Hollywood is taking down blackface TV episodes, but Black creators say it's not enough
Hollywoodhas recently pulled or put disclaimers on TVepisodes and movies featuring blackfaceand anti-Black tropes.
- But Black creators in Hollywood told Insider that this isn't enough. One person described it as a "limited gesture."
- Instead of asking what to do with this content, we need to ask why blackface is still appearing in TV shows, they said.
- Pulling episodes doesn't address the larger issue of systemic racism in Hollywood. There aren't enough BIPOC behind the camera and in positions of power.
As Black Live Matters protests spread around the world, TV episodes and films featuring blackface, anti-Black tropes, and inaccurate depictions of slavery resurfaced in the cultural conversation.
Many studios responded by pulling the episodes, cutting those scenes, or putting disclaimers before the original, unedited material. Episodes of "
Meanwhile, "Gone with the Wind" exists in its entirety on HBO Max with a five-minute introduction about how it "denies the horrors of slavery." A season-three episode of "Mad Men" now has a disclaimer.
Insider spoke with five Black creators, writers, talent, and executives about the differing studio responses. They said the actions didn't address the larger issue of systemic racism that permeates Hollywood and enabled blackface to appear on contemporary TV in the first place — and they outlined what studios need to do to make actual change.
Studios and streaming services have pulled episodes. But 'erasure and abdication of responsibility never fixes a problem.'
Most of the people Insider spoke with said episodes shouldn't be pulled from streaming services — it would be more harmful to sweep them under the rug. Rather, there should be a larger conversation about why they were allowed to be made in the first place.
"Pretending these episodes never existed doesn't change the fact that they did," Bianca Sams, a screenwriter who has written episodes of "The Originals" and "Titans," said in an email.
"They were written. They were shot. They were edited. Millions of dollars were spent on them," Sams said. "They got approved by studios, networks, producers. It happened. Taking them off the air doesn't change that. Because erasure and abdication of responsibility never fixes a problem — it simply exacerbates the issue."
Anniwaa Buachie, a creative performer, said episodes with blackface should be removed from public viewing, though not from archives. Buachie added that many non-Black people fail to understand the severity of blackface, which dates back to the 1600s and involves white actors harmfully portraying Black people as one-dimensional stereotypes.
"I don't want it to be a situation where it's forgotten and we were just making all of this up," Buachie said, adding that pulling episodes isn't enough.
"It continues to disseminate really negative attitudes and perceptions worldwide about Black people," Buachie said. "It promotes this belief that Black people are racially and socially inferior."
"There needs to be accountability and acknowledgment of the material. In 2020, blackface cannot be seen as funny. It's not funny, especially when everyone around the world can see what's happening to Black women and Black men on a daily basis," she said, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement and the killings of Black people including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
Millicent Shelton — who has directed over 100 episodes of TV for shows including "Black-ish," "P-Valley," and "The Flash" — directed two episodes of "30 Rock," in seasons three and four.
But Shelton said that at the time, she wasn't aware of a season-three episode with blackface, in which Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) swap lives as a Black man and a white woman for a day.
"They certainly didn't ask me to direct it, because I would have said something," Shelton said.
"I respected people that worked on that show," Shelton said, adding, "But I question why those episodes were ever made and why they thought that was funny."
Shelton said that she doesn't believe in censorship and that she does believe there's a productive conversation to be had from looking at racist material to help educate people. But she said there's a difference between something like learning about the racist 1915
"'Birth of a Nation' was racist, and it was openly so," Shelton said. "With the contemporary stuff that's come out, they're not attempting to be racist — they're attempting to be funny. And you have to ask yourself, what kind of culture are we in where racism is something that's to be laughed at?"
Scripts are approved by hundreds of people before audiences see the finished product
"The fact that there are so many episodes featuring blackface at all is wildly problematic," Sams said, because a script goes through many hands before it makes it to the screen.
"No less than 50 to 75 people encounter the idea before it ever makes it to the actor, and another 50 to 75 before it makes it to the audience, which means that 100 to 150-plus people have allowed that image to make it to the screen," Sams said. "They were all tacitly complicit in that image making it to air."
In an essay on Deadline, Prentice Penny, the showrunner for "Insecure," said that in order for a joke to get on TV it needed to be approved by the showrunner, make it through script rewrites and a table read, and have both the studio and the network sign off before it's filmed. After that, an editor, the studio, and the network have to clear it, along with sponsors and local affiliate stations.
But there's a lack of nonwhite people involved in that process. A 2017 report from Color of Change titled "Race in the Writers' Room" looked at 234 shows across 18 platforms and found that 90% of the shows were run by white showrunners. More than two-thirds had no Black writers, while about 17% had one Black writer.
For example, "30 Rock" had an almost all-white writers' room for its seven-season run. Of the 42 producers on the show, Insider couldn't verify any are Black. Donald Glover was credited as an executive story editor on 22 episodes and a writer on two episodes in seasons two and three. Hannibal Buress was credited for writing one episode of season five.
"When you look behind the scenes, there's no one in a position of power who is Black on that show," said Ron McCants, who in 2018 founded The Parity Project, a nonprofit fighting for equal representation and pay for Black creators in Hollywood.
"You're putting an unfair burden on the staff writer, story editor, editor, even coproducer to call it out," he said. "Your job is on the line, especially when you're the only one or the only two."
Sams said that racism appearing in TV shows despite the number of people a script needs to go through "tells you just how normalized and pervasive casual racism is within our industry and society."
While studios have removed some episodes with blackface from digital services, other episodes perpetuating harmful stereotypes remain. Hulu still has two "30 Rock" episodes featuring Alec Baldwin in forms of brownface. On a season-three "Golden Girls" episode, the women hire and later fire a Black housekeeper, accusing her of being lazy and placing a curse on them.
Representatives for Hulu and Tina Fey, the "30 Rock" creator, did not immediately respond to Insider's requests for comment. NBCUniversal declined to comment.
There is not enough Black representation at high levels in Hollywood
The people Insider spoke with said studios needed to go beyond pulling episodes or adding disclaimers to old content and instead focus on making tangible changes for Black, Indigenous, and people of color in Hollywood.
Four of the five people Insider spoke with recounted experiencing racism, sexism, and microaggressions in recent years, including being mistaken for someone with a lower position on set multiple times, having difficulty getting on a studio lot even with credentials, hearing a white executive story editor dropping the N-word casually, and having a white hairstylist use the wrong products on their hair.
"It's a limited gesture to add a disclaimer or pull material," Taylor K. Shaw, the CEO and founder of Black Women Animate Studios, said in an email.
"There are tons of shows in development, and when we recover from COVID-19, shows will be back in production," she added. "Now is the time to create a real plan of action for how your studio will shift industry culture, starting with your content and/or the content you stream."
Some of that change starts in the writers' rooms — but talent and creators don't want to see a BIPOC voice here and there. They want to see more people with diverse backgrounds in positions of power so that others can feel safe voicing concerns without the fear of retaliation.
"If we are in the room when those decisions are made, we are not listened to when we speak up," Shaw said. "If we do speak up, we run the risk of being fired or blackballed."
"I don't want to be the only nonwhite or non-male person in a room. I don't want to be the 'other' in every space," Sams said. "Hollywood definitely needs Black and BIPOC decision-makers shaping content: showrunners, directors, C-suite executives, talent agents, producers, financiers. We also need Black crew and technicians executing these amazing projects."
Organizations like Color of Change, Women of Color Unite, Black Women Animate, and The Parity Project are working to make some of these changes a reality by seeking inclusion and equitable pay for Black artists, executives, and representatives in TV and film, as well as helping to tell authentic Black stories.
The Parity Project, for example, hosts annual town-hall meetings to discuss wage gaps and harassment in the industry and to network. It offers mentorship programs to Black creators and students — which it plans to expand worldwide — and works to track the racial diversity behind the scenes of every show on TV.
"It's not just about pulling the episodes or a disclaimer," McCants said, adding that studios "can do whatever they want, in my opinion, about that."
"What they should be doing is saying, 'In order to make this right, we need to ensure that 40% of our staff is BIPOC. We need to set a date, and it can't be too far in the future. It has to be over two years that this needs to happen,'" McCants said.
"Give us the resources to tell the stories we know how to tell best," Shaw added. "If you truly want to support Black lives, go beyond words and small gestures. A shift in Hollywood culture will require financial investment and dedicated time."
If you have similar experiences you'd like to share or have experienced racism or sexism in the
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