90 Day Fiancé Is Everyone’s Guilty Pleasure. But Is It Exploiting Immigrants?

Originally published for Zora Magazine on October 20th.

Last month, Brazilian national Larissa Lima was briefly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), placed in removal proceedings, and released on her own recognizance pending a hearing to determine her eligibility to remain in the United States. On the surface, this may look like yet another story of a disenfranchised undocumented immigrant targeted by the government. Lima’s predicament, however, is a distinct scenario: She has risen in notoriety as a star of TLC’s booming 90 Day Fiancé franchise, touted by network president Howard Lee as “our version of a Marvel Comics Universe.”

Built around the K-1, or “fiancé visa,” 90 Day Fiancé debuted in 2014. It was quickly followed by several spin-offs including Happily Ever After?, prequel series Before the 90 Days, and specials for breakout participants. The fodder is never-ending, with no signs of deceleration.

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Yara Shahidi Is a New Kind of Young Hollywood Mogul

This story originally published on August 12, 2020 in WSJ. Mag

Ask Yara Shahidi how she self-identifies and she will reply that she is not an activist but “a creative and socially engaged human.” The 20-year-old polymath has been in the entertainment industry since first appearing in TV commercials at the age of 6, and she made her big-screen debut alongside Eddie Murphy in the 2009 comedy Imagine That. Since then, starring roles on Kenya Barris’s series black-ish and grown-ish—playing cool older sister Zoey Johnson—have placed her among the vanguard of young Hollywood. Shahidi has also been a brand ambassador for Chanel and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and was featured in several ad campaigns for Coach. For her young fans, she’s served as a voice on social justice in the arts and more. Her personal social media channels put her politics into practice: One day, she’s leading a back-and-forth with her fans about the works of James Baldwin via Instagram, and the next, creating a TikTok urging teens to register to vote. She’s also currently enrolled as a full-time student at Harvard University.

Now the actress, alongside her mother, Keri Shahidi, aims to take her reformist energy behind the camera. The two Shahidis are the co-presidents of the newly formed 7th Sun Productions, part of a overall deal with ABC Studios, announced last month. Her mother is an actress herself, and her father, Afshin Shahidi, is a cinematographer who was formerly Prince’s personal photographer. Shahidi views this new endeavor as one for her whole family, and she says that “the goal at the end of the day is to make powerful media but to also push the door wide open.”

The day of WSJ.’s conversation with Shahidi happens to be the one-year anniversary of her idol Toni Morrison’s death. “Toni Morrison set the foundation for these conversations,” she says, referring to the Nobel Prize winner’s efforts to prioritize Black life and stories. “Pushing back on the sentiments of Blackness having to be universalized in a way that isn’t expected of a Pride and Prejudice,” says Shahidi. “Those worlds did not have us in mind when they were being created.” Indebted gratitude, as Shahidi calls it, is a guiding principle of hers as she looks to Morrison and Baldwin for guidance on how to stay authentic to her artistic passions.

For the past few years, Shahidi headed a youth vote initiative called Eighteen x 18 and worked alongside progressive news site NowThis. They hosted an in-person summit for youth activists in 2018 with over 120 young activists in attendance. For the 2020 election, she and the initiative, now going by WeVoteNext, are working to provide accurate candidate information to first-time voters.

Here, in her own words, Shahidi explains the formation of 7th Sun Productions, imagining new worlds in media and her voting initiatives. 

Versace dress, price upon request, select Versace stores, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 

It took months to find a name for 7th Sun. We wanted to make sure that the first touchpoint with us was very clear as to what we represented. Funny enough, I was in conversation with [philosopher and public intellectual] Dr. Cornel West, and he was talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Having read The Souls of Black Folk, I noted that Du Bois says that the Black person is the seventh son, s-o-n. We’d wanted to find a way to use that but also subvert it, to degender it, which was how we arrived at seventh sun, s-u-n

I’ve always viewed our family as being all-around creative. It was never a conversation of Well, I really want to do this and them saying no. It was Dream bigger and dream more. Production has been a field that our family has been passionate about for years. As an actor, I find it’s exciting because for once, the stories we get to tell are in no way confined by roles that I can play. It’s not about servicing me as an actor—to be like, Let’s create the dream role for me. As a storyteller, I have more freedom than ever because our company is either telling stories that are authentic to us, or we have the ability to partner with people and tell stories pertaining to other communities. That’s been the most exciting part about it; it really expands creative potential. 

At 20, I’m working on honoring all of my desires, honoring what I’m passionate about. The lesson that my mother taught me at a really young age is the fact that my voice belongs in these spaces. At the same time, I feel like I’ve been unintentionally trained to be an amenable person. Being amenable has oftentimes been weaponized against [Black artists], because we operate in the binary of either you’re amenable or you’re aggressive. As we create things that haven’t been seen before, we’re also saying, OK, let’s redefine the concept of risk when you’re bringing in a young writer of color or a young writer of any [race, sexuality, gender, etc.]. 

The art of storytelling is something that I still admire in every form, whether it’s Barry Jenkins or Issa Rae—and the fact that we’ve seen Issa go from YouTube to her own show to her own label to owning her own coffee shop speaks to the depth of vision. The first season of [Rae’s HBO show] Insecure came with a soundtrack featuring a ton of incredible Black artists. I remember watching Donald Glover in season one of [Atlanta, his show on FX]. It was the episode that was like a fake C-Span episode, with fake commercials. It was so genre-bending. What it affirmed to me is that we have the opportunity to train our audience. That episode was just a reminder that Black artists get to lead the way as creatives and trust that we are in a world of smart consumers, and that they’re either gonna get it or they’re gonna move on to a show that they do resonate with. 

Many creators inspire me, especially young ones, like [20-year-old] Phillip Youmans, who did [the 2019 critically acclaimed drama] Burning Cane. I feel like we’re really seeing the uptick in incredibly young filmmakers because Hollywood is becoming more accessible in terms of the ability to produce and distribute content. But we know that the digital space, especially for Black and brown creators, is extremely divisive. When you put content out into the world [on social media], based on those terms and agreements that we all clickthrough, the content isn’t ours. It ends up being co-opted, and it ends up being taken and not credited. 

Alberta Ferretti polo, $695, shirt,$495, and pants, $525, saks.com, Christian Louboutin heels, $895, christianlouboutin.com, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 

The way that I’m trying to use my platform has been: How can I be a conduit for voter education as a young person who’s similarly developing my opinion in the world? One thing that most of my generation knows is that policy is personal. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen it more clearly than ever. 

In times when it’s hard to figure out what my purpose is, I often turn back and think about how many of our great leaders had to watch their peers die. They knew the stakes of the work they were doing, and they were doing it for a future that wasn’t guaranteed. They were doing it for a future that they couldn’t imagine. Congressman John Lewis being 17 when he started civil action,19 when he became a civil-rights leader, in his 20s when he was speaking at the March on Washington—he knew that he was risking his life. It’s remiss to say that we don’t reap the benefits of their progress every day. Their work had to be driven in a deep sense of hope. The most radical leaders are the most hopeful, because that radicalism stems from a deep belief that some sort of change, extreme change, is possible. 

I constantly am trying to figure out—what is my role, how can I be of service to the best of my abilities? It’s something that I’m tweaking and refining daily. It’s a thrilling time to be in media right now. We’re actively talking about the fact that it has to be restructured to prioritize new voices. And with that comes the opportunity to—in the kindest way possible—burn down the traditional infrastructure that has kept us out for so long and present something completely new. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Netflix’s ‘Strong Black Lead’ Marketing Team Shows the Power (and Business Benefit) of Amplifying Black Voices

This originally published on August 6th 2020 in The Hollywood Reporter.

On June 28, 3.7 million people watched as the BET Awards went virtual amid not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also uprisings for racial justice happening daily across the country. The show (largely) successfully closed in around a tagline — “Our culture can’t be canceled” — and struck a harmonious balance between the gravitas of the Movement for Black Lives and the need for celebratory entertainment.

Two years prior, in that very awards ceremony, Netflix’s Strong Black Lead marketing team premiered its “A Great Day in Hollywood” commercial, tying the current wave of reinvigorated interest in Black stories to an iconic 1958 photograph by Art Kane, which captured jazz greats from Thelonious Monk to Dizzy Gillespie, in Harlem during the genre’s golden era. With 47 Black actors, writers, showrunners and producers across 20 shows, the spot aimed to bring a message into sharp focus: “This is not a moment, this is a movement.” It wasn’t merely a response to hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite, but rather a harbinger of what was to come as SBL worked to establish a cultural resonance, combining marketing and editorial in a concerted effort to shift the ethos and culture within the Netflix brand.

“You know it was special when you started going out to talent, and everybody was like, ‘I’ll drop everything, just tell me when,’ ” says Maya Watson, Netflix’s director of editorial and publishing. Reflecting on “A Great Day,” she says it was almost like they sensed today’s zeitgeist coming, “It was like a little whisper that I feel people felt: It’s our time. It’s time to shift the narratives in Hollywood. It’s time to have more representation.”

Strong Black Lead is a sub-brand of Netflix that amplifies content specifically targeted to various slices of the Black experience. While it has its own vertical on Netflix, boasting the deepest bench of Black programming among the top streaming services, it has also become a popular brand outside the platform at the cross-section of technology, culture and community-building.

“A few Black [staffers] were like, ‘Hey, we want to start prioritizing and talking to the Black audience,’ ” says Watson, who, before moving to Netflix, worked for Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama. “Our colleagues were like, ‘Cool, what do you need from us to get it done?’

Since then, the team has worked to establish SBL as an integral part of Netflix through editorial content and original programming created exclusively for the brand. With almost a half-million followers on Instagram and 163,000 and counting on Twitter, successful initiatives include the #HeyQueen shortform video series featuring such celebrated Black women as former first lady Michelle Obama and Angela Bassett reciting affirmations, the Strong Black Legends podcast and video series where stars of classic Black movies are interviewed, and #BetweenTwoFaves, which highlights conversations among icons across the Black diaspora in entertainment. (One of the most popular was a chat between Phylicia Rashad and Cicely Tyson timed to their latest film, Tyler Perry’s A Fall From Grace.)

Myles Worthington, who worked for Netflix PR before joining the SBL team as a director, says one standout has been the biweekly podcast Okay, Now Listen with Sylvia Obell and Scottie Beam. Close friends, the two Black women discuss what they’re dealing with at any given moment — from belting out gospel to speaking candidly about sex — with a firmly Black cultural frame of reference (Nora Ephron, in one episode, is referred to as “the white Terry McMillan”).

Obell says working with SBL gave her the budget to do Okay, Now Listen properly and an all-Black team supporting her on a day-to-day basis. “It’s empowering,” she said, adding that it’s a “safe space for Black women to create something dope.”

Jasmyn Lawson, a manager on the team who also produces its podcasts, says that at the beginning of SBL they weren’t sure what to post. Netflix had original series like critical darlings Dear White People and She’s Gotta Have It, but their programming needed a broader voice, so they turned to data to find out what else resonates with viewers.

“Ninety percent of the time the things that would perform well and things people were responding to were things where we were celebrating Black culture,” Lawson recalls. “We homed in on what we were great at.”

Strong Black Leads -HOLLYWOOD Portrait -Netflix - EMBED - 2020
Courtesy of Kwaku Alston/NetflixNetflix’s Strong Black Lead team and dozens of Hollywood talent re-created Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photograph “A Great Day in Harlem.”

In the broadcast TV eras of the ’90s and early aughts, entire programming blocks were built around shows with majority Black casts. UPN evenings were anchored by Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris. Fox’s North Star was In Living Color. But when the rubber met the road, consistent marketing dollars were not given to shows with majority Black casts and audiences. Now, with Netflix’s marketing budget growing to $2.6 billion in 2019, the opportunities are plentiful for a team like SBL and its sister verticals (NetflixIsaJoke, theMost and Con Todo) to build out their content and reach.

“Being able to aggregate content, voice, style and design toward any particular demographic, in this case people of color, is just smart online community-building,” says Richard Lachman, associate professor of digital media at Ryerson University in Toronto. “These sub-brands can be empowered to build relationships with press, creators and audiences on their own.”

Defining “Black content,” however, can be a bit nebulous. For example, does Shonda Rhimes’ programming count, even when she has majority white casts? The answer may come down to how the consumer engages with it.

While some Netflix titles like Dear White People are no-brainers, Lawson notes that what the SBL audience sometimes wants to talk about isn’t so obvious. “One of my favorite shows on Netflix is Sex Education, which isn’t a Black show. It isn’t even a U.S. show,” she says. “But there’s a character named Eric played by Ncuti [Gatwa] that the audience has loved and is obsessed with. I think it’s something really rare. He’s not just like the Black best friend. You get to explore his queer identity, his religious identity, his African [identity] as well as his Britishness in the show.”

Celebrating legacies is also a priority for the brand, especially through the Strong Black Legends podcast. The series aims to give beloved performers their flowers while they can still share in the moment, and one of those moments went viral in a very bittersweet way. Just a few months before his death, actor John Witherspoon was interviewed by host Tracy Clayton. A Netflix promotional photo of the Friday star was widely shared upon news of his passing, and was even displayed at his funeral. 

“People only really see the final output, you only see that wicker chair photo, you only hear that interview,” says Netflix community manager Dani Howe of the image. “But. in my head, I thought, ‘Wow. Jasmyn worked her ass off and a Black woman did that. A Black woman gave us that final moment.’ “

These moves have not inoculated Netflix from growing pains when it comes to addressing diversity and inclusion. In 2018, former communications chief Jonathan Friedland was fired over his repeated use of the N-word. In November 2019, comedian and Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique sued the company, alleging race- and gender-based discrimination over the pay she was offered for a stand-up special. Most recently, British multihyphenate Michaela Coel revealed that her critically acclaimed series I May Destroy You didn’t land at Netflix, despite a $1 million offer, because of the company’s unwillingness to allow her to retain a share of the copyright.

The streamer’s public U.S. workforce demographics also show there’s still work to be done: Only 7 percent of the staff is Black (although that is almost double the reported figures from 2018).

Lachman says it’s important that offering inclusive content doesn’t distract from fixing those underlying issues. “Inclusion can’t only be marketing,” he says. “It needs to reach the level of the senior executive and the key decision-maker.” (Tendo Nagendo is vp original film and in July, Netflix hired Bozoma Saint John as chief marketing officer.)

Adds TimeJump Media CEO Larissa Lowthorp, “A market vertical, or niche focus, will backfire if the audience perceives that it’s been done solely to capitalize on current trends, consumer sentiment or tragedy. In order to be successful, and also ethical, the marketing niche must be driven by a genuine need to serve and represent a specific audience, use their core data, test viewership and [use] feedback to better the brand.”

The SBL team isn’t shying away from those tough conversations. “We’re at a time now where people are being very critical and should be very critical of the companies that are creating our content,” says Lawson. “I want our audience to respect us for listening to them, [and know] that we are giving opportunities to Black directors and Black folks behind the scenes.”

That Black content is currently trending isn’t good enough for SBL’s team. They want it to be sustainable. With Netflix’s marketing machine at its back, and direct, authentic interaction with their audience, they’re able to understand what people want.

“We have super insights sitting there in the comments,” says Worthington. “Here’s the storylines, the characters, the creators that really resonate. They can use this as a way to deeper understand the audience and they can make better choices on product content decisions.”

Investments of this sort recently paid off in a significant way. After Netflix acquired seven classic Black UPN shows, including Girlfriends and Moesha, SBL turned the news into a viral moment for the company with a tweet that nabbed 170,000 likes and prompted the approving hashtag #okaynetflix to trend.

“You can’t make a campaign like this,” Watson remarks. “It comes from a deep place of understanding the void in the marketplace. And then saying, ‘This needs to exist.’ “

Ramy’ Meditates on the Pitfalls of Self-Righteousness

This piece was originally published for The Atlantic on June 11, 2020

In Season 1 of Ramy, audiences are introduced to Ramy Hassan—the character loosely based on the show’s creator, Ramy Youssef—and his Egyptian American family in northern Jersey. With a formidable mix of surrealism and humor, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious Millennial man, namely through navigating the difficulties that young Muslims face coming of age post-9/11. Season 2 is anchored in Ramy’s wish to find purpose and direction in his spirituality, but his obsessive need to present a righteous version of himself only sabotages his effort at redemption.

The show is preoccupied with the idea that ritual for ritual’s sake—without deeper consideration of context or circumstances and without disposition of the ego—can often reveal one’s truest, ugliest self. Ramy has returned from a sojourn in Cairo more aimless and prurient than ever before. Back in the States, he engages in gluttony and lewdness (through the haze of a porn-filled laptop screen), and isolates himself in shame. He admits, “I feel like I have this hole inside of me, this emptiness, and I’m always trying to fill it with something.” But once he finally musters up the resolve to return to his mosque after a hiatus, his imam (played by Alok Tewari) meets him with reproach: “Read the last three surahs of the Quran every night,” he says. “It will help keep the shaitan away.” (Shaitan, in Islam, are evil spirits that tempt humans into sinful behavior; their commander, Iblis, is known in Christian texts as Lucifer.)Despondent, Ramy finds his way to the local Sufi center, led by the charismatic Sheikh Ali (Mahershala Ali). Enamored by Ali’s presence and steadiness, Ramy convinces himself that his absolution will come under the approval of the sheikh’s watchful eye.

What ensues is an empty religious performance by Ramy.Desperate to prove that he can ascend to the levels of perfection he associates with the sheikh, Ramy adheres to a rigidity that his loved ones find disconcerting, imposing stringent standards not just on himself, but also on the people around him. When Ramy attends the strip-club bachelor party his friends throw for him, he admonishes one of them, Ahmed, about the optics of the occasion. But Ahmed retorts, “Do you know how many times I’ve watched you do crazy things? Slowly waiting, praying that you’d do the right thing? I never judged you! I just prayed for you.”Ramy’s understanding of discipline is misguided, and his overcompensation and ego leave no room for the inevitability of human error, creating a built-in tension in the show.

Similar to Kanye West and his self-righteous Sunday Service performances, Ramy has understood only the trimmings of deliverance and religion, and has done so in the most self-serving ways possible. For instance, when he wants to encourage a new revert’s adoption into the Sufi center, Ramy fails to disclose that the man was a U.S. soldier in Iraq—responsible for the torture and deaths of Arab and Muslim innocents—and that he has crippling PTSD. As a result, the man is involved in a fatal incident at the Sufi center, for which Ramy is indirectly responsible. In another episode, Ramy translates his adoration of Sheikh Ali into a delusion of romantic love for his daughter. He pursues a relationship with her and then sabotages their imminent nuptials by engaging in infidelity under the guise of religiously sanctioned polygamy—a practice reserved for those who have both the resources and mutually agreed-upon consent.

Ramy’s family members also learn the cruel irony of empty performance. In contrast to Ramy’s capitulations to what he thinks is religious surveillance, his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), capitulates to a literal agent of surveillance—the United States federal government—in the journey to obtain her citizenship. She studiously reviews her notes for her final exam and absorbs American vernacular. But when she incurs an infraction at her job driving for Lyft that could potentially flag her final background check, she collapses into a panic.

In an effort to determine the complainant, Maysa engages in a frenzied review of her recent passengers, ultimately assuming that a nonbinary customer named Sophia (whom she had misgendered) was the culprit. Unraveled and distraught, Maysa confronts them at a bar, and tries to appeal to their common marginalization as members of two different targeted communities. Maysa’s self-serving plea comes amid her own prejudice—in a previous conversation with her daughter about Sophia, Maysa casually asks, “Allah created him as a man, no?” But in order to protect herself,Maysa exhibits a remarkable inversion of power and imposes the same surveillance tactics on Sophia that she herself fears.

Perhaps the most tragic story within Ramy’s family is that of his uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli)—a boorish, bombastic man who revels in uncompromising bigotry and cartoonish toxic masculinity. The show ultimately reveals that his behavior belies his hidden queer identity; Naseem allows himself to indulge in his sexuality in a few furtive moments, only to then again reclaim his external presentation. He struggles with what kind of Muslim he is supposed to be and what kind of man he is expected to be, which amounts to tremendous overcorrection at the expense of himself and everyone around him.

The last three chapters of the Quran, Surah Al-Ikhlas (“Sincerity”), Surah Al-Falaq (“Dawn”), and Surah Al-Naas (“Mankind”), are commonly invoked in Islam as protection against malevolent surveillance—jinns, shaitan, or the evil eye. The ritualistic performance of these invocations reasserts fealty to God’s will. At the beginning of the season, Ramy dismisses the advice from his imam to invoke these rites, noting that he’s “trying to find God, but it’s not there.” But Sheikh Ali informs him, “If someone only gotthe rules and rituals, they might think Islam is tough and bitter … but there’s an inside, a juicy flesh, a divine intimacy, a spiritual experience. The rind without the flesh is bitter and useless.”

Ramy’s Achilles’ heel is his inability to grasp the journey of restitution via non-egotistical means, and he exercises self-imposed discipline without empathy. Just like his uncle and mother, Ramy is crippled by the perception of the absolute binary of haram and halal—what’s forbidden and what’s permitted—applying its maxims without consideration of the impact they may have on others. It’s a contextual failure that absolves a person of the responsibility of care in pursuit of moral righteousness.

Most Abrahamic religions are peppered with tales of the fallibility of human character: the person you want to be versus the person you are. In Season 2, most of Ramy’s characters are going through this journey; not just in front of God, but in front of their own communities. In trying their hardest to present themselves as the people they want to be, they consistently harm those around them—exposing the worst of who they are in dangerous bursts. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Ramy offers a look into where the road obsessed with perceptions will lead.

#BlackAF Fails to Break New Ground

Originally published for The Atlantic.

What makes good art? This question has dominated entertainment criticism over the past several years—including the deliberation about fairness in evaluating award worthiness at the Emmys, Oscars, and Grammys, and a recent standoff between the director Martin Scorsese and the fandom of the Marvel cinematic universe. In the latter, Scorsese—renowned for his canon of classic films that navigate the fabric of Italian American identity in 20th-century New York—argued that the strongest on-camera stories home in on “the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”

This is the challenge that the Black-ish (and Grown-ish and Mixed-ish) creator, Kenya Barris, is facing in his new Netflix series, #BlackAFBlack-ish, a network TV–friendly caricature of Barris’s own life that debuted in 2014, confronts the realities of being a newly wealthy black family in upper-class white America. The show, helmed by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, who play the husband-wife duo of Andre “Dre” and Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, gives a comedic peek into some of their “post-racial” anxieties. The first two seasons, in particular, try to analyze layers of race, class, and generational interactions, replete with didactic cutaways, nonverbal signifiers of accomplishment via hyperconsumption, and hand-wringing identity crises.

#BlackAF aims to reframe and expound on Barris’s personal narrative in a more self-aware, satirical context, but it ends up just repeating all the same notes from Black-ish. Without fresh source material, Barris fails to bring new complexity and depth to the ecosystem he has created. He steps into the titular role himself, with Rashida Jones playing his wife, Joya, and tries to create a hyperbolic version of his reality as the wealthy creator of a TV franchise.The difficulty lies, however, in the fact that Anderson’s original character was already a caricature, making the parallel world that Barris inhabits not nearly as much of a distinction. #BlackAF replicates Black-ish’s affinity for pedagogical missives, such as ones explaining Juneteenth, which Barris was already lauded for the first time around. And the new show doubles down on the running barbs about Barris’s distaste for his nuclear family, particularly for his emotionally expressive eldest son (Junior on Black-ish, Pops on #BlackAF).

Audiences are treated to Barris’s version of a Curb Your Enthusiasm pastiche act, wherein the only takeaway he has implemented from Larry David’s cult-favorite show is meanness. Barris seems to have plenty that he would still like to express, some of which is quite comedically articulated, but very little of what he does have to say advances the issues that he has been publicly ruminating over for the past seven years.On Black-ish, for instance,Bow is regularly marginalized by Dre’s family for being a working mom who grew up on a hippie commune. That same casual dismissal of her personhood morphs into the cruel minimization of Joya’s biracial identity on #BlackAF. Despite a strong comedic performance by Jones, Joya’s role is limited to a search for fulfillment and purpose, and contextual examinations of her race are filtered through frivolous conversations about her dancing skills and sartorial choices.

Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique—two elements that remain elusive throughout the first season of #BlackAF. If Barris is attempting to highlight the absurdity of engaging in “black excellence” performance politics, he fails on that accord. It’s not clear whether he’s critiquing the inherently flawed premise of analyzing “blackness” solely in its relationship to white supremacy, or whether he’s just capitulating to the “white gaze” of Hollywood. And without an express motive or a fixed frame of reference, it’s difficult to grasp Barris’s target audience.

Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique.
Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique.

For instance, in the aforementioned Juneteenth episode, titled “still … because of slavery,” there is awell-executed plotlineabout Barris’s inability to contextualize a mixed-media painting he has just acquired. Made by the artist Knowledge Bennett, Strength in Numbers is an immense black canvas punctuated by luminous white stippling. Barris mutters about gentrification, origin stories, and black boxes. But the episode is punctuated byan appearance from Bennett himself, who elucidates the intention behind the painting, stating, “As black people, there’s so many different things, variations of so many different colors. And it’s the sum total of all of these colors that presents blackness in its purest form—in all of its brilliance, all of its splendor.” It’s a genuine moment that would seem to pull the show into sharp focus, but it is quickly undone by Barris’s insistence that he had made the same point as Bennett. As explained by the TV critic Soraya Nadia McDonald, “#BlackAF isn’t a show about blackness, it’s a show about one person’s near-pathological need to keep up appearances.”

In the most ambitious episode, titled “yo, between you and me … this is because of slavery,” Barris tries to assess black art that gets celebrated by mainstream white audiences. He is asked to hold a panel for a “black film” that, on his initial screening, he deems painfully subpar. Barris is upset that his lower-class family members—introduced in the episode to expose his youngest children to more “blackness”—enjoy a project that he finds pedestrian, one that is also being lauded by white critics. Between Barris’s “very black” family, the amorphous white critics of Rotten Tomatoes, and the “bad” film itself, it is difficult to glean exactly what is being indicted. The segment also seems to entirely ignore the fact that black critics exist.

Later in the episode, after lamenting that he’s never won an Emmy for any of his shows, Barris consults with a high council of other creatives such as Will Packer, Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, and Tim Story. In talking with them, Barris confronts the sentiment that he may be resting on his laurels, riding a current “black wave” with projects that appeal to “the hearts and minds of 55-year-old white women.” Instead of delving into his shows’ thematic redundancy, Barris stops just short of examining how artists may participate in the very systems that they would like to dismantle.

There is nothing wrong with Barris’s work being informed by his particular point of view and experience. In fact, these things can enrich one’s storytelling over the course of one’s creative career. Scorsese has said that “the most personal is the most creative,” words the Parasite director, Bong Joon Ho, honored when accepting the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture. Since the debut of Black-ish, however, Barris has not found new ways to examine himself and his family within the fictive universe he’s created. He seeks to break ground with more contemporary and meaningful discussions in #BlackAF, but they mostly peter out before they have a chance of landing effectively.

The late literary critic Cheryl A. Wall wrote, “Whatever the issues [writers] confront or the questions they puzzle through, they engage, directly or indirectly, the examples of writers before them who used the essay to focus attention on political controversies, to shape aesthetic debates, and to create a space for personal recollection and philosophical reflection.” A show with a title as weighty as #BlackAF should engage in incisive thinking. It’s a difficult exercise, but the payoff would be immeasurable—and that would be the satire I would gladly tune in to.

Is Tyler Perry’s Historic Studio More Than A Representational Facade?

Originally written for OkayPlayer.

In June 2019, Tyler Perry received BET’s Ultimate Icon award for his substantive work in a notoriously walled-off film and TV industry. While accepting this honor, Tyler shared a few words, proselytizing about the need to pay it forward via the self-coined maxim “help them cross” — his most momentous instance of such an act being the then-forthcoming establishment of Tyler Perry Studios at what was once called Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia. The studio had its grand opening on Saturday.

“That studio was once a confederate army base,” he said during his speech. “Which means that there was [sic] Confederate soldiers on that base plotting and planning on how to keep 3.9 million Negroes enslaved. Now that land is owned by one Negro.”

Spanning 330 acres — it can reportedly fit the lots of Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Fox, and Sony with room to spare — it’s hard not to be awed at the scale. Headline after headline reiterated the apocryphal narrative of Perry opening the “first ever Black-owned studio” — a title actually reserved for Black film director and independent producer Oscar Micheaux in the early 20th century (who Perry himself has been in talks to portray), although Perry is now the only Black-owned production facility in America. Throughout the grand opening, a caravan of Black Hollywood’s finest descended on the red carpet and paid their dues accordingly. The celebration was the manifestation of the final words Perry offered in his Ultimate Icon speech: “While everybody was fighting for a seat at the table talking about #OscarsSoWhite, #OscarsSoWhite, I said, ‘Y’all go ahead and do that, but while you’re fighting for a seat at the table I’ll go ahead and build my own.’”

There’s a dangerous line, however, between conflating individual attainment with largesse, and it’s a common failure with using Black Capitalism as a panacea for social ills. The proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats only works when everyone has a boat or is on the same one. But there are a variety of institutions across the board that work to maintain systemic inequities in all cross-sections of Black populations, and simply having Black visibility doesn’t eradicate the concern. If you look at the singular issue of “providing a vast space for current Black actors who are struggling to get work to have a higher potential for film roles,” then that’s certainly an obstacle that Perry has probably reduced. In other parts of the entertainment industry, however, questions remain. Perry remains on the national “Do Not Work” list of the Actors Equity Association for consistently hiring non-union stage actors. In 2008, there was a public incident in his previous series, House of Payne, where several of his writers were fired while trying to negotiate new Writers Guild of America (WGA) union contracts prior to the show’s syndication. The Writers Guild and Perry ended up coming to an agreement that same year.

“I feel like I was slapped in the face, like we were used,” Teri Brown-Jackson, one of the writer’s fired, said at the time. “We were good enough to create over a hundred episodes, but now when it comes to reaping the benefits of the show being syndicated and having other spin-offs from it, he decides to let us go unless we accept a horrible offer.” (An attorney for Perry said that the writers were fired for “the quality of their work” at the time.)

This is doubly injurious when you consider Black America’s long history of fighting and organizing for unions as a civil rights issue. In 2018, Perry was in headlines after a phone conversation between him, Mo’Nique and her husband surfaced. During their conversation, Perry acknowledged that she had been treated unfairly by the industry (she was called “difficult” after declining to travel to the Cannes film festival to promote Precious for free ahead of the 2009-10 awards season), and said that he would try to send the actress money earned from the movie too. This year, Mo’Nique revealed in an interview with Vulture that Perry had yet to do that.

“We had given Tyler Perry a year to keep his word. Brother, you said you were going to come out and say something. Well, you never came out and said anything,” she said. “And what was disheartening was people who were saying, ‘How could you tape him?’ But, they weren’t saying, ‘Oh my God, did you hear what he said? He said she wasn’t wrong.’”

And while many in Hollywood have disavowed filming in Georgia due to the recent  “heartbeat” abortion laws — despite the generous 30% filming tax credit — Perry has declined, noting the investment he has made into the community superseding his disagreement with the legislation.

Given his disavowal, it was disappointing — but not surprising — to see Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (who signed the legislation into law) as one of the guests of honor at the studio’s grand opening as a “welcoming gesture.” A municipal undertaking of this magnitude is certainly not obtained without developing the skill to ingratiate oneself with politicians. As it currently stands, the perception remains within Georgia politics that Perry was able to obtain the acreage for the significantly discounted market price of $30 million, because of a strong working relationship with former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, as opposed to having the most robust case for revitalizing a district that has been impacted by the base closure. The film industry may create many opportunities for employment but that doesn’t inherently guarantee a spike in local jobs in a network as insular as entertainment — especially one that is heavily predicated on temporary work, as critics argued while the land contract was being bid on. When the majority of your pipeline is presumed to be positioned in New York and Los Angeles, the question of how much community can be served with the remainder of your available resources is a valid one.

Parallel to the lot opening came the announcement of a lofty aim to open “a compound for trafficked women, girls, homeless women, [and] LGBTQ youth” — replete with daycares and apartments, and the ultimate goal of teaching the entertainment business and self-sufficiency. It is an admirable dream that is hard to substantively parse through without access to any finer points. In a fashion it feels like a silent mea culpa for all of the open criticism he has received over portrayals of all of these archetypes in his productions. That said, one wonders if a prerequisite or expectation of shelter is an interest in film or entertainment, and if he has the proper individual resources to support whatever approach he ultimately takes in building a philanthropic effort from the ground up. 

The framework of Black excellence is such that it begets obligatory deference to the gilded class that have managed to successfully work their way through the labyrinth of racist systems and present them as not merely just celebrities to revere, but also pattern lives after. It’s for this reason that critique — which many have defensively viewed as reactionary — is an essential tool in pushing past the sentiment and the optics to examine the entire playing field. The technique has been used by great Black essayists throughout the last two centuries. As literary critic Cheryl Wall writes in her book On Freedom and the Will to Adorn, “the dialogic form of the essay which strives to produce the effect of the spontaneous, the tentative, and the open-ended lends itself to exploring complex and contentious issues.”

Tyler Perry is nothing if not complex and contentious. His legacy is one that will inevitably be acclaimed for his accumulation of immense capital. But nuance in the narrative lies in defining which Black community he is beholden to serving in his next era as an indisputable media mogul. The Black community in Hollywood and Atlanta/Fort McPherson, and the marginalized women and LGBTQ youth represent different thresholds and expectations for accountability and growth — some interests which may very well run counter to each other. And it is incumbent on Perry to decide which ones he will prioritize first.

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