Strong Black Lead

Kathleen Posted by Kathleen at June 26, 2018 18:54:08 June 26, 2018 18:54:08

By now, you’ve probably seen Netflix’s Strong Black Lead short film. The spot is a recreation of the iconic 1958 photo “A Great Day in Harlem” but instead of legendary jazz musicians, Netflix brought together 47 black directors, producers, writers and actors. The promo has been dubbed “A Great Day in Hollywood” and each of these black creatives work on Netflix originals.

 


As you can see, all your faves are accounted for: Lena Waithe, Ava DuVernay, Laverne Cox, Alfre Woodard, Mike Colter (Luke Cage), Danielle Brooks, Spike Lee, Logan Browning and Ashley Blaine Featherson (Dear White People), Derek Luke, and Ajiona Alexis (13 Reasons Why), Kat Graham and Marlon Wayans, just to name a few. You can see the full list here.  Naturally, I cried through the entire minute-long clip narrated by Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin. The impact of these visuals cannot be understated. THR describes Netflix’s Strong Black Lead initiative as “a cross-functional group of employees spearheaded by black executives at Netflix.” The focus here is on the talent in front of the camera as well as behind. 

When we talk about diversity in Hollywood, this is what we hope for. There are no authentic black characters without the work of black writers, directors and producers to create that legitimacy. Stories that were once nonexistent in Hollywood are now being told. In this spot, Caleb’s declaration of the arrival of a “new day” in Hollywood is the dream. Netflix would like us to believe that the dream has been realized. 

 

This is a new day. Built from the ground broken by legends. A day for our generation to see untold experiences of our blackness. Representing a limitless range of identity. Playing kings and queens of our neighborhoods. Defeating larger than life forces trying to flip our world upside down. We stand up on any stage and every screen. A day when black women are boldly the lead character, whether inmates or scholars. We’re not a genre because there’s no one way to be black. We’re writing while black. Nuanced and complex. Resilient and strong. This is not a moment. This is a movement. We are strong black leads. Today is a great day in Hollywood.

I mean, I love this. I love it a lot. It’s a beautiful spot, directed by Lacey Duke (a black Canadian woman, shout out!) and the photo was taken by Kwaku Alston. I want to live in the world this short film has created. I want to sit on the front steps with 47 of people who personify black excellence. It’s powerful, optimistic and inspiring. I want this Hollywood to exist and in some ways, it does. This initiative is a great look for Netflix. 

But. 

Netflix’s Stong Black Lead spot was released two days after the streaming service fired its PR Chief, Jonathan Friedland, for using the N Word in a meeting and again in an HR group setting in front of black employees. The word “ironic” has been used to describe the timing of this initiative. The word I would use is “typical.” To work in Hollywood – and so many other predominately white spaces – is to be faced with racist bullsh-t one day and, hopefully, professional wins on another. The two conflicting things, professional gains and setbacks due to discrimination, always exist in tandem. The fact that a company that appears to be so committed to fostering black talent still employed someone who would carelessly throw around the N word is the perfect commentary on the “new day” of Hollywood that we’re in. 

Sure, there are many “Strong Black Leads” on screen and Netflix has done an incredible job of delivering nuanced stories and showing that “there’s no one way to be black.” 

But. 

A UCLA study from earlier this year showed the gaping disparity that still exists in Hollywood. Black Americans held just 12.5% of lead film roles and 17% of roles in broadcast scripted shows. The numbers of directors and writers of colour (all minorities, not just black people) were even lower.  

Yes, things are changing but I don’t want to lose perspective because of a nice moment with 47 of the brightest black talents in the industry. As streaming services prove to be the future of Hollywood, Netflix is clearly setting a great example. They swiftly fired a person who said racist slurs (although I’m skeptical a person that says the N word so liberally didn’t have any prior racist offences) and I think they did the right thing in going forward with the spot. THR reports that after an internal debate, Netflix “decided that it would be wrong to erase the work of so many people of color due to Friedland’s actions.” 

The good news? To me, this spot is more of a projection of the bright future for black representation that is still to come in Hollywood, instead of just a reflection of the current moment. This spot makes me believe that anything is possible and that new day Caleb speaks of is right around the corner. 

I know you’re sick of me telling you how much I cry at things but if you didn’t weep at this video of Alfre Woodard leading a rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" on set, there’s something wrong with you. As DeRay would say, I love my blackness and theirs. 

MY. HEART.