In Jay-Z’s extensive, 30 plus year music video catalogue, there aren’t many “holy-sh*t-I’m-never-going-to-forget-the-first-time-I-saw-this” classics. Well, Jay has been releasing new music videos and video extras from 4:44 steadily over the past few weeks that have easily become some of his best work. They’ve ranged from harrowing (The Story of OJ) to riveting (Kill Jay-Z) to introspective (the Footnotes series) but on Friday, Jay dropped the visual accompaniment to Moonlight and, HOLY SH-T, I’M NEVER GOING TO FORGET THE FIRST TIME I SAW THIS.
The video, directed by Master of None’s Alan Yang, casts the Internet’s favourite black people in a recreation of a classic Friends episode. Yes, that Friends, one of the most famous sitcoms of all time which starred a bunch of white people living in New York City who barely interacted with any people of color aside from a couple of Ross’s girlfriends. Moonlight starts as a frame for frame, line by line redo of “The One Where No One’s Ready,” an episode even a fair-weather Friends fan probably remembers. My best friend and Insecure star/creator Issa Rae is Rachel. My forever girl crush and future Thor: Ragnorak scene stealer Tessa Thompson is Monica. Our new fave comedian and Girls Trip MVP Tiffany Haddish is Phoebe. Lakeith Stanfield, aka that dude consistently starring in everything dope, is Chandler. Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery is Joey and The Carmichael Show’s Jerrod Carmichael plays Ross. THIS. CAST. IS. PERFECT.
Jay may be taking a cue from Beyoncé when it comes to creating visuals that require thinkpieces on thinkpieces and days to unpack because this video is so much more than its brilliant, viral-guaranteed “Black Friends” concept. It’s also, as the Washington Post called it, a "meta-commentary on black representation in media and artistic ownership." It’s not a coincidence that the entire cast have each been involved in recent projects that were created by and star black artists. It’s not a coincidence that The Carmichael Show was just cancelled by NBC and this video stars Jerrod Carmichael as a conflicted actor reevaluating the Hollywood machine. At about the 4:50 minute mark, Black Joey’s phone rings to break the scene and Carmichael walks off set to have a hilarious conversation with Hannibal Buress. Buress calls the remake “whack as sh-t,” confuses Friends with Seinfeld and asks, “Who asked for that?” Carmichael responds with, “When they asked me to do it, I was like, ‘Alright, this is something that’s subversive, something that’ll turn culture on its head.”
Buress continues to take jabs at the concept: “You did a good job of subverting good comedy. You gonna do a black Full House next? Family Ties? Why stop there? Home Improvement?”
The real talk with Buress inspires Camichael to walk off the fake Friends set mid-scene, led by Issa Rae, while Jay’s iconic Moonlight lyrics kick in. “We’re stuck in La La Land; even when we win, we gon’ lose.” Of course, that line refers to the now infamous Oscar flub that will forever tie Moonlight’s groundbreaking Best Picture win to the movie about a white dude mansplaining jazz (I actually really liked La La Land but that’s totally what it’s about OK? Don’t @ me). Carmichael finds himself on a park bench listening to the voices of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announcing La La Land as Best Picture. So how does this all relate back to black representation and artistic ownership?
Jay-Z’s 4:44 is as much an album about his marriage as it is about business. It’s about black business. Jay-Z consistently raps about the importance of black Americans owning their own sh-t and creating their own art. So, when I see headlines about Jay’s Moonlight that reduce the video to “We totally need a black Friends!” the first thing that comes to mind is the 90s sitcom Living Single. As the Washington Post article I referenced earlier points out, Friends is essentially the white Living Single. During an appearance on Watch What Happens Live in January, Queen Latifah talked about how an executive for NBC allegedly asked for a white version of Living Single right before Friends was created. Living Single was cancelled after 5 relatively quiet seasons. Friends ran for 10 seasons and, well, I don’t need to tell you how successful Friends was. When Jay raps, “after all they done stole, for real,” it makes sense why he didn’t choose to do a black Home Improvement doesn’t it? Also, this Friends scene is not funny. I don’t know if every episode holds up as poorly as this one but is Jay also trying to remind us how much Hollywood prioritizes white mediocrity over black excellence?
Aside from the symbolism of depicting an all-black Friends, Moonlight is clearly commenting on the naïve notion that representation is just about seeing people of colour in front of the camera. Based on some of the reactions on Twitter, a lot of people are just going to be happy to see their faves playing Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe. It might be enough to see someone who looks like Issa Rae as Rachel, the popular “it girl” character originally played by America’s blonde-bobbed sweetheart. I think Jay’s point is that it’s not enough. Give me a series starring Jerrod, Issa, Lakeith, Tessa, Lil Rel and Tiffany any day but it better be a Jordan Peele original, not a 90s Must See TV knockoff.
If you're a Tidal subscriber (if you aren't, isn't the FOMO killing you?), you can watch the full Moonlight video and behind-the-scenes footage here.