by G. Brown
JayZ’s recently released video “Moonlight” gives us a meta moment on the issue of race and cultural appropriation. Since it’s Tidal release last week, “Moonlight” has been burning up some PR and social media circles, not so much for the sound, but for the style. And for a crash course in TV history.
The video takes us on a ride back to the ’90s when the hottest show on TV was “Friends”…a sitcom about six friends living in New York. The ensemble cast made major stars of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry and the lot. Their characters Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross became immortals after 10 years on the air during which it consistently ranked in the top ten shows; earned 62 Emmy nominations; won six Primetime Emmy Awards; won an Outstanding Comedy series award; received a Golden Glode Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award; ranked No.2 on TV Guide’s 30 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
The show also had a profound cultural impact with many women running out to get “The Rachel” hairstyle , Joey’s catchphrase became America’s catchphrase as viewers often greeted friends with “How you doin’?” and coffee houses became a better friend zone than bars thanks to the show’s seventh character “Central Perk”.
JayZ recreated all of this for his video right now to the iconic couch and umbrellas seen in the TV show’s opening. Some have categorized it as comedic parody others have called it “Black recasting” and some might even think its cultural appropriation. If you can’t rest until a label is slapped on the video then let’s go with a commentary on cultural appropriation.
The 7-minute video features Tessa Thompson, Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Jerrod Carmichael and Lel Rel Howery as they re-enact a scene from the show titled “The One Where No One’s Ready”. The video is a creative reversal of yet another popular show that’s based in America’s most populated and diverse cities and still managed to Whitewash the cast. Eventually “Friends” did add a Black character in later seasons, but it was a token knee jerk response to all the criticisms about a lack of diversity.
JayZ grew up at a time when “Friends” was all people raved about…’Did you see “Friends” last night? Did you hear what Joey said to Monica?’–it was hard to escape the hype. Like so many young Black, Latino and Asian girls and boys, JayZ had to be left with the numbing question-Why aren’t any Black people Rachel and Ross’ “Friends”.
While JayZ’s video spotlights “Friends”, you could choose a number of random shows from then (and now) and get the point of whitewashing across…”Seinfield”, “Glee”, “Sex and the City”, “Murphy Brown”…the list goes on. Many of these shows are supposed to based in large cities brimming over with diversity and yet often showcases an all White cast. Take “Murphy Brown” for instance–sitcom about a news station based in Washington D.C. and the main cast did not have a Black person in a major role. You mean to tell me you couldn’t figure out how to fit a Black person in a story that takes place in D.C.? Again, in the back end of the show, after some criticism, a token Black was brought in to make the show look diverse and quell complaints.
And JayZ is taking a stab at not just Hollywood’s whitewashing problem, but by seemingly culturally appropriating a show that many accused of culturally appropriating “Living Single”.
“Living Single” was an early ’90s sitcom starring Queen Latifah, Kim Fields, Kim Coles, Terrence C. Carson, Erika Alexander and John Henton. The show followed the lives of six friends who lived in Brooklyn. Three female room mates and two male roommates who lived in the same brownstone. The other friend lived in her own place but was always at their apartment.(wow, much like “Friends”). They didn’t have a coffee house hangout, but we did hangout a lot at Khadijah’s Flava magazine offices. Two of the ‘friends’ (Kyle and Max) ended up in a romance that they tried to hide from the other ‘friends’ and another two others (Overton and Synclaire) were in love and wanted everybody to know. Coincidentally, similar things happened on “Friends”. Here’s something you’ll find interesting, I never watched “Friends”, but know a lot of the storylines because I had seen them before—on “Living Single”. Latifah and all the cast did an excellent job in producing a show that was real, full of heart and soul and was funny. While it lasted five years on the air, it was never celebrated as a cultural champion like “Friends”. There were not tons of accolades and awards acknowledging “Living Single” for its writing, its wit, its realism, its cast—none of that. Latifah commented earlier this year that “Friends” did take the concept and spirit of “Living Single”. “Friends” still airs in syndication and is still making lots of money that the show and actors who inspired it will never see.
JayZ is to be commended for getting so meta and culturally appropriating a property that was the personification of the term. Hopefully, Hollywood gets the message. If you want to whitewash shows and put races of people on their own island, then stop using NYC, DC, Chicago and other diverse cities as the background to build an unrealistic utopia.