“We stuck in La La Land. Even when we win, we gon’ lose.”
On June 30, 2017, Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) released his 13th studio album 4:44, arguably the most personal and socially conscious album of his career. Subscribers to his online streaming service, Tidal, are privy to music videos for the songs on the album. On Friday August 4th he released a music video for the album’s eighth track, “Moonlight.” The video, directed by Alan Yang (Netflix’s Master of None), parodies a 1996 episode of the sitcom Friends entitled “The One Where No One’s Ready.” The video even has a laugh track. If you are too young to remember Friends, it still comes on in syndication and can be binge watched on Netflix. The series revolved around the lives of six upper-middle class (white) friends – Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross – living in New York City. TV Guide lists Friends as one of the top 60 television shows of all time. Marta Kauffman, one of the show’s co-creators, said her sitcom was revolutionary because of its depiction of these young single friends in New York City.
“It’s that time in your life when your friends are your family ….The six of them represented a fresh look on life….It was like comfort food.”
– Marta Kauffman
Friends was a cornerstone of NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday night lineup which included Seinfeld, Cheers, Mad About You, and Frazier. All these shows drew huge ratings. The finale of Friends pulled in 52.5 million viewers. White people, especially, loved Friends. White women copied the haircut worn by Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel. Joey’s (Matthew LeBlanc) catchphrase, “How you doin?” became a greeting used amongst fans of the show. Black people (and other minorities) were often absent from the America that was portrayed in Friends and other Thursday night sitcoms on NBC. Blacks had to switch their channels over to FOX if they wanted to see an alternative television lineup with characters that resembled them. Yvette Lee Bowser’s groundbreaking sitcom Living Single, starring Queen Latifah, was actually the first 1990s sitcom about single upper-middle class friends living in New York City. The 1990s was a significant period because it was a revolutionary period for black television. At the same time the grass still appeared to be greener for white television stars. Their shows were nominated and won major awards at the Emmys and Golden Globes. The actors on these white sitcoms (and dramas) earned much more money than their black counterparts. All of the cast members of Friends earned $1 million per episode. Ironically, while there has been much progress in Hollywood over the last 20 years, things have not changed that much.
Jay-Z’s music video for “Moonlight” features a ‘who’s who’ of today’s black television actors portraying the characters from Friends: Jerrod Carmichael (Ross), Keith Stanfield (Chandler), Milton “Lil Rel” Howery (Joey), Tessa Thompson (Monica), Tiffany Haddish (Phoebe), and Issa Rae (Rachel). Each of these actors with the exception of Tessa Thompson, who stars on HBO’s Westworld, is part of one of the most acclaimed black series on television today. Jo-Issa “Issa” Rae Diop is the creator and star of HBO’s Sunday night hit dramedy Insecure, based on Rae’s YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (2011-2013). The series centers around two successful black women in their early thirties living in Los Angeles. Issa Dee and her best friend Molly Carter navigate their professional and personal lives. Considering the fact that HBO is a premium network consisting of mostly upper middle-class white subscribers, Insecure provides an eye-opening look at what it means to be an unmarried, college educated black woman, with a good job, in the 21st century. Viewers see how these two beautiful dark skinned women routinely engage in code switching when they are around their white colleagues versus their black friends. Insecure is the black woman’s answer to HBO’s past hit series Sex and the City (1998-2004) and Girls (2012-2017) which generally catered to the same white women who grew up on Friends. Insecure is “Must See TV” for the majority of black women that I know under the age of 40. They see a bit of themselves in its characters and storylines. This is one of the few television series that depicts black women as close friends instead of rivals.
Kelle Terrell writes in Vogue:
Reality series like The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop show black women throwing shade (and Champagne bottles) at one another. Scandal, How to Get away with Murder, and Empire all have amazing and complicated black female leads with meaty roles and interesting plot twists—but seemingly no black girlfriends. I often wonder how Olivia survives all that White House drama without having anyone to decompress with over a glass of Cabernet and to be like, “Girl, let me tell you what these crazy white people did at work today.” I know I couldn’t.
Keith Stanfield has made a name for himself with small parts in films Get Out, Dope, and Straight Outta Compton. But he is best known by his role as Darius on the FX comedy Atlanta. Since its debut on September 6, 2016, Atlanta has become an instant cult classic for black millennials, winning a 2017 Golden Globe award for best television comedy series. Atlanta’s creator and lead actor Donald Glover won a 2017 Golden Globe award for best actor in a television comedy series. Every Tuesday night in the fall of 2016 viewers were given a mini tour of the African-American experience in “The A.” Arguably the most insightful comedy on television, since Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks (2005-2014), Atlanta blends intellectually stimulating satire with Atlanta trap music to provide a nuanced coming of age tale of southern black manhood. Atlanta follows the life of Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), a homeless Princeton University dropout who is so broke that he has to order from the kid’s menu at the fast food restaurant. In a desperate attempt to provide for his ex-girlfriend Vanessa “Van” (Zazie Beetz) and their baby daughter, he becomes the manager for his cousin, rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). Stanfield’s character Darius is Paper Boi’s wacky and eccentric homeboy.
“Moonlight’s” remaining stars include Jerrod Carmichael, Lil Rel, and Tiffany Haddish. Lil Rel and Haddish achieved breakout success this year on the big screen in the box office topping films Get Out and Girls Trip, respectively. They were introduced to many blacks from their roles as a divorced couple on NBC’s sitcom The Carmichael Show. Unlike the Huxtable-like Johnson family on ABC’s sitcom Black-ish and the absurdly dysfunctional Lyon family on FOX’s hip-hop soap opera Empire, the Carmichaels are your average middle-class black family. The mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine), is deeply religious. The father, Joe (David Alan Grier), is politically incorrect, old fashioned, and set in his ways. He is a modern day Archie Bunker who proudly voted for Donald Trump. He does have an adult child out of wedlock, but that is not revealed until season three. The family’s youngest son Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) is a progressive thinker who sees the world through a very cynical lens. He lives with his bi-racial girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West). Maxine is a graduate student who is always trying to impose her liberal and feminist views on Jerrod’s family. Jerrod’s older brother Bobby (Lil Rel) is a simple-minded underachiever still living with his estranged wife Nakeisha (Tiffany Haddish). Although The Carmichael Show follows a traditional format for family sitcoms dating back to 1960s, it succeeds in handling race and other social issues in a nuanced manner missing from network television sitcoms with the exception of Black-ish. Viewers are privy to uncomfortable conversations found in black households on topics ranging from questioning the value of Black Lives Matter protests to the appropriateness of watching The Cosby Show reruns despite Bill Cosby’s rape scandal. Other topics ranging from gun control, depression and atheism to Islamophobia, patriotism, rape, the N-word, stripping, and transgender lifestyles are also debated.
Jerrod Carmichael, the creator, producer, and writer, of The Carmichael Show is the lead actor in the “Moonlight” video. Carmichael, cast as Ross, is stressed out by his friends’ inability to get dressed for a black tie award ceremony celebrating his work as a paleontologist. He stands in the room dressed in a tuxedo as friends lounge around doing everything but getting ready to leave. The premise of the video is that these actors are on set recreating this episode of Friends. They reenact the show’s familiar opening in front of the fountain and replace its rock theme song with Whodini’s 1984 rap song “Friends.” The video features a cameo by standup comedian Hannibal Burress who questions Carmichael’s reasoning for his “black” version of Friends. Carmichael tries to explain that he was doing a subversive retelling of the iconic 1990s sitcom. Burress, unimpressed with Carmichael’s explanation, views this exercise as a bunch black actors appropriating whiteness in a poor attempt to be funny. “What, are you gonna do black Full House next? Family Ties? Carmichael returns to the film set with a different outlook after his talk with Burress. As the other actors read their silly lines he appears to be stuck inside his own head, questioning and reassessing his role in an exercise that some blacks might call coonery.
The fact that Jerrod Carmichael was chosen to play the lead in “Moonlight” is intriguing for several reasons. Carmichael is one of today’s young comics, following in the footsteps of Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, who uses satire to address racial, social, and political issues. He brings that self-awareness into the scripts of his sitcom. In June it was announced that NBC was cancelling his thought-provoking series after only three seasons. The sitcom was picked up for a third season at the last minute. NBC claims that the series was cancelled, despite very good critical reviews and fan support, due to low ratings and the fact that it was one of its few series to be co-produced by an outside studio, 20th Century Television Fox. Other rumor reports say that Carmichael ended his show to start other ventures. It was disappointing to see The Carmichael Show’s cancellation. Here was a series created by and starring blacks that was not promoting tired old stereotypes, exaggerating blackness, or attempting to be post-racial to attract white viewers. The cancellation was reminiscent of the fate of CBS 1980s series Frank’s Place, which suffered low ratings despite critical acclaim. At that time there were a limited number of black sitcoms and dramas on television. This certainly is not the case today. The revolution is being televised live and in living color. In 2017 there is a plethora of black programming produced, written, and starring majority black casts:
Being Mary Jane
Dear White People
Love Thy Neighbor
Saints & Sinners
The Carmichael Show
The Haves and the Have Nots
The Real Husbands of Hollywood
I could also add the Shonda Rhimes’s dramas, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, which have black women in leading roles. HBO’s enthralling Allen Hughes’ documentary, The Defiant Ones, on Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. And of course you have the reality shows and at least five different shows hosted by comedian Steve Harvey. In 2015 FOX’s Empire became the first scripted primetime series to grow in total viewers over each of its first five broadcasts since 1991. It was television’s most tweeted series, averaging 451,270 tweets per episode. The number of black sitcoms and dramas has more than doubled since Empire’s first season. I call this the Empire Effect. Despite the recent success of blacks at this year’s Academy Awards, the small screen is where they are having the biggest impact. While none of these shows is perfect each presents different aspects of the overall African-American experience and proves that blackness is not a monolith. This current revolution speaks to the historical evolution of black images and storytelling in television. At the same time the cancellation of The Carmichael Show and the limited number of black shows/actors being nominated for major awards (Emmys, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors Guild) speaks to the lyrical content of and accompanying video for Jay-Z’s “Moonlight.”
F.U.B.U. (For Us By Us)
It is no secret that television has a vital influence on the way we see ourselves and the perceptions that others have about those individuals who look like us. In the very beginning black images and stories on television often came from the perceptions of whites regarding the African-American experience. Historian Donald Bogle traces the history of blacks on the small screen in his 2002 book Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. In 1939 NBC aired a one night special called The Ethel Waters Show. The success of this one night special starring legendary blues singer Ethel Waters contributed to the development of television as a medium for home entertainment. Beginning on July 3, 1950, The Hazel Scott Show, a 15-minute musical program debuted on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings at 7:45 on the now defunct Dumont Television Network. Hazel Scott, a Juilliard School trained classical pianist and jazz singer from Trinidad, would perform songs in chic gowns during her show. Scott sat “at her piano, like an empress on her throne, presenting at turn a vision of sophistication,” says Bogle. After Hazel Scott was accused of being a of Communist Party sympathizer by Red Channels, a popular anti-communist publication, Dumont cancelled her program.
Around the time of Scott’s cancellation ABC debuted The Beulah Show (1950-1952). This weekly Tuesday evening series, originally a CBS radio program (1945-1954) featuring Hattie McDaniel, was the first sitcom to cast a black woman in the lead. The televised adaptation starred Ethel Waters as Beulah, the faithful maid of a white middle class family named the Hendersons. The sitcom played on archetypes of black womanhood that most white Americans had been conditioned to accept. The black woman’s place was in the kitchen. Beulah was so busy frying chicken and tending to her white folks that she did not have time for civil rights protests against the indignations other blacks faced daily. Furthermore, Beulah was so content raising Miss Anne’s babies that she did not need a family of her own. “Don’t let nobody tell you I’m in the market for a husband. Of course, I would be but they don’t sell husbands at the market,” she stated jovially at the start of an episode. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chose policing television as one of their campaigns in the 1950s. The nation’s oldest civil rights organization argued that Beulah’s character was a throwback to the mammies glorified in Lost Cause mythology and Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. The NAACP organized a national boycott of Beulah and The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show (1951-1953). In August 1951, the organization published “Why the Amos ‘n’ Andy TV Show Should be Taken Off the Air.” Among its grievances the NAACP accused Amos ‘n’ Andy, television’s first black series, of reducing their female characters Sapphire (Earnestine Wade) and her mama (Amanda Randolph) to nothing more than a bunch of “cackling screaming shrews,” who were unattractive, loud, abrasive, and angry. The male characters, mainly George “Kingfish” Stevens and Andrew Brown, were lazy, unemployed boys in men’s clothing. Amos ‘n’ Andy was cancelled in 1953 but remained in syndication until it was officially banned from the air for almost 40 years beginning in 1966. Ironically, the number of blacks that were offended by the series was about the same as the number that found the show to be a harmless comedy.
Over the next 50 years the African-American community remained engaged in an ongoing struggle for authentic depictions of their experience. Television often reflected the signs of the times. The black press reported in 1954 that ABC shelved a proposed sitcom starring Sammy Davis, Jr., called Three’s Company due to its failure to attract financial sponsors. Two years later NBC began airing The Nat “King” Cole Show, a variety show hosted by musician Nat King Cole. Southern states refused to air the program on their networks. Sponsors avoided the series due to the controversy. The series was cancelled after a year on television. The success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s made it easier for blacks to gain acceptance on television. This was evident in interracial series with black leads such as I Spy (1965-1968), The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), and Julia (1968-1971). The black characters on these series were often accused of being detached from the ongoing struggles within segregated black environments. The Flip Wilson Show (1970-1974), starring Clerow “Flip” Wilson, Jr., helped to make black humor a staple of mainstream popular culture in the early 1970s. Wilson, with his staple of characters (Geraldine Jones) and catchphrases (what you see is what you get!), paved the way for future black comics in primetime television.
Sociologist Herman Gray writes in Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness (2004), that the family sitcom was the primary scene of black visibility on the small tube. Throughout the 1970s sitcoms gave white America a glimpse of black family life in the nation’s ghettoes. In her book Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power (2005), professor Christine Acham argues that the humor in these sitcoms captured the triumphs and failures of people of color coming on the heels of black power and the social activism of the turbulent sixties. For example, Sanford and Son (1972-1977) was about a poor working class black father and his adult son living in a post-riots Watts neighborhood. Good Times (1974-1979), the first sitcom about a two-parent African-American family, explored the topics of poverty, welfare, and social inequality in ways not seen on most of today’s television programming. Both series, along with The Jeffersons (1975-1985), were created by Norman Lear, a white progressive television writer and producer from Connecticut. Lear made it his mission to normalize the African-American family experience during the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to these sitcoms the seventies gave television viewers Soul Train (1971-2006) and The Richard Pryor Show (1977).
The success of black television in the 1970s paved the way for The Cosby Show (1984-1992), which offered viewers an unprecedented celebration of black achievement in the form of an affluent, wholesome family who unapologetically embraced African-American culture and history. The Cosby Show arrived at time in the nation’s history characterized by the villainization of the black underclass as immoral and irresponsible by conservative politicians. Herman Gray credits the sitcom’s “use of Blackness and African American culture as kind of emblematic code of difference.” The fictional Huxtables on the sitcom showed white viewers that black families were not different from their own. The Cosby Show initiated a call for new black programming that targeted crossover audiences from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. A Different World (1987-1993), Frank’s Place (1987-1988), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996), and Family Matters (1989-1997) were byproducts of its success. As diversity on network television began waning in the mid-1990s upstart networks FOX, United Paramount Network (UPN), and the The Warner Brothers Network (WB) produced a plethora of programming in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s specifically geared towards younger black audiences growing up on hip-hop. These networks at times scheduled black programming head-to-head on the same night from 8:00 pm until 10:00 pm. Unlike earlier series many of these programs were written and directed by blacks. These new networks became the primary destination for niche black programming, even though the quality of the new shows was not always good. Chuck D., the lead rapper in Public Enemy, acknowledged content issues by nicknaming UPN the United Plantation of Negroes. Kristal Brent Zook writes in her book, Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television, that while many regarded this new black programming as trivial or buffoonish, it sparked a renaissance in Hollywood resulting in more African-American script writers, directors, producers, and actors. Zook says that FOX and upstarts, UPN and WB (now the CW), established themselves on the backs of blacks like the Wayans family, Martin Lawrence, and Arsenio Hall.
Cable television networks Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the Turner Broadcasting Station (TBS) would provide younger black directors Mara Brock Akil and Tyler Perry with a platform to produce new programming for black audiences beginning in the early 2000s. BET opened doors for hundreds of black hip-hop and rhythm and blues artists by broadcasting their music videos on programs for teens and young adults. From 2003 until 2006 Chappell’s Show on Comedy Central offered television’s most enthralling observations of race in history and modern times. Washington, DC, standup comedian Dave Chappelle turned this 30-minute sketch comedy into a cult classic characterized by brilliant satire, head nodding hip-hop, and mesmerizing Neo soul music. Unlike Flip Wilson, who whitewashed his jokes to appeal to the masses, Chappelle did his best to make white audiences as uncomfortable as possible. Since the year 2000 television has presented viewers with an array of black images from the nouveau riche on docu soaps to the incarcerated on melodramas. While some series, in recent years, have fed viewers weekly servings of the post-racial myth others have manifested the modern black experience through the lens of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the dimming of Barack Obama’s inspired vision of audacious hope, and the chilling realization of Donald Trump’s America.
And the Winner is…….La La Land!
The climax of the nearly ten minute long “Moonlight” video comes at the seven minute mark. Jerrod Carmichael’s character subconsciously goes into his “sunken place.” He becomes aware of the limited amount agency he has in Hollywood even as he tries to subvert its ingrained white privilege with this satirical video. The sound of his fellow actors is muted as Issa Rae quietly walks onto the set and leads him to exit door. Finally, at this moment, Jay-Z’s song “Moonlight” begins to play.
We stuck in La La Land
Even when we win, we gon’ lose….
Y’all n_ggas still signin’ deals? Still?
After all they done stole, for real?
After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?
And y’all n_ggas is ‘posed to be trill?
That’s real talk when you behind on your taxes
And you pawned all your chains
And they run off with your masters
And took it to Beverly Hills
While we in Calabasas
And my head is scratchin’
‘Cause that s_ _t is backwards
That s_ _t ain’t right
Lucian is cool but Lucian don’t write
Doug ain’t this tight, so
F_ _k what we sellin’
F_ _k is we makin’?
‘Cause their grass is greener
‘Cause they always rakin’ in mo’
Nah, nah, nah, nah.
Carmichael exits the building as light from the studio illuminates his dark surroundings outdoors. As he walks across the shiny green grass rain sprinkles down on his face. The music ends as he takes a seat on a bench and looks up at the full moon in the sky. Right before the video cuts to the closing credits the sound of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announcing La La Land as the winner of the Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards plays. How can anyone forget that jaw dropping mix up? The cast of La La Land stood on the stage accepting their award, only to learn seconds later that Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight was the real winner. Here you had a white film about white people saving and appropriating jazz, an art form created by black musicians, losing to a film about black gay men and boys growing up in Miami’s drug infested projects. Earlier in the evening you had African-Americans Viola Davis, Mahershula Ali, Ezra Edelman, Barry Jenkins, and Tarell Alvin McCraney winning Oscars. This year’s Academy Awards had the highest number of blacks and black projects nominated in history. Yet all of this was overshadowed by the inconvenience to the cast, directors, and producers of La La Land. “I think we all would have loved to win Best Picture. But we are so excited for Moonlight,” Emma Stone (La La Land’s lead actress) told reporters that evening.
Jay-Z raps “their grass is greener” referring to the second class status historically given to blacks in America, the music industry, and in this case Hollywood. I wonder what thoughts are running through Carmichael’s head as he sits on the bench contemplating his role in Hollywood. Carmichael’s own experience with NBC is evidence that while blacks have achieved a level of power in Hollywood that older generations fought for 50 years ago, there is still work to do. “The Carmichael Show was cancelled by NBC – leaving a re-enactment of the network’s most successful sitcom as what feels like his only remaining option,” writes Siddhant Adlakha. In television the CEOs are 96% white and 71% male. These men are the ones making decisions about what gets made and what stories are told. They help to determine which stories are celebrated by the mainstream taste makers. Minorities account for just 8% of the lead roles in television. For every Viola Davis, Donald Glover, and Black-ish, there are countless black actors and programs that are snubbed every award season. Game of Throne and This Is Us might be excellent shows, but are they really that much better than Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar? For every Empire there is a Power or The Carmichael Show which is not being fully appreciated by its network. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from this “Moonlight” video is that white privilege remains omnipresent in the midst of black achievement and excellence.
*This article contains excerpts from FOX’s Empire and Black Images in Pop Culture by Joshua K. Wright (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2018