How Netflix beat Hollywood to a generation of Black content

FILE -- A promotional image for “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s mini-series on the false convictions of the Central Park Five, in the lobby of the Netflix offices in Los Angeles, June 26, 2019. “Netflix doesn’t have to trot out the one or two things, but it has a library that’s a wide cross section of taste and content that speaks to the understating of that audience,” said DuVernay, who is producing a new scripted Netflix series on the former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (Hunter Kerhart/The New York Times)
The Black documentarian Stanley Nelson says his phone has been “ringing off the hook” as America is looking again at racism and the Black experience. Justin Simien, the creator of “Dear White People,” says the reactions to his pitches have grown warmer. And director Ava DuVernay reports a flood of calls to “me and every other Black person that’s ever picked up a camera.”

Hollywood is scrambling, in its traditional way — late, liberal, a bit ham-handed — to catch up with this cultural moment. Some streaming services have made civil rights-themed programming free to all, while studios race to sign new projects by Black directors. And to the immense frustration of mostly white executives all over town, they also find themselves — again! — scrambling to catch up with Netflix, already a threat to their technology and business model, and now winning the race to the centre of the conversation as well.

On June 10, Netflix flexed the depth of its Black programming by showcasing a “Black Lives Matter” collection of 56 shows, films and documentaries, including DuVernay’s miniseries on the false convictions of the Central Park Five, “When They See Us” and her documentary on systemic racism and mass incarceration, “13th.”

“Netflix doesn’t have to trot out the one or two things, but it has a library that’s a wide cross section of taste and content that speaks to the understating of that audience,” said DuVernay, who is producing a new scripted Netflix series on the former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick. She called the service “the foremost and most robust distributor of Black images in the world.”

Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, and other executives declined to speak on the record to me for this column, perhaps wary of appearing to take credit. They directed me instead to Black creators and their work.

The story of how the company got there isn’t a particularly satisfying morality tale. It didn’t start with a visionary founder’s decision, a Silicon Valley memo or a culture of promoting Black executives. It is, instead, a recognisable story of stops and starts, internal tensions, corporate competition, social media and personal connections, including to a man known as Hollywood’s “Black Godfather” — all eased by the company’s huge budget for content. But this is a moment when Hollywood, perhaps even more than other media industries, is reckoning with homogeneous leadership — strikingly depicted in “a photo tour through the Leadership/Management pages of the major studios and those of their corporate parents,” published by the iconoclastic newsletter The Ankler. Netflix’s stories offer a glimpse of how the industry is and isn’t changing.

And Netflix isn’t alone in its connection to the moment. HBO’s 2019 series “Watchmen,” a complex treatment of racism in America, has been much discussed in recent months, although the company started its new service HBO Max with more emphasis on mass appeal than cultural relevance. And at Viacom, which has struggled to compete with larger streaming players, I’m told, BET+ has been a bright spot with series including “Ruthless” from the director Tyler Perry.

When Netflix got into original material in 2013, the company didn’t have a particular focus on Black content. But the company also didn’t have to worry about advertisers or weeknight prime-time slots, and its credo was “something for everyone.” The first signal that the service had an opportunity with Black audiences came mostly from the service’s second hit original series, “Orange Is the New Black,” (“House of Cards” was its first) whose breakout characters included actresses Laverne Cox and Uzo Aduba. The show prompted a wave of discussion at Netflix about how a diverse cast could succeed widely in the United States and globally, and connect, in particular, on social media, where Black voices on Twitter often shape the cultural conversation.

In looking to Black audiences, the young Netflix was following an old pattern in the television business. In the 1990s, Fox and UPN built their networks with shows like “In Living Colour” and “Malcolm & Eddie.”

The year after “Orange Is the New Black” became a hit, Netflix began talking to Simien about turning his film “Dear White People” into a show that would be a pioneer in a now-familiar genre, which Simien described as “an ensemble of Black articulate millennial activists in a world of white people.” Now, he said, “that’s everywhere,” pointing to “Atlanta,” “Insecure” and “Mixed-ish.” But when he signed with Netflix in 2015, “this show as a whole couldn’t have existed in any other place.”

He attributes the show’s place at Netflix to a Black executive there, Tara Duncan. “It’s the classic thing of — you just have Black people working at your company,” he said. Director Spike Lee voiced a similar sentiment to The Hollywood Reporter in 2017: “At the other places, there were no Black people in the room.”

In reality, Netflix didn’t necessarily have a higher proportion of Black people buying content than other studios. But it had a lot of people buying content, and an unusual approach of distributing the power to make decisions. There were five Black executives who could buy content in 2015, and some of them built relationships with Black directors and producers. One former employee said Black executives were sometimes pulled into meetings with Black directors or actors for show.

Still, the service continued to carve out a lane: The 2015 documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” was nominated for an Oscar, and a Black superhero show, “Luke Cage,” ran for two seasons and developed a cult following. Dee Rees’ 2017 film, “Mudbound,” was nominated for four Oscars. Some of its biggest deals went to Black comics, including Kevin Hart and Chris Rock, as well as Dave Chappelle, who became a pillar of the platform. The company began emphasising the idea that everyone should be able to see themselves on the screen.

By 2018, with Black showrunners and directors occupying an expanding slice of the cultural conversation and Netflix bracing for streaming wars, the company knew it had an opportunity. It started a dedicated marketing channel called Strong Black Lead to connect with Black audiences.

But — in a preview of many of today’s media conflicts — the moves also fed a sense that its marketing as a natural home for Black content was out of sync with its internal culture. The crisis came to a head in June 2018, when two Black executives announced their departures. Days later, simmering complaints led to the ouster of an executive who had offended colleagues by using the N-word in the context of talking about offensive content. The firing, three insiders say, was less a routine human resources decision than an emphatic move by the company’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, to make the company’s internal culture match its content.

Since 2018, Sarandos has hired a more diverse group of executives at high levels, including the former ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey and the former Disney production leader Tendo Nagenda. The company also has giant deals with Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris, the best known Black showrunners in the country, and a documentary arrangement with the Obamas. One of this summer’s biggest releases, with a budget around $40 million, was Spike Lee’s tale of Black veterans returning to Vietnam, “Da 5 Bloods.” Directors who come for meetings have been impressed by the diversity through the ranks.

In the absence of a single clear explanation for the streaming giant’s accumulation of Black content, some Netflix creators pointed me to a 2019 documentary called “The Black Godfather.” It’s a portrait of the Black entertainment industry deal-maker Clarence Avant, who played a central role in things as diverse as shaping Janet Jackson’s career to spiriting Sean Combs out of Los Angeles after the murder of the Notorious BIG.

But the movie, a Netflix original, doesn’t reveal one connection: Avant’s daughter, Nicole, is married to Sarandos. It’s a link that Sarandos has occasionally brought to bear internally. In 2018, two people familiar with the meeting said, he hosted a screening of the movie for Black employees, and told them, to a mix of cringes and sympathy, that he had some sense of what it is to be the only person of your race in a room — because that is his experience every Thanksgiving. He added that it was not the same as being the only Black person in a room of white people.

“I’m not saying the reason Netflix is doing what they’re doing is because he’s married to a Black woman — but I do believe being married to and in love with someone who is of colour makes a difference,” Perry said. “And the fact that her father is the literal Godfather that everyone went to for everything is really powerful.”


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