Monique and Netflix: The Lady Doth Protest Too Much
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
The stories of a nation furnish a rich guide for researches into the ethical norms, manners, character, and opinions of its people. For over a century, Hollywood has played a dominant story telling role in American society.
Because of the unprecedented popularity, reach, and impact of motion pictures as a form of mass art and entertainment, Hollywood decision-makers have always been faced with tremendous pressure to self-regulate their content. The Motion Picture Production Code, rigorously implemented starting in 1934, explicitly rooted its principles in what it called the: “moral importance of entertainment”. This Code strictly regulated the depiction of crime, sex, language, government, religion, and even race relations.
With regard to the latter, the Code forbid depictions of “white slavery” and “miscegenation”, i. e., interracial romantic relationships or marriages. Moreover, since the Code prohibited depictions of the law as unjust, no film could challenge or criticize Jim Crow without violating the censors. Those films that did not meet Code standards, as interpreted by the Board, were denied access to mass distribution in theatres.
The racial provisions of the Code were repealed in 1956, and it was completely overhauled in 1968, to the MPAA ratings system we know today, with minor revisions over time. Though Hollywood has come a long way since the days of the “Hayes Code”, Hollywood decision-makers still feel a lot of pressure to limit the role non-white actors are to play in their film projects. Consequently, if you are not one of Hollywood’s go-to black, Hispanic, or Asian actors, good parts for a non-white actor can be scarce.
This is the dilemma that a black woman like Monique Angela Hicks, better known by the mononym: “Monique”, faces in her battle with Hollywood. Monique has called for a boycott of Netflix, alleging racial and gender discrimination. Her argument is that she was only offered $500 thousand for her Netflix stand-up comedy special, while black male comedians Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle were each given $20 million, and white female comedian Amy Schumer was given $13 million dollars, respectively. Netflix’ answer to Monique: ‘You’re not Dave Chappelle nor Chris Rock’. Netflix is correct. Monique is not a “star”.
What is a star? In Hollywood, it’s fairly easy to define: an actor who producers can bank their film on, i. e., an actor whose participation in a proposed Hollywood film project will guarantee the producers financing for the project. Hollywood is a star system. It’s all about the stars, because they are so instrumental in the marketing and the selling of the entertainment product. Consequently, whatever money is allotted in the film’s finances to pay actors, mostly goes to the stars, who get the big and highly publicized paydays. The supporting cast gets scraps in comparison.
Making a career as a black female actor is particularly difficult, the parts have traditionally been very limited. In fact, I estimate that there has only been one true black female star actor in the entire 100+ year history of Hollywood: Halle Berry. She’s the only one who has ever consistently gotten the big Hollywood paydays, i. e., minimum, $10-15 million per project in today’s money. There have been several black men who do or have fit this description: Sidney Poitier, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Honorable mention goes to Richard Pryor, Wesley Snipes, and black female actor Whoopi Goldberg.
Non-white actors in general have a difficult time establishing themselves as bankable stars in Hollywood, because Hollywood decision-makers tend to believe that non-whites cannot “carry” a large expensive project. One the one hand, the producers believe that it won’t make as much money as it would if a white actor were to play the part. On the other hand, the financiers are less likely to invest in a project that has a non-white actor as its star vehicle.
An important solution to this dilemma of casting a black lead, has been to cast the black star with a white “co-lead” of the same sex in an interracial bromance or “buddy movie”. Some of the most beloved and skillful black actors in Hollywood make a living playing the “black buddy”, such as Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson.
The interracial bromance has deep roots in American culture. The late great Mark Twain invented the model as we know it today in his novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ultimately, Twain realized that if he wanted to create a grittier and more realistic depiction of the American South, he needed a black point-of-view. He needed to incorporate a major black character. So he combines the characteristic black literary genre, the slave narrative, with the characteristic Anglo-American literary genre, the fantasy adventure story, to produce the original interracial buddy story, Huck Finn and Jim, the slave.
This model is very influential. Probably, because it is very effective. Black and white audiences seem to like it, and take a positive message from it. And its Hollywood inception, The Defiant Ones (1958), starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, while a bit corny today, is a vast improvement on the race model that came before it, Gone with the Wind (1939) or Birth of a Nation (1915), for example.
Released in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of a number of racial segregation laws and the repeal of Hollywood’s own racial Code, Defiant Ones strongly implies, without stating explicitly, that Sidney Poitier’s character has been treated unfairly by the justice system, owing to the color of his skin. This implicit message would never have passed the Hollywood censors just a few years prior.
The Hollywood interracial bromance generally proceeds as follows: the white buddy, the hero, has some kind of problem. Often, it is not a material problem, but something of a more “spiritual” or “psychological” nature. The white buddy has everything “society” thinks you need for a happy life: money, good education at fine schools, good job, bright future, people who love you, etc. Still, he is unhappy. He finds the comfortable world which he inhabits to be “phony” or distasteful in some way.
Enter the black buddy. He is often a person of low social station, who exists at the fringe of the affluent white society which white buddy inhabits: a slave, servant, petty criminal, hustler, etc. His problems are of a very different nature than the white buddy. They might involve his very life or freedom.
The two “buddies” generally dislike each other at first, are suspicious of one another. They don’t speak the same language. They don’t understand each other’s point-of-view. But in time, they come to depend on one another, to understand, respect, and trust one another. Finally, by combining the white buddy’s knowledge of the mechanics of how the “white man’s world” works, with the “Negro folk wisdom” of the black buddy, they are able to solve both their respective problems, to a greater or lesser extent.
Services such as Netflix have created important new opportunities for artists of color to tell and act out their stories for a large mass audience, as well as an alternative source of revenue. Neither Dave Chappelle nor Chris Rock would be able to secure a $20 million dollar payday for a traditional studio film project, because neither has that kind of caché as an actor. However, they are both comedy icons, who have created iconic comedy specials, routines, and skits. I think this is why they received the big money for their stand-up comedy specials, because Netflix believes that they are both capable of creating iconic entertainment for their network, that will raise Netflix’ status, will create buzz, interest, and sales.
Frankly, while Monique is very talented, she is not on the same level as these two comedians. Moreover, there is just not the same kind of demand for Monique’s services, as there exists for Rock, Chappelle, or Amy Schumer. It’s true that Chappelle had been blackballed from the business for many years, similar to Monique, but he embarked on a highly successful comedy tour several years ago, selling out concerts, including Radio City Music Hall. His 2016 post-election Saturday Night Live guest spot was enormously successful and highly rated, all demonstrating the continued demand for Chappelle’s services.
Chris Rock and Amy Schumer have recently been selling out worldwide comedy tours, and both have a successful and productive relationship with HBO. Schumer had a hit movie and bestselling book last year. Monique’s signature work is more in the past. Precious, her Oscar winning role, came out in 2009, and her popular television show, The Parkers, went off the air in 2004. She simply has not demonstrated that there exists the kind of current demand for her work, that Chappelle, Rock, and Schumer have for theirs.
Monique’s claim of racial and gender discrimination in this particular case is unwarranted. There are dozens of comedians with Netflix specials and most do not make millions of dollars per project. Monique only references the handful of comedians who received big paychecks, but what of the dozens of comedians who received approximately what she was offered from Netflix or less, black and white, male and female?
It is important to make reforms to the entertainment industry’s deep racial and gender biases, but good policy requires that one distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims. These kind of highly publicized fraudulent claims can take attention away from legitimate claims and incidents of bias and/or abuse. Claims, that if addressed effectively, can contribute to constructive and positive reform, even if in just a small way.