If you have ever seen the first Bring it On, the film’s subject matter while wrapped in fluff and the world of cheerleading is just as relevant now as it was then. The idea of White people coming in and co-opting ideas created by Black people just to end up calling it their own. David Schwimmer, most famously known as Ross from the show Friends, attempted to discuss his own privilege as a White male. He suggested that TV needed an all Black or Asian version of Friends. At face value, this was a noble sentiment given the context of the conversation. The issue is that there was already an all Black version of Friends, called Living Single. Not only was Living Single the all Black version, it actually preceded Friends by a full year. To add insult to injury, both shows were shot on the same lot and distributed by Warner Bros. TV. Unfortunately, Living Single was canceled mid season after five years despite being the highest rated show in its time slot, while Friends ended after a ten season run with all of the main characters becoming the highest paid TV actors of the time. Why didn’t David Schwimmer know this show existed? Here’s a better question, why would he? Although it was arrogant for David to assume that Friends somehow broke the mold when it came to situational comedy, it is not surprising.
In my experience, I have had to explain a lot of beloved entertainment to my White friends. Discussing how Black children grew up with The Wiz instead of the Wizard of Oz, James Brown over Elvis, among many other things. When the majority of TV and film depicts a reflection of your perspective, it becomes commonplace to tune out anything that shows something different. Dismissing it as simply a Black or Brown show even if the subject matter is relatable to all people. Or in the absolute worst case scenario, studio executives decide to create a more “palatable” or “mainstream” version of the show. When that happens, the original gets pushed into the background and ends up in limbo with ever changing time slots or canceled altogether. This same rhetoric becomes toxic when it comes time for work by people of color to be recognized during award season. The slave and civil rights films take center stage but other stories are largely ignored. In the era of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, even stories that are supposed to bring light to Black plight, like Green Book, have been so watered down and white washed they become completely unrecognizable.
Author Stephen King took to Twitter to confirm, and later backtrack, that as an academy voter he would “Never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me the otherwise would be wrong.” While he tried to clarify his statements later by stating there was a lack of diversity, the damage was already done. However, he did, even if unintentionally, prove the point that creatives of color have been trying to make for years. An anonymous voter said that the short film Hair Love, which follows a young Black girl learning (and teaching her father) to style her own natural hair, was too shallow. Unsurprisingly, the voter followed it up with he didn’t get it but instead he was pushing his vote towards a heartwarming short about a dog and cat that become friends. Alas, what could be more predictable than that? There are even rumors that some academy viewers are not watching the nominated Korean film Parasite because they will not be bothered with the subtitles. Another anonymous voter even told the press that Parasite should not even be nominated with the “regular” films. A statement that in and of itself exudes White American privilege.
Joaquin Phoenix took the opportunity while accepting his BAFTA award to discuss how systemic racism has allowed works by Black creators to go largely unnoticed. In his speech, he mentioned that it is not the responsibility of Black actors and creators to beg for acknowledgement. Instead it is the job of the academy to promote diversity and inclusion on more than a cosmetic level. Joaquin was so focused on his speech, he even left the award at the podium upon his conclusion. Brad Pitt has used his production company, Plan B Entertainment, to create many films by Black writers and directors. Two men using their privilege, seemingly unprovoked, to be an ally to people of color. It remains to be seen if David Schwimmer will acknowledge his error. Probably not because again, why would he? On the other hand, maybe he could put his weight behind a Living Single reboot or even use his name to give an opportunity to the Black and Asian casts he felt the world was so ready for. Doubtful, but a Black girl can dream, right? In the meantime, Living Single is available for streaming on Hulu and Jay-Z’s video for Moonlight stars Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Lil Rel Howry, and Jerrod Carmichael recreating an infamous Friends episode.