Recently I was reminded of something. In this era of awareness concerning diversity, it’s been all too easy for me to believe that because the creators of certain projects are Black they would take greater care to accurately portray members of the African diaspora. Surely, after being annoyed by biased, inaccurate representation, African-American creators would strive to depict their fellow Black people as human beings with a modicum of sense. But no. It seems some are content to approach members of the diaspora with the same lack of care that the industry typically shows them. Take a look at the clip below.
That’s from an episode of Netflix’s hit series, She’s Gotta Have It. When I first saw it, I was appalled. (Full disclosure, I’m Canadian. I’m used to seeing Blackness and Canadianness misrepresented by the mainstream American media.) I wanted to know which of the SGHI writers hated Black British people so much that they would portray them like this—as having no clue about colonialism. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Among the people who saw the above clip was John Boyega, who referred to it as “Trash”. And while I couldn’t blame him for his perspective, the other day I was intrigued when the writer of the episode in question decided to respond.
Mr. Barry Michael Cooper chose to address Boyega via an open letter. Since reading it, I haven’t taken the time to check and see if Boyega responded, but I’ve had some thoughts of my own.
First, a bit of background: In case you don’t have time to read Cooper’s letter, you should know that the scene in question was inspired by a discussion on Twitter. A few years ago, people had a lot of opinions regarding Samuel L. Jackson’s comments on the casting of Black British actors. (This initially occurred around the time that Get Out was receiving publicity. Its star, Daniel Kaluuya, is British.) Although Jackson later clarified his remarks, I remember that initially some were alarmed. Judging from the tone of his letter, I take it that Cooper meant for his scene to be a teachable moment. However, from where I sit, he failed tremendously.
In his note to Mr. Boyega, Mr. Cooper pointed to an article by Black British actor, David Harewood. Mr. Harewood has had roles in a variety of American productions, including his current series—Supergirl.
In his Guardian essay, Harewood refers to his time playing Martin Luther King Jr in a production of The Mountaintop. His purpose was clear: To share his thoughts on why he feels British actors are qualified to play African-American characters. However, I was troubled by his rationale. In response to the idea of Black British actors not being American “brothers”, Harewood concluded his commentary by saying, “Perhaps it’s precisely because we are not real American brothers that we [B]lack British performers have the ability to unshackle ourselves from the burden of racial realities—and simply play what’s on the page, not what’s in the history books.” (Emphasis added.)
Quite frankly I found the implications of Harewood’s words troubling. Just because a Black performer is not American, that doesn’t mean that they are automatically able to divorce themselves from the impact that racism has—whether in a historical context, or referring to its presence in one’s daily life. Overall I’m still confused about why anyone would read his essay and believe that just because it was published, it deserved serious consideration as being representative of all British people of African descent.
Racism and colonialism aren’t exclusively American issues. I feel ridiculous writing that, yet it’s not a message that everyone seems to understand. On that note, let me also state that Black folks who live outside of the United States are not, somehow, too simple-minded to be aware of the impact that colonialism has had on their culture. Why someone would feel emboldened to assume so floors me. Yet that’s what I took from the above snippet from She’s Gotta Have It. All the while Nola Darling was supposedly schooling her English lover, I was looking at my computer in disgust.
Mr. Cooper’s script and subsequent letter reminded me of a familiar problem. A few years ago Justin Bieber was called out for videos which showed him using the n-word. Back then on The View, Whoopi Goldberg was willing to excuse him. I recall her reaction was discussed on one of our morning shows. Back then she expressed the belief that in Canada “nigger” doesn’t have the same meaning that it does in America. I couldn’t help but feel both stunned and disgusted. Canadians of African descent have lived in my home country for hundreds of years. Racist language isn’t anything new to us, and its hideous meaning isn’t somehow obscured by the soil that it’s spoken on.
In his epistle, I noticed that Mr. Cooper went to great lengths to explain the inspiration behind certain elements of his show. He was careful to use the phrase “[i]t’s not something I made up,” to enforce the fact that different aspects of his work were meant to reflect material drawn from real life. Yet that does absolutely nothing to nullify the fact that the scene’s dialogue was born out of a horribly executed idea.
Mr. Cooper seemed peeved Boyega used the word “Trash” to describe his work. Yet I think he had every right to do so. It IS trashy–and downright harmful–to use your platform to depict characters from the diaspora as uninformed ignoramuses concerning the Black experience of people in their own country. If there were a scene on a different program involving a white American man attempting to put a Black American woman in her place and “enlighten” her—after the show’s writer was inspired by an aspect of Blackness that he’d read about once in ONE biased article–heads would be rolling.
I fail to see why a Black American lecturing a Black person of British descent as depicted in SGHI should be deemed acceptable. It’s as though the show’s writers wanted to say that surely, we must remember that only Black Americans experience racism and have a correct understanding of its historical impact. So long as those in charge of the media think that way, there’s no telling what else they believe. For all we know according to them, no Black person from anywhere else on the globe has sufficient experience or knowledge—whether of themselves or their homeland—to be able to accurately comprehend how racism could possibly influence their experience in the present day.
Ultimately Mr. Cooper’s letter seemed to me to be an overwrought attempt to excuse an incredibly insulting narrative. Deliberately portraying Black people who aren’t American as gravely out of touch isn’t endearing or uplifting. It’s degrading, it’s insulting, and it’s a habit that needs to end.