Oftentimes, when attempts are made to bestow prestige on the genre of comedy, a through-line is drawn directly to tragedy—with the cross-section of both (represented by the famous masked Greek deities “Thalia and Melpomene”) representing the fine art of the stage. Actress and comedienne Jessica Williams, however, has never been one to confine herself to the tedium of convention.
A disruptive force since her arrival on The Daily Show when she was just 22 years old, Williams has chosen to dance between the genres of comedy and romance, interrogating the crevices of each category in unexpected and enthralling ways. “They’re all shades of each other,” Williams, now 32, says in between bites of her Sweetgreen salad. “I think a lot of couples actually do all these weird, funny inside jokes with each other, and that’s, like, the huge garden in the relationship.”
Few couples typify this dynamic as acutely as the fictive Mia and Marcus of Love Lifeseason 2, played by Williams and the charmingly neurotic William Jackson Harper. Under the guidance of showrunners Rachelle Williams and Sam Boyd, the duo masterfully create a universe replete with humor, accountability, pain and growth—where love is explored as a series of choices, as opposed to a folly of fate. Their conflicts, even at their most fraught, are grounded and tangible; the lexicon of their community is immediately established, with nary a didacticism. The chemistry between the two crackles during their first interaction, when Mia enters unmoored book publisher Marcus’s life as a statuesque hybrid of femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl.
Janet Jackson’s signature timbre is delicate but firm; it has been her calling card since her youthful days performing alongside her brother Randy at the MGM Grand in Vegas. Even then her petulant demeanor, performed for laughs, communicated achildlike grace with matureclarity: “That’s right, I’m Janet Jackson, and nothing goes until I say go.” Just 7 years old, she had no idea of her prescience: Tracesof Janet Jackson’s musical DNA would eventually be in everyone from Britney Spears to Bruno Mars to BTS. These are far from novel assessments: Over the years, a number of projects have attempted palliative approaches to rectify the rocky narrative that trailed Jackson after her infamous Super Bowl halftime show — including the rare at-length interview — with the New York Times recently producing a special embracing the pop icon’s transcendent, multigenerational impact that was upended by one of the few forces beyond her control. Now, at long last, Damita Jo has given the definitive account of her life and career to add to her oeuvre — and not a moment too soon, as we’ve lost Black legends in rapid succession of late. Aretha Franklin, who was notoriously very hawkish over her memory and legacy as awalking archive of the Black sonic canon, transitioned before she could see her vision realized onscreen, relegating the arbitrage of authenticity over Jennifer Hudson’s and Cynthia Erivo’s portrayals to a mélange of family, friends, and fans, as opposed to engaging with the art itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.’ “
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 Vulturethat 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.’”
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.
In Islamic theology, there is the concept of the Jinn—beings born of a “smokeless” fire in another dimension, beyond human but with the same frailties; neither inherently good nor bad, with a fiendish streak that is documented not just in the Holy Quran but in Hadith, and just as capable of salvation or damnation as the rest of us. Of the five kinds of Jinn—Marid, Effrit, Ghoul, Sila, Vetala—the Sila are considered to be one of the rarest, typified by a seductive feminine energy and shapeshifting capability. Continue reading →