The highly anticipated Black-women-led comedy Harlem, created by Tracy Oliver and starring Megan Goode, Grace Byers, Jerrie Johnson, and Shoniqua Shandai, premiered on Amazon Prime on Friday. Amid the fan acclaim of the hilarious portrayals of sisterhood, career woes, hookup hijinks, and relationship drama, one scene, in particular, is causing somewhat of a controversial stir on social media.
In one scene in episode 4, “Winter Solstice,” Tye, the masculine-presenting lesbian character played by Johnson, is getting her hair cut at her regular barbershop ahead of a photoshoot for a feature in Forbes magazine. Just as her cut gets underway, a new barber bursts in, loudly and crudely detailing a recent sexual encounter while using misogynistic terms.
When Tye lets her barber know she’s uncomfortable and asks him to handle it, he lets her know that the barber is new to the shop and unaware of the rules before he turns and asks him to tone it down in the presence of a lady.
“Well maybe the lady shouldn’t try so hard to look like a dude,” he says, raising his voice to continue the crass story, noting that the barbershop is a “safe space” for him to speak in that manner. Despite the fact that Tye has been a loyal customer for years, her barber refuses to handle the situation any further, noting that the new barber is a distant family member. This prompts Tye to leave, refusing to sit and listen any further.
Though the scene only took up a 45-second interval of time, it’s caused a ripple effect on social media, with many calling the clip a derogatory portrayal of not only Black barbershop culture but of Black men in general. Host and commentator Van Lathan led a discussion of the clip on his Instagram page, expressing that the scene “just isn’t fair” as it is an occurrence he has never personally witnessed.
“I’m 41 years old, been in hundreds of Black Barbershops nationwide, NEVER seen a Black lady [disrespected] like this,” he said. “I’m not saying this has NEVER happened, but I am saying just as we have to be careful about the portrayal of our women and LGBTQ brothers and sisters, we have to also be equally as careful about the portrayal of our men.”
Responses to Lathan’s post and across Instagram and Twitter have exploded with responses calling this portrayal of Black men and Black barbershops “unfair” or “irresponsible,” showing the environment as toxic and unsafe. Many insist that this type of scenario is so unlikely that it borders impossible, and accuse the Harlem production and writing staff of creating a targeted negative portrayal.
But that flies in the face of social media testimony from many users who insist that they have lived this very experience.
Travon Free, Academy-Award winner and a writer on the show, weighed in on the discussion as well. In response to Lathan’s post, he commented “This has definitely happened. Many times. In my presence.”
When challenged by another user asserting that if these occurrences actually do take place is beside the point and suggesting a “responsibility to depict our people and our stories with integrity,” Free asked, “are the women who experience these things not entitled to a story told that fairly depicts their experience?”
“This is a show about the experience of black women, one of which in the writer’s room was a queer black woman with short hair who had similar experiences,” he continued. “Who’s not being served?”
Showrunner Tracy Oliver also responded to the backlash, asserting it was not only rooted in lived experiences shared in the writers’ room, but in no way meant as an overall commentary on accepted barbershop culture.
Overall, balks at the scene are ignoring its broader context. It is established that Tye has been getting her hair cut at this particular barbershop, by this particular barber, for years and has apparently never been offended in such a manner. Her reaction to the new barber’s brash language suggests that this is a level of sexual banter she has not been exposed to at any point in the past. Her steady barber assures her that the loud, crude barber is new and unaware of shop rules, reinforcing his behavior as an unacceptable outlier. When he derides her for presenting as masculine, she is visibly taken aback.
Nothing about the scene serves to indicate that this is a run-of-the-mill experience, nor the accepted norm inside Black barbershops. In fact, when Tye removes herself from the situation she is shown contacting several other barbers seeking an emergency service, presumably with the thought in mind that this is not likely something she’ll have to put up with at another barbershop.
While the narratives of Black men and families who have found community and comfort in barbershops all over the country without incident cannot ever be negated, that shouldn’t serve as a basis to dismiss and deny the lived experiences of women and queer people who may have been offended, disrespected, intimidated, or targeted in that same setting.
Ultimately, focusing on one 45-second clip featuring one Black male character (whose name we don’t even learn) behaving poorly negates the fleshed-out, multi-dimensional depictions of Black men over the nearly 9-hour course of the show’s first season. It disregard’s Tyler Lepley’s Ian, the French-trained head chef who seeks to provide stability and long-term commitment to the woman in his life. It forgets Sullivan Jones’ portrayal of Jameson, the college professor dedicated to establishing healthy learning environments that foster Black boys’ success. It leaves behind Robert Ri’Chard’s portrayal of Shawn, the earnest and honest struggling single father doing what he must to support his son.
Similarly, it decentralizes the story of sisterhood and experiences of Black womanhood that lie at the heart of Harlem.