2016 was the year that I rage quit Orange is the New Black and Unreal.
It was a difficult break. I had reserved special corners of my heart for both dramas, and to lose them within such a short span left vacancies that echoed every time I turned on my television. Worst of all, both failed me the same exact way.
The two critically acclaimed favorites decided that they absolutely had to weigh in on the subject of Black Lives Matter. With the death of Poussey Washington and the ill-fated decision to center the brutalization of Black men around the white guilt of their female lead, OITNB and Unreal, respectively, missed the mark entirely, enraging a sizable portion of their Black fan base in the process. Unreal, to its credit, had at least two Black writers in the room at the time of the arc’s development which, according to show co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, resulted in “two full weeks” of discussion (!) about race. OITNB, however, had zero Black writers on staff when they decided to not only murder one of its most beloved characters, but to also humanize the brutal system that led to both her death and the protection of her killer.
Both decided to use the pain of Black bodies to render a lesson that they were wholly unfit to administer, and the instances should have served as teachable moments for other writer’s rooms who lack the perspectives necessary to take on such a heavy, ambitious subject.
Oh, but wait! Now the CW’s Arrow – which, like OITNB, does not currently staff any Black writers – would like their chance to do what no predominately white writers room has been able to accomplish: successfully tell a story that simply is not theirs to tell. Showrunner/Executive Producer Marc Guggenheim tells Collider, “I really want to tackle Black Lives Matter, and I have a story idea for that, but where exactly that gets slotted — we just have a range, because we like to give ourselves a little bit of flexibility.”
This, of course, sparked some concern, especially among Black viewers. When asked via Twitter if there were now Black writers on staff to help examine the topic, Guggenheim responded: “We’ll be bringing someone in.”
So instead of actually staffing Black writers on a more permanent basis, Guggenheim will be “bringing someone in” to serve as the token perspective to shed light on a topic that is clearly out of their realm of understanding beyond a basic level. This one person will be responsible for injecting all the required nuance, context, and insight within 42-44 minutes (no pressure) and then once their job is deemed acceptable, they will move on and leave that astonishingly white writers room to their own devices.
When Clarkisha Kent, a Black writer, expressed that this would not be enough, Marc responded rather sarcastically, “Thanks for the vote of confidence.” This, mind you, was after he replied to another Twitter user’s concern over their lack of qualified full time writers with “we do have people of color on the Arrow writing staff,” which is like the Tinseltown equivalent of “I have three whole Black friends.”
So to review: a white showrunner says he wants to pursue a Black Lives Matter storyline with no permanently staffed Black writers, then proceeds to either talk over or ignore actual Black people who outline how bad of an idea this is. This, unfortunately, is a heavily revisited sequence of events that is so pervasive throughout all of entertainment. And to think: Guggenheim’s willingness to bring in a Black writer – this barest of minimums – is still a step above what other creators charged with the same misstep have been willing to do.
There is a level of anti-Blackness that comes with believing that a staff devoid of Black writers has an innate right to co-opt the Black experience without having to burden themselves with working alongside Black people for too long. Furthermore, it’s entirely foolish to think that a non-Black creator can properly take on the subject of sustained, intricately implemented systemic racism without addressing thier own internalized racial bias. This doesn’t mean that white creators – or creators of any race – should only write for characters that look like themselves. But there are certain subjects that require a level of responsibility. If the person in question won’t even entertain the critique of the people whose experience they want to – ahem – borrow for their programming, how can we honestly expect them to do Black Lives Matter, or any racial topic, any sort of justice (you’re free to answer the question, too, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss)?
Please, Guggenheim and company, help me understand.
If your plan here is to offer a “both sides of the coin” take – one that gives a platform to those who oppose the movement – ask yourself this: when have white people ever been truly silenced on the matter of maintaining the status quo? If they ever successfully have, what would be the purpose of any civil rights group fighting for some semblance of equality? There are literal nazis marching against our humanity in broad daylight. Do they honestly need an additional platform, or the benefit of the doubt?
And let’s for a brief moment pretend that you, with all of your best intentions, did have an adequate number of Black folks on your writing staff at all times (which, sadly, is something that has to be specified). Let’s pretend, in this alternate universe, that your show had a cast full of people actually deserving of partaking in such an important narrative instead of a man who thought we should prioritize the feelings of Texans over a young Muslim boy who was arrested for building a clock, or a woman who trivialized cultural appropriation. Imagine that the world around us wasn’t literally and figuratively crumbling at our feet. Even with all of the perfect conditions in place for you to tell this particular story…why must you? What fresh take do you actually plan on contributing to the conversation of police brutality that has been taking place for decades? How do you cultivate the spaces around in you in your daily, nonprofessional life in a manner that is unequivocally safe for Black people to exist, wholly? Do you even say “Black Lives Matter” to your white friends and family who dare challenge the notion, or uplift platforms built by Black people? In short, what gives you the damn right?
If you, as a white creator, cannot be honest with yourself about your position within white supremacy, then you are certainly underqualified to take on this subject matter. If Black lives actually matter at all to you, you’ll leave this to the experts.