On Monday, HBO will air Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, a documentary about the late Princess of Wales, hosted by her sons, Princes William and Harry. (It will air in Canada on CBC next month.)
Which is a big deal. The British monarchy isn’t exactly renowned for opening up about their feelings or personal lives, but over the past year both Princes have used their platforms to break protocol and talk about emotions and mental health. Add to this Harry’s own admission that he kept his grief at bay in the years following Diana’s passing, and the documentary is another big step in reminding everyone watching that grief doesn’t discriminate.
The thing is, William and Harry were only 15 and 12 when their mother died, which means her legacy has been largely dictated by the public, the media, and members of the Spencer family. In the days after her death, Diana’s brother laid blame on the press (who’d been in pursuit that night), while the remaining years have lent themselves to theories she was targeted by British secret service to prevent a marriage to Dodi Al-Fayed, or that a mystery vehicle had struck theirs and fled. So it’s easy for us to forget that in addition to being a celebrity, the Princess of Wales was a human mother and person. But through the lens of this documentary, William and Harry can finally reclaim her legacy and dictate the terms of how she gets to be remembered.
And reclamation is important, especially since the last two decades have been reserved for speculation from armchair detectives and family members alike. Details of Diana’s death have been splashed across newspapers and the internet, while her relationships have been analysed and dissected, lending themselves to everything from conspiracy theories—on Monday, TLC will air a three-hour special based entirely around the circumstances surrounding the accident—to movies starring Naomi Watts. At no point have William and Harry been given the opportunity to treat her like someone who had a huge impact on their lives. And while the documentary still keeps us at arm’s length (William and Harry had warned filmmakers they didn’t remember much, and even when the memories begin to flow, the end result has been likened to a Hallmark channel movie) the boys’ choice to share family photo albums and final conversations and the details of Diana’s approach to parenting effectively dismantles her mythos. Ultimately, for a precious hour, she gets to be their mom.
Which obviously comes with baggage of its own. It’s mind-boggling to imagine having to walk behind your mother’s coffin in front of millions of people on live television. It’s overwhelming to imagine your own grieving process being marked by anniversary issues and internet slide shows and gratuitous attempts to cash in on any connection to Diana, however tenuous. Most of us aren’t constantly reminded of the family members we’ve lost, nor of the type of grandparents strangers think they might be if they were still living. And it’s ironic the way media continues to resurrect Diana, despite the role they played in her death.
But that’s why William and Harry’s foray into documentary filmmaking is so important. Coverage of the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death is inevitable, so to maintain control, they need to get ahead of it.
Because regardless of how much they’re willing to share with us, William and Harry are both public figures. And specifically, they are part of the British monarchy who believe in the separation of person and Crown. (See: Queen Mary’s letter to Elizabeth at the end of The Crown’s second episode.) Raised in the spotlight and under the glare of photographers’ lenses, they know how to navigate the media and to offer enough information without their personal lives being overwhelmingly dissected. We mortals may cringe at the idea of sharing our most intimate memories of a dead relative on-camera, but they’ve grown up knowing that’s the sacrifice to be made to deter outside parties looking to capitalize on her memory. And they need to: with still over a month to go before the official August 31 anniversary, the sheer volume of hangers-on trying to cash in on Diana’s death is climbing—and they’re not exactly afraid of making libelous accusations. So I mean, hi: why take the account of a third party under consideration when you have Princess Diana’s own sons assuming that she’d have been a “nightmare” grandma?
So for Harry and William to reclaim their mother—to memorialize her in their way and on their own terms—they’ve made her human at the cost of their own vulnerability. Instead of offering a stiff upper lip, they’ve embraced the work they’ve done earlier in the year and chosen to spoke candidly about death and loss and the pain that never ends. They’ve delivered her from the world of celebrity and painted her warmly and realistically as a woman who lived and breathed and made them happy. They’ve used their grief as an equalizer to remind us that the woman we mourn as a famous person, they mourn as a mother. (But at the same time, they remind us that we’re all in this together, as no one is immune to grief.)
Ultimately, the documentary allows Diana’s public narrative to come full circle. After she died, Diana became “The People’s Princess.” And as a result of that title, she remained as public in death as she did in life—especially as speculative details of her last night night and the circumstances surrounding it gave us more material to work with. Diana, Our Mother gives her kids a chance to show her people exactly how human she really was.
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