What Big Little Lies Got Wrong About Bonnie

Originally published for The Atlantic.

“You are out here surrounded by people who don’t get you. They don’t look like you. I haven’t even seen one other black person since I’ve been out here.”

This statement from the character Elizabeth Howard (Crystal Fox) to her daughter Bonnie Carlson, on Episode 2 of Big Little Lies’ second season, seemed to be the show’s tacit acknowledgment of its glaring, first-season blind spot. The series’ failure to introduce any story lines confronting Bonnie’s experience as a young black woman in a high-strung, predominantly white environment was as pronounced as the show’s commitment to a lush display of California seascapes. Zoë Kravitz, who plays Bonnie, shared her frustration, saying to Rolling Stone, “I tried to get a little more … [race] put into Big Little Lies … but people are scared to go there. If we’re making art and trying to dissect the human condition, let’s really do that.”

Big Little Lies introduces Bonnie as the second wife of Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) ex-husband. Bonnie’s youth and contemporary flair are an easy target for Madeline, and though Bonnie is a fellow mother at Otter Bay Elementary School, she is fairly distant from the banalities that consume the parenting community of Monterey. Her appearances during Season 1 mainly come into relevance via her profession as a yoga teacher, which serves to characterize her as a paragon of contemporary progressive ideals. As the Vulture critic Angelica Jade Bastién pointed out: Despite a strong performance from Kravitz, absent any real grounding to her story, Bonnie is relegated to the Carefree Black Girl archetype that merely serves as a foil to the other women.

Season 1’s choice to divorce Bonnie from any significant backstory was not just a disservice to Kravitz; it also ran afoul of the source material itself. The novel on which the series is based characterizes Bonnie as being motivated to kill the antagonist Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgård) because she’d experienced violence in her home growing up. But lacking this context, and considering that significant stretches of the season played out with Bonnie in the periphery, her actions on the night of Perry’s death felt rather abrupt. That culminating scene didn’t lend itself to the novel’s intended effect of showing the sisterhood that forms in the midst of trauma. (The director Jean-Marc Vallée defended this creative decision, saying, “To give [the killing] a reason and justify that because she was abused and had a thing against men, it’s not about that.”)

With the launch of Season 2, there seemed to be an active effort to course-correct: While Meryl Streep’s addition to the cast was the highly anticipated main draw, Bonnie’s character was also given a larger presence. The show’s creator, David E. Kelley, admitted, “There was so much more to tell with the characters, especially with Bonnie. We only hinted about who Bonnie was. We had not mined where she came from and what led to the big push at the end of year one.”

This season has unfolded unevenly, however, with slow plot development that has made it difficult to tell how much substantive change has truly taken place. The episodes start with a significant amount of hand-wringing over the women’s decision not to tell the truth about the incident—a decision that is hitting Bonnie the hardest, much to the rest of the group’s confusion. In a discussion with Madeline, Bonnie explains that despite the collectiveness of the secret, she is the only one who carries the burden of actually killing Perry.

It’s clear that Bonnie still feels removed from her peers, yet her reasoning for feeling this way is fairly unexamined. The show fumbles an opportunity to explore the implications of a black woman coming forward and admitting to killing an influential white businessman, the fact that black women may not be believed in these situations, and even the nuance of the detective who is doggedly pursuing the group being another black woman.Big Little Lies vaguely implies that Bonnie’s distance is self-inflicted, and it offers no real indictment of the other women’s lack of awareness. There might be no clearer reflection of that than in the penultimate episode of the season, in which Madeline brashly says to Bonnie in a moment of frustration, “I’m so tired of taking care of you and your fucking feelings.”

Part of the reason Bonnie still seems underdeveloped as a character may be due to the alleged significant revisions made in postproduction, after the Season 2 director Andrea Arnold’s creative control was said to be lessened to make more use of Vallée’s first-season style. The most complex dynamic for Bonnie this season is between her and Elizabeth, whom the show turned into the abusive parent, as opposed to Bonnie’s white father (a creative choice noted by some critics as playing into lazy tropes). At best, the change certainly waded into demystifying black maternal dynamics. But it did so frivolously, without actually delving into cyclical trauma and how Bonnie’s upbringing would affect her raising her own black daughter.

The revelation of Elizabeth’s abuse of Bonnie via flashbacks is detached from the other focal arcs of the season. Bonnie reconciling her trauma is an experience that she largely goes through alone, despite having a preexisting bond with Celeste (Nicole Kidman), who knows well the complexities of domestic violence and the guilt that comes with being victimized repeatedly. Bonnie’s moment of catharsis happens in solitude, away from the group, as she sits by Elizabeth’s side in a hospital room:

“I resent you. For the childhood that I had. I resent you for your impatience. For being scared of doing my homework without being yelled at. For all the kitchen cabinet doors you slammed. For slapping me. For all the bruises. I resent you for not feeling safe at home. I resent you for being ashamed of me. I resent you for all the sex I started to have when I was 13 to prove to myself that I could be loved. I resent you for my wanting to beat the shit out of everyone. I resent you for making me feel so fucking worthless that I settled for a man that I don’t … But mainly, I resent you for killing a man. I killed Celeste’s husband. He didn’t slip. I pushed him. I snapped—and when I lunged at him, I was pushing you. And that push was a long time coming. And I want to forgive you.”

It’s a peculiar narrative decision: Absent Bonnie’s true integration with the rest of the ensemble, the speech has less significance as a moment of emancipation and registers as a rushed, unearned exposition. For a show that does an otherwise thorough job of peeling apart the layers of various women’s dynamics—Madeline’s attempt to steady herself after feeling unmoored in her marriage is deftly examined—Big Little Lies disappoints with Kravitz’s character. While Bonnie certainly has more background this time around, she isn’t given the depth of interrogation necessary to answer some of the larger questions surrounding her presence in the show.

The culminating conflict of the season focused on Celeste and her mother-in-law (Streep). Echoing Season 1, the conclusion minimized Bonnie, who was such a fundamental part in the events that prompted this face-off. Her arc—including coming to terms with her abusive mother—played out largely in isolation, making the group’s final reunification feel, again, sudden. It seems that the “people who don’t get you” whom Elizabeth referred to doesn’t just apply to the other characters of Monterey, but to the Big Little Lies writer’s room as well.

On Lena Waithe and the Danger of Pinning Your Creative Authenticity to Your Activism

Originally published for VerySmartBrothas.

When it was announced that rising actor Jason Mitchell—known for his performances in Straight Outta Compton, Mudbound and The Chi—had not only been released from his contract as a series regular on The Chi but was removed from an upcoming Netflix film (and dropped by his agent and manager), the initial response was a consensus: For him to get shunned by the industry this swiftly, whatever offenses he’s accused of must have been beyond the pale.

Even more surprising was that many of the alleged offenses happened on the set of The Chi, the brainchild of self-professed Time’s Up activist Lena Waithe, who hasgone on record stating “If you want to play that game and be disrespectful or misbehave on set with an actress or anyone, I’ll happily call Showtime and say this person has to go, and you will get shot up and it’ll be a wonderful finale.”

As we now know, the forcefulness of her language belies the truth of what happened on set. Tiffany Boone, who played Mitchell’s character’s girlfriend Jerrika, endured harassment for the first two seasons of the show to the point that her fiancé had to come on set whenever she shot scenes with Mitchell. And at least one other actress filed complaints—as well as Ayanna Floyd Davis, the showrunner for season two. It took 10 days, however, for Waithe herself to speak on the record about the accusations and fallout—choosing the platform of a 40-minute phone interview with Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club.

It comes off as a curiously intentional decision when you consider that in the window between the public discovery about Mitchell and her one-on-one with Charlamagne, Waithe guest hosted an episode an of Jimmy Kimmel Live, replete with a viral kiss with Halle Berry, with nary a mention of the crisis existing on the set of her show.

Despite work by multiple organizations and public figures to get the harassment of black women covered on a national scale and Waithe’s own self-avowed affiliation with national organizations with Hollywood ties, when it came time to address issues within her own purview, it became an “in-house” discussion. And one with a moderator who has had his own problematic past with black women.

In The Breakfast Club interview, when asked about the measures she took upon being made aware that Boone endured harassment in the first season, Waithe stressed that she took action by placing women of color in positions of power, a tactic that would seem to only expose more women to Mitchell’s alleged abuse. (And in hindsight did, considering Davis filed complaints of her own.)

Placing figureheads as a countermeasure isn’t a controlling agent for behavior nor is it accountability—it’s a toothless symbolism without any reasonable expectation of change. These certainly aren’t recommended practices (pdf) in the Leading With Transparency guidelines provided by the Time’s Up organization on navigating sexual harassment in the workplace. Given the pile of quicksand Davis walked into, it’s no wonder she was unable to stem the chronic harassment from recurring and even being directed her way, a point Waithe seemed to omit when discussing her regrets of “trusting someone else to do my job.”

When it comes to the matter of Waithe’s job within the universe of The Chi and in the activist-minded cultural space she simultaneously wants to inhabit, there are some blatant contradictions—seemingly borne out of a desire to exist both in the world of the haves and the have nots. In the same breath that we are informed she ensured that the season two staff was helmed by black women, she insisted that despite being the creator and executive producer with multiple writing credits and an Emmy to her name, she didn’t have much influence in the firing decisions—a sentiment she reiterates at the 15:30 mark of the video, when defending her choice to allow Boone to leave as opposed to lobbying for Mitchell’s departure: “I’m not in control over who really stays or who goes in the show…the truth is, there’s a world in which I can say it’s me or Jason, and they may take Jason.”

It’s an incongruous juxtaposition that recurs throughout the conversation, rendering it difficult to parse through the true nature of Waithe’s position. Starting at 6:25, for example, there’s a protracted discussion in which she proudly establishes herself as both being regularly on set on her shows, making sure it is a safe space for women during sensitive moments, before adjusting her position around 8:45 to that of a boss with too many employees to manage all of the comings and goings and needing to delegate it out to trusted individuals.

In regard to Boone’s season two return, the initial disclosure was that by the time Waithe was made privy to the situation, both Boone and Mitchell had come to an agreement and were willing to work together again, only for Waithe to mention that she sat with Boone and implored her to “give me an opportunity to change your environment.” This act seems innocuous on its face, but adjusts the level of involvement she purportedly has. These statements were made one right after the other—13:35 minutes in—making it difficult to comprehend exactly what Waithe knew and when.

To date, we still don’t know the specifics of all the allegations against Mitchell—Waithe alleges not to know them herself—and they are frankly irrelevant. While the specifics will certainly leak in due time, if Mitchell did create an unsafe working environment for several women, many of them black, that is reason enough to hold him accountable immediately.

For Lena, the palpable disappointment of many of her fans lies in the fact that she seems to be incapable of divorcing her need to protect her brand as an advocate and champion for the marginalized from providing clear accountability on the failures that endangered multiple women on the show. When she had her own opportunity to “lead with transparency,” she instead chose to sidestep, displacing as much blame as possible to another woman—who also endured harassment—while also subtly victim-blaming as justification for her failure to act in a truly productive manner.

In a piece I wrote a while ago on cancel culture and public apologies, linguist Edwin Battistella explained how the initial apologies are almost always guided by self-interest, stating “people who want to see if they can get away with a lesser offense; if they can sort of say ‘I was misunderstood’ or ‘I was just kidding’ or ‘This is a private matter, let’s move on,’ and if people accept those sorts of apologies that just kind of encourages more of that. So it’s good when groups and individuals push back and say ‘This isn’t the apology we were hoping to see. This apology says nothing.’”

In many ways, this describes what is playing out with Waithe now. In expecting her identity and political capital to bolster her through this PR moment, she forgot that her political capital is tied to whether or not she truly upholds the rubric of the moral fabric that she claims to stand behind. This incident was a failure in that regard—an exercise in extemporaneous self-defense as opposed to empathy and clarity.

Near the end of The Breakfast Club interview, Waithe states to Charlamagne, “Hollywood needs to be a safe space for black women and I think we all need to do better about that.” The sentiment is a beautifully worded logical fallacy, pointing the finger back at the world before allowing anyone to hold her accountable for her clear failings as the name and advocate behind this project. It would truly be unfortunate if that in all the women Lena failed here, the last one would be herself.

The Diaspora Wars of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’

Originally published in OkayAfrica.

British actors are “taking all of our roles” says Nola Darling to Olu, her British-Nigerian love interest in the latest season of She’s Gotta Have It (#SuperFunkyCaliFragiSexy). “We have dope, talented, trained, qualified, black actors right here in the States—and at the end of the day, Black Brits just come cheaper,” she continues, echoing Samuel L. Jackson’s real-life commentary on the subject.

In response, Olu argues that Black Brits are “free of the psychological burden” of slavery and Jim Crow, prompting Nola to inform him that he “just [has] Stockholm Syndrome and fell in love with your captors”—but not before explaining the basic facts of British involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade.

The backlash from the Black Diaspora in the United Kingdom was swift: Nola Darling’s sentiments were an insult to the experience of Black Brits. While a fictional character’s problematic views don’t necessarily reflect their creator’s feelings, when taken to task for the clip on Instagram, Spike Lee responded with a brusque “Truth Hurts?”.

The scene frames the British character as the villain in the interaction—”how can someone so gorgeous be so ignorant?” Nola asks. It’s an odd premise considering recent political history in the UK. Events like the fire at the Grenfell Towers, the Windrush generation scandal, and the ongoing Brexit debacle are all clear indicators that the modern Britain, like the US, has not shaken free of its white supremacist foundations. And why would Black Brits be “unburdened” by slavery when a large proportion also descended from chattel slavery? Given this clear misrepresentation, it’s understandable why someone like John Boyega would push back. In the exchange between Nola and Olu who is truly the ignorant one?

In a review for the initial season of She’s Gotta Have It, writer Zoe Samudzi criticized the show’s inauthentic feel and stilted dialogue, noting that “the result is an inorganic character constantly uttering strained, overly witty Gilmore Girls-esque banter…who feels detached from actual experience and conversation, living in a purgatory between 1986 and now.” In a series that strove to recapture the boldness of the original film’s perspective of modern Black women’s sexuality and life in Brooklyn, it fell short in both accords, settling instead for a paint-by-numbers plot update tethered to a facsimile of the original story, anchored with overwrought vocabulary that lacks the cadence of a genuine conversation between peers.

Season 2 continues on that note, unbound by the parameters of the original source material—resulting in a chaotic string of episodes composed of curious extended asides and plot contrivances used to make unwieldy points on gentrification, queer relationships, artistic expression and exploitation, self love, classism, and Black diaspora relations. With the latter, Lee tackles the subject with the precision of a sledgehammer.

Unfortunately Nola and Olu’s tête-à-tête derails any opportunity to properly examine the ability of Black British actors to take on and do justice to roles for Black Americans. The controversy flared recently with the backlash to Cynthia Erivo’s casting as Harriet Tubman and Samuel L. Jackson’s comments on casting patterns in which he inaccurately described Britain’s relationship with interracial dating. These nuances should be explored—but without projecting other groups’ experiences, or using language akin to xenophobic tropes.

There are multiple threads at play. Hollywood remains the West’s largest film industry with significantly more roles available for Black actors, prompting more Black Brits to cross the pond; and with the United Kingdom education system investing in arts training at a rate that far exceeds the scope of the States, casting agents are known to openly fetishize the “pedigree” of the British imports. This tends to come at a higher cost to Black Americans due to the more limited availability of top-billing roles intended specifically for Black actors.

All of this manufactured scarcity is, of course, due largely to white production companies and various other gatekeepers. As we work to build our own platforms and tell our own stories, it’s prudent to explore what equity in representation looks like in race-based casting and how we can work to expand the pool of available significant positions for Black people in the film industry on either side of the Atlantic and on either side of the camera.

It was especially jarring that Nola and Olu’s argument was further undercut by choosing to mispronounce the names of Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Boyega, an anti-black trope, and turning Olu into an incoherent mishmash of West African identities—a British Nigerian with a Yoruba name claiming the Fulani tribe while casually donning Ghanaian Kente regalia.

In an ironic twist, Nola’s character searches for clarity by tapping into Yoruba spirituality during a trip to Puerto Rico, failing to acknowledge the sources that she was previously so dismissive of. She is identified as a daughter of Oshun (an orisha made globally infamous after Beyoncé’s interpolation of Yoruba iconography in Lemonade).

The present-day African diaspora is more connected than ever, and nowhere is that more evident than modern-day Brooklyn, home to a large Caribbean population, the West Indian Day Parade, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and other Black cultural institutions. This past Memorial Day Weekend, the streets of Spike Lee’s beloved Fort Greene were littered with BAM’s annual celebration of African Identity, creative expression, and performance, DanceAfrica, as well as newly established diaspora traditions like Everyday Afrique. By failing to recognize the rhythms of the borough, Lee reveals just how removed he is from the particulars of the experiences of day-to-day Black Brooklyn life, and he is only doing himself and the show a disservice by allowing the show to be dominated by his voice and direction.

As Black creatives continue to tell the stories that we find important, their impacts and themes tend to resonate broadly. It’s why Roots was a phenomenon that aired not just in the US but in Europe, and the story of the Haitian Revolution is universally recalled as one of Black self-determination and insurrection. That extends to marketing: BlacKkKlansman, for example, was an American story that Lee made efforts to connect with Black British audiences, similar in logic to the targeted global campaign that Marvel engaged in for Black Panther.

Engaging in the labor of storytelling is not a tradition of exclusivity; it’s one of exchange and collaboration, as long as all parties arriving at the table have entered into a safe space of mutual respect and understanding. It’s a loss for us all when a new piece of Black work fails to understand that framework.

What Ramy Gets Wrong About Muslim Women

Originally published for The Atlantic.

This article contains spoilers throughout Season 1 of Ramy.Hulu’s new series Ramy depicts a fictionalized version of the life of its star and co-creator, Ramy Youssef (named Ramy Hassan on the show), a Millennial Egyptian American from a robust North Jersey Muslim community. Along with the co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious man from an immigrant family with wry humor and a dash of surrealism. Continue reading

Charmed’ Taught Fans About Love and Gender Roles in this Classic Episode

Originally published for Broadly.

“Cold Takes” is a column in which we express our passionate beliefs about insignificant events and Internet discourses at least several months too late.

From 1998 to 2006, the world got to know a trio of sister witches, known as “Charmed Ones”— Piper, Phoebe, and Prue Halliwell (and later their half-sister Paige after Prue’s untimely passing) — the most powerful forces of good of all time. An immediate hit for The WB network, millions flocked to the show —myself included— to watch three single women in their twenties engage in self-exploration and rediscovery of familial bonds while kicking ass and taking names. Continue reading

‘Dear White People’ Creator Justin Simien Takes On The Alt-Right & Fake News In Bold New Season [Interview]

Originally published for Okayplayer.

Shamira Ibrahim spoke with the talented Dear White People creator, Justin Simien, about the show’s new themes, technology, race and more.

The premiere of the Dear White People Netflix series in 2017 was met with a barrage of accusations of “anti-whiteness,” reverse racism and calls for its cancellation, a bewildering phenomenon that seemed reflective of the passing of the baton into a new sociopolitical era, both in the U.S. Government as well as in the never-ending misinformation wars persistently fought on social media. Season 2 of the show, premiering on May 4, tackles this transition head-on, using its characters as mirrors into the myriad of ways we both willingly and unwittingly participate in the outrage culture hamster wheel that seems to have exploded since the 2016 elections.

Over the course of 10 episodes, the lead characters confront these new challenges — internet trolls, the rise of “white nationalism,” doxxing, free speech on college campuses, and internal debates within their black community as to the next steps to take to combat the looming spectre of white supremacy in their daily interactions — while continuing to reconcile the inherent exploration that is urbane to everyone’s coming-of-age college years. At the core of it all remain young adults who are still trying to figure out what scene they belong to and how to navigate their individualism while feeling beholden to the interests of a collective college housing experience that is being encroached upon by the influx of white classmates.

Okayplayer had the pleasure of speaking with writer and director Justin Simien about the unique themes expressed in this season, and the choices made to advance the conversation on the interactions of technology and race in season 2. One thing was made clear about the ethos of this season: the tools used may be different, but the tactics that entrap the restless fervor of the discourse being had by young black people—both on campus and online—remain the same.

‘Dear White People’ Creator Justin Simien Takes On The Alt-Right & Fake News In Bold New Season [Interview]

Okayplayer: You start the season where we left off, focusing on the after-effects of the final conflict. Did you guys know where you wanted to take the series when you finished the inaugural season?

Justin Simien: I had a few ideas about it, but really, it was the response to Season One. I felt a sense of urgency for Season Two that I didn’t feel until Trump won the day we wrapped season one — not just the negative response to our first press materials, but a desire to create a false sense of outrage among people. They really made people believe that an anti-white show was coming to Netflix, which is crazy because as many times as I say it to myself – Dear White People — I cannot figure out what is so threatening about those three words together.

My head was spinning after season one — why do these conversations get away from us so easily? The answer was always amnesia. There was always this sort of desire to erase the personal history of people in this country. It’s kind of an obsession, actually. That common phrase, ‘Just get over it,’ is very entrenched in our country’s racial dialogue, from the days right after slaves are newly released — ‘get over it, you’re free, what do you have to complain about now’ — all the way until today.

As long as there is a percentage of the population that is purposely ill-informed about race, we can’t ever really have a meaningful dialogue that doesn’t get out of control. You see that’s the way that misinformation works. You see the architects of it. You can look at it through a historical lens, and I just kind of became obsessed with all those little secret histories that this country contains that affect our everyday lives. I became fascinated by that.

OKP: The first season really focused on a more liberally informed racism in the kind of elite environments many of us exist in. In this season, it really seems to draw out the open bigotry we seem to have transitioned into. What made you take that direction?

JS: It was literally what all of us in the room were going through. People who obviously associate me with the show said some vicious things to some of my writers, but literally, any black person on Twitter who regularly talks about these issues publicly has felt the change in culture, has felt the divisiveness, has felt the way in which people are almost addicted to the outrage. It’s like we get together just to get outraged as opposed to having a meaningful conversation. It would feel odd not to talk about it and not to include it in the fabric of these characters’ lives because this is exactly the bullshit they would be dealing with if they were real and if Winchester was real.

OKP: Speaking of outrage and everything that comes with it, the show also leans into the cult of personality borne from the zeitgeist of response. It can really create a whole platform all on its own. What conversations were you all having in the writers room while fleshing those components out?

JS: It’s a whole industry. Every time one of these poor kids gets shot, you’re going to see the news cameras, you’re going to see the competing liberal versus conservative spin, you’re going to hear from the NRA… all this advertising money is being made off of the death of somebody. That money doesn’t go to the family. It doesn’t help them psychologically repair. It doesn’t help the community gather around the issue, and there are very few consequences for the perpetrators of these crimes.

There was this feeling that it was another part of this system. When we talk about racism in Dear White People, racism is defined as an institutional thing. We’re talking about disadvantages though when it feels like every time something happens, it sort of happens in the same way, that, to us, was a key that this is systemic. Our system is actually made to work in this way. I brought a couple of books into the room, one of which was The History of White People, which was just a mind-boggling read, but also, makes you realize just how arbitrarily we landed on this idea that whiteness means anything at all, let alone it being the standard of beauty. I just really wanted to explore that.

We looked into secret societies, which to me is an extension of this need to kind of always erase the past or hide our tracks. It felt like the same thing. Fake news, propaganda, trolls, it just felt like the same cast of characters since the Reformation era. That’s what I want people to understand, beyond just making you love the characters and having a lot of fun. I want you to leave the show curious, like, what other secret histories do I not know about? There’s a few. You never see it. They leave you quite upset when you start to look into it.


OKP: Another prominent theme is the continuing examination of navigating queer identity through Lionel’s character. What did you guys want to draw out in that storyline this season?

JS: I wanted to write very specifically about being a gay person who’s also black, but also grew up without a father — that’s Lionel, that’s me — and he doesn’t really know how to be in the world. A lot of characters in TV shows, once they come out, their story is sort of over. They come out and they immediately find a boyfriend, and everything’s great. I just thought that was a kind of cruel fiction for all of the rest of us who are like, ‘Well, that didn’t happen to me.’ I wanted to show Lionel’s continuing awkward walk in that life.

One of the things that strike me about being gay is how queerness is separated into these different groups in the same way that races are and in the same way that within the black community there are all these tiers of colorism and sexism. To be both is just such a mind fuck. I wanted to walk people through that, in a non-sitcom-y way, where he just goes to a party and meets the love of his life. It’s not that simple. Even as you go through the series, the love of his life may not be the love of his life.

That’s what my experience is. I remember coming out and just literally never feeling the way everybody else in the club seems to be feeling, which is, they found their mecca, they found their thing. I never felt that way. I was never treated that way. I was never hit on in L.A. clubs. It never happened. It’s sort of like, I just wanted to show what that felt like and what it continues to feel like for queer people and queer people of color.

OKP: In that storyline, popular personalities Kid Fury and Todrick Hall have guest features. How was it like working with them?

JS: They’re so lovely. The funny thing is, like, I’m such a big fan of them but they were treating me like I was a thing. They were nervous and humble and I was like, ‘Wait, but you guys are stars in my head.’ Todrick [Hall] came so prepared. Kid [Fury], God, he just broke my heart. I just loved their performances. What I think came out was a really funny scene.

They were wonderful and I just thought they killed every take and really great to work with. I also thought because Todrick has been pulled into some of these problematic, pop star debates, and gained the ire of both black and white people. I just thought, what a fun way to just say ‘Eff you’ to all of it — including him, literally the center of a conversation like that and bring some levity to it because they’re pop stars. This is not that serious.

‘Dear White People’ Creator Justin Simien Takes On The Alt-Right & Fake News In Bold New Season [Interview]

The point of the scene is to show Lionel what gay black men look like and how intimidating that can feel. Boy, did they pull that off! You know what I think it is, I think that we are so often excluded from narratives that when we get to create our own, we become so exclusive and I just wanted to show how that feels to the outsider, like Lionel, who could probably be these guys’ friend but no one knows that right now because we’re all so intimidated of each other. We’re all so scared of each other. Even when he walks in they pause and sort of have to. I thought that would be a fun, entertaining way to look at ourselves.

OKP: In both seasons, the focal narrative was around the use of technology to spread information and how that can get distorted. In the first season, that was more so with the app and the Facebook invite; this season, it’s social media and how news can get distorted. What do you think about when you think about this show and going further? How would you like to advance the conversation and how we have used technology to more access but with certain amounts of pitfalls?

JS: I think I’d like to continue in the line of thinking that I’ve begun, which is, why is this sort of erasing of the truth such a seemingly necessary component to advance in this country? We’re essentially giving our lives over to algorithms that we’ve now been able to statistically prove are actually racist. In very real ways, the nuances of people who happen to be of color, there’s no space for that in these algorithms because nobody of color wrote the algorithms and so nobody could see what was missing from them.

For everything from faucets not being able to register black skin in a bathroom to sort of lumping certain kinds of cultural answers together and drawing inaccurate conclusions about people and that effects purchasing and advertising decisions and all kinds of things that have a lot of other things they’re sort of connected to.

I’d like to continue to explore that. We do have this thing in our country where when a new thing happens, there are all these forces that we just sort of allow to kind of sweep up whatever hedge up happens so that we can no longer talk about it or even properly remember it. That will always kind of be a theme that I think recurs, but I’m very interested in exploring, well, okay, given we are so distracted and given we are so woefully misinformed, what does a successful network of people look like? What does coming together even mean anymore? What does a meaningful dialogue mean? What is the work that it takes to move a social needle?

‘Dear White People’ Creator Justin Simien Takes On The Alt-Right & Fake News In Bold New Season [Interview]

Is it actually possible? Are these things that happen to happen when these people are forming a group or when those people are forming a group? Or, are there things that we can actually affect? I think a lot of us are mad and we are looking at the culture around us and we are exasperated and what we want to know is, what is step one and then what is step two? I think what I want to see is characters going through those steps in some really concrete ways. I’m curious to see what that might look like.

At the same token, these are young people in a very formative experience and I was very reactive when I was at that age. You’d never catch me coming back junior year the same way I was rocking sophomore year. I’m also really interested in seeing how the event of the first two seasons sort of effect the characters in terms of their own self-expression and how they position themselves in this world.

I think someone like Sam, who’s been trying the same thing for a while now and getting disappointing results, I wonder if she’s going to be so quick to get on that same horse again or if she’s going to try something new? That’s where my first sort of thoughts go because I want to see the characters grow and change and respond over time. I never want you to feel like any season of the show is just a kind of warmed up version of the previous season. I’d rather it fail miserably but be different and look like human life, which is always changing, than sort of stay the same.

Dear White People Vol. 2 is available for binge-watching and streaming on Netflix now.

Yeah, I’m Finished With The Black Suffering Trauma Porn Of Orange Is The New Black

Originally published for VerySmartBrothas.

Warning: For those of you who do things like have lives and stuff and haven’t gotten around to watching the latest season of this Netflix show, spoilers ahead.

Last Friday, Netflix dropped the latest season of Orange is The New Black, the critically-acclaimed dramedy of life in a minimum-security prison centered around Piper “I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t Do That” Chapman and her rag-tag group of incarcerated friends; all of whom seem doomed to a life of eternal malaise that the central character somehow is just not possessed with.

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The Bachelor Franchise Fails In Addressing Race and Consent

When ABC announced that they were selecting the first ever Black Bachelorette, several questions presented themselves. Some of those questions have already been answered , such as “what does that mean for the racial makeup of the contestants?” (The season ended up featuring more Black male contestants than ever before). However, one question continued to linger throughout the season like a precarious guillotine: will the Bachelor franchise make an attempt to address race in America, and if so, how? Presently, the answer is “not really, and when applicable, horribly.”

Discussions around racism in the Bachelorette have been largely constrained to the farcically portrayed machinations of the season’s clear villain in country singer Lee Garrett, with the production team choosing to inexplicably keep Rachel isolated from the inner details of the situation while simultaneously treating the racist behavior with the gravity of a comical B-plot, forcing the Black male contestants to endure a series of microagressions at a near nauseating clip. In a methodical fashion, Lee invents tensions between several other black male competitors, branding them with the label “aggressive” when challenged, all with a malicious twinkle in his eye. When forced to contend with the historical context of a white man inflammatorily referring to a black male as aggressive, Lee dismisses the conversation by invoking the insulting allegation of a “race card”, a statement which came on the heels of derisively referring to black male contestant Kenny as a “stack of bleeding muscle” in the course of an argument. All of this is relayed to Rachel by Lee in a rather disturbing contortion of narratives; Lee portrays himself as an affable possessor of Southern genteel who is unjustly left at the mercy of the Black contestants’ violent inclinations.

Consuming all of this as a black woman has been a tough pill to swallow. Racism-as-entertainment-value commodifies centuries of pain and dilutes it down to the potency of a supreme annoyance, a conceit that is highly insulting to both the viewers as well as Lindsay, who becomes an unknowing accomplice in continuing the storyline as a result of being excluded from the context of Garrett’s scheming. In a landmark season during a time period where the gravity of the lived racial experience is as relevant as ever, ABC’s choice to dismiss nuance in favor of encouraging race-based gaslighting for ratings  has left a sour taste in my mouth for the past 3 weeks.

This series of events has dovetailed into the latest burgeoning scandal of the Bachelorette’s salacious  sister show, Bachelor in Paradise, whose latest season was intended to feature early-exit black male contestant Demario Jackson from Rachel’s season. However, taping was abruptly stopped approximately 3 days in for investigation of a potential sexual assault that may have occurred while filming, which, as more details were leaked, were revealed to stem from an incident between Demario and former Bachelor contestant Corinne Olympios. Over the course of the investigation, it was concluded that no sufficient cause for sexual assault; however neither Jackson nor Olympios will be returning to the show while the network “plans to implement certain changes to the show’s policies and procedures to enhance and further ensure the safety of all participants.”

The looming spectre over the entire series of events is, of course the very real and pained history of black men being falsely accused, imprisoned, and even murdered for being perceived as sexually domineering towards white women. This is a narrative that America is not all that removed from, and remains a consistent fear in many black men’s lives, as Demario has since stated in his first public interview since taping was halted. That lens cannot be ignored – black men, and black people in general are so rarely given the benefit of the doubt when attesting to their innocence or humanity, that the optics alone warrant a critical examination of the circumstances.

However, with the rights of  Jackson to be absolved come the rights of the victim to due diligence. The facts remain that Olympios was not the one to lodge any complaint about alleged misconduct during taping(and as of this moment, has yet to accuse Jackson of sexual assault), as it was two producers; couple that with Jackson’s own admission that Olympios was cut off from alcohol the next day and competing narratives from other contestants both on and off the record, and the circumstances warranted a proper investigation. There shouldn’t be any stigma surrounding thoroughness; however with ABC Studios and Warner Bros choosing to defer detailing any context around the circumstances, viewers of the show are instead forced to fill in the blanks to their own personal inclinations, doing a disservice to both Jackson and Olympios. For some, this means that the empirically pernicious context of black male and white women sexual interactions supersedes all; for others, it’s the reality that in modern-day justice systems and public opinion there is little to no value in falsifying accusations.

As a viewer who is not just black but also a female survivor of sexual assault, the overlapping of circumstances such as these immediately detail just how ill-prepared the Bachelor franchise was to handle complex issues of race and consent in advance of their landmark season. For a show that trades in the hazy magic of alcohol-fueled hookups, there seems to have been no clear plan in ensuring that all participants had unambiguous guidelines on what affirmative consent really means. Instead we are forced to deal with the weight of alleged sexual assault as a titillating storyline that leaves more questions than answers: if Demario felt uncomfortable immediately when Corinne made advances to the point of needing to engage in the sexual acts on camera, why did he proceed? If the unnamed sources of the crew were put off by Corinne’s inebriation in the moment, why wasn’t filming stopped immediately instead of 48 hours later? What procedures and policies are the studio ultimately reviewing if no misconduct was found? Why is the tape not being released? In a presumed effort to both protect the studios from liability as well as regroup the narrative construction in light of recent events, frank discussions about the topics of race, alcohol, and consent are lacking, ultimately doing a disservice to both Olympios and Jackson, who have their public lives excoriated without much to show for it.

I can’t say in good conscience that I plan on watching the upcoming season of BIP. Barring sincere engagement on the multiple layers of my identity – black, woman, sexual assault survivor – I’m not interested in participating in the ratings spectacle of scandal without substantively deconstructing the root of why these threads are so readily available to pull. Both black people and assault survivors deserve more than that. Peddling pain as entertainment fodder leaves everyone worse off, and if the show plans to substantively move forwards with a seemingly more diverse and multifaceted pool of Bachelors, Bachelorettes, and contestants, it would be well-served to treat critical issues as more than tools to prop up story narratives.

There Will Never Be a Better Dating Show Than I Love New York

Originally published on The Cut.

On May 22, 2017, Rachel Lindsay stepped out from a limousine and became the first black woman to receive the supplications of 25 men on network television. It’s welcome change, and one that is long overdue; but while Rachel may be the first black Bachelorette of the ABC franchise, she is not the first black Bachelorette of our hearts. That is a title that is reserved for the notorious Tiffany “New York” Pollard.

For those who are unfamiliar, Tiffany Pollard (of the Utica, New York, Pollards) made her grand entrance into the reality-show cannon in 2006 via VH1’s cult-classic dating game show, Flavor of Love, starring Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav as the bachelor. As one of several women competing for Flav’s affection, Pollard brazenly declared early on that she would be the last woman standing, earning the nickname “New York” both for her hometown as well as her distinctly “uptown” demeanor. In short form, New York’s wit and brashness quickly made her a fan favorite with viewers thanks to lines like I never was a child — soon as I popped out of my mom, I was in the know.” New York ran through two seasons of the show, then turned her ultimate rejection into a franchise of her own — I Love New York, which ran for a magical two seasons on VH1 (and is still available on Hulu).

ILNY was a dating competition with Pollard calling the shots. It’s difficult to explain the pure wondrousness of those 25 episodes for those who didn’t watch in real time: Every week a bevy of men from all walks of life competed for the adulation of a regular black girl from around the way. She made no qualms about making it clear that the men were there for her objectification, from lasciviously commenting on one’s bulge to letting another know he looked like “a pinto bean with eyes.” She could tell a man that she looked forward to treating him as a plaything in the same breath as she expressed a desire for a “real thug” straight out of Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier.” Pollard was also prone to giving them nicknames of her own such as Token, Whiteboy — my personal favorite — Rico, and Punk, who is now more commonly known as David Otunga, the fiancee of Jennifer Hudson.

Whereas the Bachelor franchise portrays a sanitized and polished ideal of romantic fantasy, I Love New York leaned heavily into the farce of courtship. The men cooked for Pollard. They scrubbed the house. They drew up business plans to market their financial value. There was even a beauty-pageant competition, replete with a swimsuit contest and talent competition! Episode after episode featured men embodying the worst of the traits that are so commonly attributed to black women on corresponding reality programs — cattiness, dramatics, and underhanded antics for the sake of camera time and Pollard’s adoration. And instead of roses, she gave chains.

But the significance of New York’s run lies beyond her show’s entertainment value. For two years, a regular-shmegular black woman was adored for being shamelessly herself without caveats or compromises. There was no political correctness or need for genteel demurs as someone proudly proclaims they would “like to go black and never go back,” as Rachel Lindsay recently had to endure (in fact, early on in the show Pollard ardently expressed her disapproval of a contestant calling her his little negrita). What made Pollard so loved was the fact that she spoke her mind. Proclamations such as, “When I make these motherfuckers cum I do it with my heart!” are the sort of unadulterated, bona fide emotion that both entertained and bonded her audience to her journey for love. The varnish that seems to be a prerequisite to be a network darling, especially a black one (Rachel is not only full of girl-next-door appeal, but a lawyer at a top Dallas law firm) was absent on ILNY, and the show was all the better for it.

As a fan of the Bachelor franchise, I am looking forward to enjoying Rachel’s current season — if the first few episodes are any indication, there will be some compelling narratives ahead for Rachel and her suitors to contend with. Rachel’s combination of poise and girl-next-door appeal makes her a perfect fit for a franchise that has long been marred by allegations of lack of diversity — and while she may not tell anyone to “take the high road all the way to hell, bitch” à la Pollard, she has made it very clear that she did not sign up for this endeavor to be embarrassed.

While I await the next episode of this season-long romance-novel, however, I will continue to tip my hat to the first black woman of the reality-show era to set her own terms in the search for love, and thank God for my monthly Hulu subscription that allows me to revisit this time-capsule moment, chains and all.


Originally posted on VerySmartBrothas.

In an ideal world, we would spend the next few hundred words articulating the significance of a Black woman achieving rapid career acceleration in the entertainment industry after decades of hard work. Leslie Jones’s addition to SNL, an institution Whiter than tampon commercial underwear, is a major accomplishment. As is her being cast in the Ghostbusters reboot.

Instead, we are forced to lament what continues to be the striking reality for Black women in the age of social media. That with increased visibility comes increased vitriol. And that we exist in a society that feels entitled to dictate the narrow confines of where Black women are allowed to flourish versus the spaces that we should not encroach.

This isn’t a tale limited to Leslie; the Rio Olympics had us revisiting the targeted insults lobbied at Gabby Douglas, a young woman who has also been open about how the ill-spirited commentary affected her. Talk to any Black woman of any level of notoriety or platform in social media and you’ll be regaled with tale after tale of unprompted gender-based and race-based (and sometimes both at the same time) hate speech from keyboard trolls the world over. Ultimately, the plight of online harassment, on Twitter especially, has been an oft-discussed problem that seems to have received minimal traction from the company on a grand scale.

One could argue that yes, this happens to many women regardless of race. But the layering of race is too critical to ignore here as just a minor component. Jones’s costars Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon certainly haven’t been compared to a deceased silverback gorilla. Or referred to as “big-lipped coons.” Or been the target or a publicly coordinated attack by a Breitbart writer. Or any of the other vitriolic slurs that targeted not just Leslie’s gender, but her race, as well as her aesthetic existing on the outliers of what is viewed as traditionally beautiful for Hollywood elite. Jones has been forced to bear the brunt of the attacks herself, with limited public support (if any) from her costars, a circumstance, which, by her own admission, she is used to. An unfortunate reality for a Black woman with a certain level of exposure.

This all came to a head, when hackers infiltrated Leslie’s personal website with her sensitive personal information, not only doxing her, but leaking nude photos from her iCloud and uploading a video of the deceased gorilla Harambe.

The last time this happened on a major scale — with the victims being Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, amongst others — the public outcry was so deafening that the FBI got involved. I’m still awaiting for any of these two conditions to arise in the light of these circumstances. At the time of writing, her costars have yet to comment publicly in support of Leslie’s continuously unwarranted plight. (Editor’s note: The FBI is involved now.)

Instead, what I have witnessed is a plethora of jokes at Leslie’s expense with regards to leaking her nudes; as if a woman who doesn’t fit the perceived mainstream standards of desirability should be less entitled to outrage at her violation of privacy than the Jennifer Lawrences and Scarlett Johannsons of the world. The impetus behind leaking, after all, isn’t just to share the bits and kibbles of America’s most beautiful; its to inflict shame and embarrassment upon women for exercising the right to celebrate their body at their discretion. And the additional layer of comparing Leslie’s physical aesthetic to that of an animal — a comparison with historically racist implications — is intended to add further insult to her public exposure, inviting criticisms to the concept of her or anyone else celebrating her form as an exercise in mockery and humiliation.

It shouldn’t be expected of Leslie to just persevere and rise above this. While it is admirable that she has so far transformed the spurts of written violence into moments of awareness and advocacy, that isn’t a weight that she should have to carry alone, and the absence of certain voices to uplift her in these trials and tribulations is also deafening. We shouldn’t be expecting Leslie to push through this adversity, we should be demanding civility and gatekeeping from the arbiters of the ecosystem that was intended to be built for healthy public engagement and not hate speech. Cyberbullying against Black Women shouldn’t be our expected burden to bear; we are people, not battering rams, entitled to justice, civility and a base-level respect that should be afforded to any human at all levels of celebrity. As social media continues to expand and transform, it is paramount that we collectively hold accountable the gatekeepers of the applications we keep viable via our engagement, and demand that the protection of Black women from targeted attacks be prioritized in the ongoing battles of cyberbullying and internet harassment.