express). Meghan describes her “edited reality show” which is largely non-anodeous post-engagement interviews. Harry underlines the symbiotic relationship between the royal press pool, known as the “route” – mainly made up of tabloid publications – and Buckingham Palace officials.

An exclusive photo of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, featured in the Netflix documentary series “Harry & Meghan.”

Courtesy of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex

One of the biggest revelations about the six episodes was that Harry described a contentious meeting in early 2020, shortly before he and Meghan left the high-profile family. According to Harry, his brother Prince William yelled at him. But soon after the meeting, Palace officials issued a joint statement that supposedly “destroyed the story of his bullying us from the family.” Harry says in the documentary series.

“I couldn’t believe it. Nobody asked my permission to make such a statement,” he said. “Within four hours they were happy to lie to protect my brother, and yet for three years they were never willing to tell the truth to protect us.”

This was the last straw. No wonder they had to break up and find a way to tell their story on their own terms. But it is possible to believe both: They faced extremely difficult circumstances, but they are famous and will always be famous, and they have a huge platform that gives them many opportunities to tell this story. They already have it, with Meghan’s Spotify podcast earlier this year and Harry’s memoir coming soon in January. It is claimed that these projects are in different environments, serve other purposes and reach different audiences. This is true. But still, there will likely be a lot of overlap.

The documentary series fits in with the broader trend of movies and TV series directed by celebrities, which are sold to viewers as a chance to gain behind-the-scenes access and an intimate portrait of the person. In practice, these are often heavily curated, made with a specific agenda in the name of the celebrity, and are more superficial than revealing something profound.

However, the presence of this celebrity often means that the show or movie will have an automatic audience. This is especially the case for such a high-profile, newsworthy couple. The fact that Meghan and Harry were telling their stories meant we’d still be watching it.

So, of course, most of us did. Based on Netflix’s internal metrics28 million households watched the first half of the series in its first four days and topped the top 10 charts in 85 countries, claiming it’s Netflix’s biggest documentary debut ever.

Throughout the documentary series, we are pulled in different directions on how to characterize this story. A complex and often infuriating explanation of institutional congestion and abuse. But it’s also a simple, magical fairy tale, a love story that’s meant to be – as Meghan recounts in a speech she gave at their wedding and read out in the final moments of the documentary series.

Undoubtedly both and others. But ultimately, it’s hard to get over the impression that this documentary series looks like an Instagram feed—although not in the way Meghan originally said. Our personal Instagram feeds tend to be highly curated and need not be the best barometer of our lives, they just scratch the surface.

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