Is Netflix The New Mecca For Black Content?
During this year’s BET Awards, Netflix rolled out a new campaign announcing a “new day in Hollywood.” Featuring 47 of its Black writers, directors, and actors—including Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, Alfre Woodard, and more—the streaming platform declared it was the place where “strong Black leads” could tell authentic stories and flourish.
“We’re writing while Black. Nuanced and complex, resilient and strong. This is not a moment.”
“This is a movement,” Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin said while his peers from over 20 Netflix productions gathered around him. “We are strong Black Leads. Today is a great day in Hollywood.”
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The powerful campaign was praised across social media. Kerry Washington said it showed the world “we matter.” Westworld star Thandie Newton called it “thrilling.” And director David E. Talbert said the 60-second clip “makes me so proud to be a part of the Netflix family.” While the visually stunning commercial definitely made waves, Netflix’s commitment to working with an array of Black talent is the real story.
To be clear, it’s a good time for Black content creators across the board. Films like Girls Trip and Black Panther were box office hits, while network shows like Black-ish and Empire continue to rake in millions of viewers each week, and Atlanta, Insecure, Queen Sugar, Power, and Grown-ish thrive on cable. Still, it’s hard to deny just how important streaming platforms have been to content creators of color.
Two years ago, the Huffington Post declared, “If you want to see diversity onscreen, watch Netflix.” At the time, writers Sara Boboltz and Brennan Williams argued streaming services were home to so many different types of stories because they “don’t seem to carry as many preconceived ideas of what a show should look and sound like.“ Unlike their broadcast counterparts, streaming platforms aren’t beholden to advertisers, so they’re able to take greater creative chances with their programming, though Cindy Holland, Netflix’s Vice President of Original Content, doesn’t see telling inclusive stories as a gamble.
“Inclusive stories shouldn’t be seen as a risk; there is greater risk in doing the same thing over and over again,” Holland told ESSENCE. “The great thing about Netflix is that we have limitless shelf space, so there is room for many different types of stories told in many different ways. We know that our members have diverse and eclectic tastes, and our programming needs to reflect that.”
In fact, according to Maya Watson Banks, Netflix’s Director of Brand & Editorial for the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the company has partnered with more Black creatives than anyone else since its breakout hit, Orange is the New Black, debuted in 2013.
“When you look at all the different shows and the people we’re in business with, it’s more than all of broadcast and cable combined,” Watson Banks added. “I don’t think that consumers know that. We’re not perfect at it [and] there’s still a lot more work to be done, but we’re really proud of how far we’ve come.”
Over the years Netflix has attracted award-winning directors like DuVernay, Lee, Dee Reese (“Mudbound“), and Yance Ford (“Strong Island“), and the platform recently inked deals with Shonda Rhimes and Barack and Michelle Obama. While it appears that Netflix is making a play to become the new mecca for Black content creators, Holland says the company just wants to partner with great storytellers.
“We always want to work with the best creative storytellers in the business, so when you’re working with Spike Lee, Ava Duvernay, Justin Simien, Shonda Rhimes and many more, why wouldn’t you want the stories they passionately want to tell?” she said.
“The conscious choice we made was to create content and invest in people that reflect the diverse audience watching Netflix, both in the US and around the world, and with that, we’ve attracted phenomenal creators with series and films about the Black experience,” Holland added. “She’s Gotta Have It, Luke Cage, and Dear White People may mainly speak to that experience, but Orange Is The New Black, 13 Reasons Why, GLOW, and Altered Carbon (to name but a few) depict broader multicultural spaces that reflect our world.”
One reason writers and directors gravitate to Netflix is because of the creative control they have over their work.
“Netflix fosters an environment of pure creativity,” said Cheo Hodari Coker, showrunner for Marvel’s Luke Cage, one of the network’s most popular shows. “For a creator, they really give you so much support. It’s really one of the most gratifying things you could have as a creator is knowing a company has your back,” he added.
Another reason many are drawn to the platform is its reach. While documentaries were once relegated to independent theaters or public television, Netflix has given filmmakers like Ford and director Dawn Porter (“Bobby Kennedy for President“) an opportunity to get their projects in front of larger audiences.
“The communities that matter so much to me that can’t afford to go to art house cinemas or don’t have them in their communities—those people can watch my movie, or they can share their login with their granny, it’s incredible,” said Ford. “I’m getting feedback from all over the world. It reminds you that the world is not just America and it gives Strong Island the opportunity to speak to violence against people of color in other parts of the world.”
Strong Island was nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award this year, thanks in part to the support it received from Netflix.
“Being on Netflix was such a game-changing opportunity for [Strong Island], that our partners in public broadcasting actually recognized it and made it possible for us to be exclusively a Netflix film,” said Ford.
While Netflix continues to pursue diverse stories, the company is not a utopia. Recently, Netflix parted ways with Jonathan Friedland after the public relations executive used the N-word on two separate occasions, and the streaming platform has a long ways to go before its workforce looks like the wider world. Currently, only 4% of the company’s workforce identifies as Black, 6% is Latinx, while the majority, 49%, is White. Nevertheless, Holland says the company places a high value on inclusion and recruiting top talent.
“Simply put, we seek to hire and promote the best people, and they come in all shapes, shades, and identities,” she said. “Inclusion is one of our company values, we take it very seriously, and we support the voices of all employees.”
Netflix may have some work to do to improve its number of Black employees, but the executives that make up the network’s Strong Black Lead team have definitely made an impact, and the recent campaign is proof. The effort grew out of months of planning by the group, which focuses on engaging Black audiences, and according to said Bukky Osifeso, a Director of Human Resources at the company. It’s not a one-time event.
“We have so much passion behind the scenes and Netflix is that employer that will allow you to do what you want to do if you stand behind it,” said Osifeso. “We’re doing this for the long haul. We’re also not doing it to get diversity points or attention.”