Mad Black Men: A Recasting of Revisionist History

Since it first debuted in mid 2007, Mad Men has grown to become one of the most popular and decorated shows on television.  Set in 1960’s Manhattan, the series follows Don Draper, a fictional advertising executive, as he navigates the high stakes world of the Madison Avenue advertising industry. Taking place during what was a turning point for both the nation and the advertising industry, Mad Men attempts to take viewers into the world of the men whose work shaped an era of pop culture communication.

Now while Mad Men has received numerous awards for the performances of its cast and quality of its writing, it is it’s perceived authenticity that has garnered the show it’s highest praise. From the visual design of sets and the meticulous selection of the wardrobe donned by the cast, to the portrayal of such overarching themes as sexism, alcoholism and office promiscuity, Mad Men has prided itself on attention to detail. Viewed by some as the catalyst for a new wave of primetime period centric dramas (Boardwalk Empire,  for example) the show has become for many the definitive media representation for this industry during this particular period.

And that my friends is the problem. Despite what is certainly an impressive dedication to detail, Mad Men is far from definitive. Like virtually all forms of historically based media, Mad Men possesses a number of inaccuracies and omissions that both shape the show’s narrative and define the manner in which it’s audience responds. Take for example the show’s portrayal of African Americans in advertising. In the 6 seasons Mad Men has been on the air there has been a grand total of ZERO black characters with roles actually responsible for creating ADVERTISING. No creative directors, no accountants, nothing. And while the general absence of black characters in the show has been discussed at length in a variety of forums (See the Root’s Black People Counter) it is a criticism that has often been written off by the shows creators as a fact of the times. When speaking about why there are so few black characters in Mad Men, show creator Matthew Weiner simply explained it as a fact of the time opining, “There are still no black people in advertising,”.

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*Le Sigh*

If only Matthew Weiner and team paid as much attention to history as they did to wardrobe. George Olden, Roy Eaton and Caroline Robinson Jones not only represent three African American icons of Advertising, but also speak to a small but significant contingent of blacks in advertising during the 60s and beyond. Yes advertising has had well publicized issues with a lack of diversity, but to say that the 1960’s ad industry was devoid of any significant African American figures is not only inaccurate but revisionist in nature.

It is seemingly in direct response to the revisionist qualities of Mad Men that MAD Black Men was born.

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A new project by writer and designer Xavier Ruffin, Mad Black Men is a satire that looks at the 1960’s AD industry through the eyes of black advertising agency employees.  An independently funded endeavor , Ruffin looks to capture the a perspective that has been either overlooked or simply disregarded by the original Mad Men series.  While it remains to be seen what the final product of Mad Black Men will look like, its presence highlights the important role that independent content can play in countering popular yet inaccurate media narratives.

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And the Emmy for Diversity Goes To…

As you may or may not know, yesterday (September 22, 2013) was the 65th edition of the Primetime Emmy Awards. A night dedicated to honoring “the best” in American primetime television, the Emmy’s has become must see T.V. for those who simply must see T.V..  And as is the case  now with all major awards shows, the day following the event is dedicated to recapping the night’s biggest winners and losers. Now while I lack both the style and expertise to comment on who wore what better, and the time to touch on every nominated show at length, I can tell you with complete certainty that one clear loser on the night was diversity.

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An issue that becomes more glaring with each year that passes, a lack of diversity is nothing new for the Emmys or Hollywood. Despite the growing number of actors and media professionals emerging from a variety of cultural, social and economic backgrounds , the diversification of talent has not translated to the awards show stage. And lets just say the apparent lack of diversity is not going unnoticed.

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But for all of the frustration that was voiced about this year’s Emmy’s, a look at the new Fall television lineup doesn’t inspire much hope for anything different come next years awards. With Kerry Washington and her Emmy nominated performances in Scandal, not a single new show for the fall centers around black or minority protagonist. Simply put, you can’t expect an awards show to be diverse when primetime isn’t.

Now while it is difficult to see the Emmys drastically changing any time soon, that does not mean that change is not coming. The reluctance of Hollywood to diversify not only presents a direct opportunity for digital and independent content creators but also for audiences to redefine what type of work deserves recognition. If the most watched content ceases to be produced by major studios and is no longer found on television both Hollywood and the Emmys cease to be the primary forces for determining quality in mass media.  And while this may seem like a fanciful notion, one only has to look at the success of content creators like Issa Rae and the investments that companies like Netflix and Google have made in original digital content to see Hollywood’s loss will most certainly be the internet’s gain.

But until this change occurs, we all better pray that Scandal and Kerry Washington get renewed for season 3.

The Motown Sound: A Classic Blueprint For Contemporary Media Entrepreneurship

When asked about his success as an entrepreneur and music mogul, Motown founder and former CEO, Berry Gordy once said, “Success starts with a dream”. A dream that built a music empire and shaped a generation, the Motown success story has been chronicled, and studied by countless scholars and critics alike. The subject of college level courses, Motown has been examined both for it’s artistic contribution to the tapestry of poplar music  as well as it’s role as a vehicle for social change through the transition of what had previously been viewed as exclusively African American music into “mainstream” American music channels.   Now while both areas of investigation reveal distinct aspects of Motown’s legacy, it is the creation of the Motown business model and its subsequent inroads into an heretofore closed industry that holds incredibly interesting implications for a new generation of diverse media creators.

Now in order to appreciate the significance that Motown holds for black creators of media today, one must first understand the social setting in which Motown was formed.  Though the challenge of minority content creators attempting to break through institutional barriers in order to reach “mainstream audiences” is far from a new issue.  The social backdrop during the 1960’s certainly posed a set of challenges few could relate to at any other time in history.  Segregation during the sixties in America was not just limited to institutions like schools, housing and transportation. Music and virtually all forms of media were at the mercy of Jim Crow based policies.  White stations didn’t play “colored music” and vice versa.  Black artists were consistently relegated to small clubs and “juke joints” to perform and often received no national or even regional exposure outside of channels which specifically targeted black audiences. Even in the event that black artists would create work deemed acceptable for white audiences by the  dominate music executive hierarchy, it was common practice for record labels to have popular white recording artists take the original creative piece, remake it and release it without any form of financial or creative compensation to the original artist.

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It is with all of these factors in mind that Berry Gordy still set out to build his own record label. Collecting $800 of seed capital from family and friends in 1959, Gordy founded the two record labels (Tamla Records & Motown Records) that would become  responsible for the “Motown Sound”, a sound  that  in many ways would  challenge the racial status quo of a nation through music.

One of the keys to the success of Motown was the fact that Gordy had direct ownership of all of the elements connected with the production of the Motown sound. Gordy hired the writers, musicians, singers and what they produced belonged to Motown. Even the decision to initially establish Motown as two separate labels was done in order to make sure that Motown had some element of control over how often their records could be played on air. A model of creative efficiency, Motown’s production process was modeled to take after the most prominent Detroit company, General Motors.  Though each creative work had a look and feel that was uniquely its own, Gordy controlled how that work would be integrated to compliment the overarching Motown creative vision and enterprise.  Sure there were stars, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, but in many ways they were Motown’s Cadillac, Chevrolet and Buick.  Gordy controlled the style and the rhythm that made each artist both unique and the same.  People grew to depend on the Motown sound and in doing so helped Gordy become the empire builder.

Another key element to consider when analyzing the success of Motown is the manner in which the Motown brand was able to transcend longstanding cultural barriers. Though Motown was a  black owned and operated record label it was far from the first of its kind. Motown was however able to go places where similar creative groups had not. While the importance of ownership of the creative product and the means of production was highlighted earlier, Gordy’s ability to recognize and strategically approach existing social barriers through branding is equally noteworthy. From stressing the universal qualities of the lyrical content of Motown artists to the creation “talent development programs” to prepare his acts for non traditional media and performance opportunities (and the forms of discrimination that may come with), Gordy looked to brand Motown as an entity that was connected to all communities.  It was from this universal platform and the success that followed it  that a number of Motown artists were able to share messages of social change that were particularly pertinent to their African American audience.

Now it is important to note that while Motown proved to be a massive success both creatively and financially,  the tactics utilized by Gordy have not gone without some level or criticism. One criticism of Gordy and Motown is that in achieving initial commercial success the label perpetuated a representation of black talent that least disturbed the sensibilities of  white audiences.  From publishing album covers without pictures of the artists, to the styling and development of artist performances, one can see how Gordy’s tactics may have raised concerns.  It is with these criticisms in mind though that one must again look at the full body of work of Motown as an institution to appreciate the ability of the label to push for standards for the acceptance of black artists in media. It is with the growth of Motown that we see not only increased opportunity for  black artists, but for the exposure of their work.

Media entrepreneurs today should take notice of the plan behind the music.  Gordy patterned his rise not just on making quality records.  Gordy understood and put into practice the concept of ownership and  quality control.  He marketed to an under-served group that was both black and white but he found a way to make mainstream America see the potential and profit of his product. and while the media landscape has changed in a number of ways since Gordy took that fateful loan in 1959, the Motown story still provides valuable lessons for aspiring creators of media from minority communities today.

Exploring A Diverse Lens

One of the goals of Blackoutlets is to provide a foundation for in-depth conversation surrounding the issues impacting black content creatives. Part of that goal involves listening to the thoughts and opinions of those who are currently facing these issues on a daily basis. With that in mind, I invite you to take a listen to this recent University of Southern California Round-table discussion focusing on the issues of race and ethnicity in Hollywood.  A panel composed of  a variety of scholars and content creators, pay attention to the fact that though many of the panelists represent different communities in their work there are consistent moments where access is critically denied.

Spike Lee Does The Right Thing for Advertising

“You turn on TV today, watch films today, the diversity of this country is not reflected on our tv screen or on our movie screens because the gate keepers do not reflect the diversity of this country.” – Spike Lee,

For many years the advertising industry has struggled with the under-representation of African Americans in its workforce. In a 2009 study entitled, “Research Perspective on Race and Employment In The Advertising Industry”, the advertising industry was  shown to be woefully behind the diverse communities they serve as well as other industries of comparable size. As a result of this and other studies the advertising industry has come under increased pressure to become “more diverse”.  But what does diversity mean for an industry like advertising? Is it simply hiring more  minorities or is it something more?

At its most basic level, advertising is a conversation. A dialogue between brands and consumers, advertising is the transformative vehicle by which commercials become dramas, logos become icons and the products you never heard of, become the partners you couldn’t live without. Yet like any conversation, truly effective, advertising must speak the same language as the consumer. A balance between the artistically excessive and economically pragmatic, advertising must speak to an audience that is defined not by broad labels but by unique experiences.

Today’s global market demands advertisers possess a form of diversity of thought that is on par with the consumer’s. In an age of shrinking budgets and constant competition, diversity of thought will not only set agencies apart but also create work that brings people together. This is the type of diversity that film maker and advertising executive Spike Lee speaks of in his 2009 lecture at The One Club. More than filling quotas or  trying to pander to specific communities, Lee speaks of a diversity that respects the unique qualities of different communities while simultaneously speaking to the common themes that unite us all. This is a process that will not only require change at the ground level but also change at the executive level. So while the makeup of the advertising workforce must better reflect the minority communities they wish to serve,  we must also look for diversity at the highest levels of the institutions as well.

Don Cheadle Gets Behind The Lens With Short Film

While Don Cheadle is certainly an established name in terms of his work in front of the camera, very few know that he is equally well versed behind the camera. The producer of several different creative works , Cheadle’s work behind the camera is significant in that it highlights the challenges that black creatives have had in pursuing different creative roles in Hollywood.  Despite the countless numbers of successful African American actors,  the number of black directors and producers of  films supported by major studios remains slim. When looking at the top 300 directors of all time, based on lifetime box office gross, there are only 10 black directors represented.

The lack of black directors on the all time top grossing list leads one to ask a number questions regarding the state of Hollywood and the state of the movie viewing American public. Despite the fact that there have been commercially successful movies  that were directed by black creatives and featured predominately black casts in the past (Precious, Dreamgirls, Boomerang etc) access to the resources to support such films is limited at best. As a result of the reluctance of studios to support these ventures, we have seen a rise in small budget and independently produced films by black film makers. With advancements in digital means of production and distribution,  we are seeing black film makers produce  creative content that is aesthetically on par with big budget films while remaining focused on diverse topics which may not have gotten the green-light from bigger studios.

“Ask A Slave”: Taking Ownership of The Slave Narrative

Stupid Questions.

They happen to all of us at one point or another. It’s inevitable. And despite our best efforts to surround ourselves with what appear to be sensible human beings, there  comes a time where we are forced to contemplate questions that simply defy all measures of logic and common sense.

Now while many of these mind-boggling questions focus on the most  mundane subjects, there are times where questions reflect more than a simple  lack of subject matter knowledge.  Often times the most damning questions are the result of  a dominate and often times inaccurate narrative long associated with specific subjects. These are the type of questions that actress and comedian Azie Dungey confronts in her new web series “Ask A slave”.

A former historical actor at the Mount Vernon plantation that was owned by President George Washington, Dungey plays the role of the Washington’s personal “House Maid” (also known as Slave in these parts) Lizzie Mae.  In this series the character of Lizzie Mae answers real questions that Dungey received during her time as an actor on the Mount Vernon plantation. Employing a sharp comedic wit that was prohibited during her time as an employee  at Mount Vernon, Dungey responds to such priceless inquires as,

“What’s your favorite part of the plantation”?

“How did you get to be housemaid to such a distinguished founding father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?”

And the always classic,

“Where do your children go to school?”

Now while these questions may seem harmless enough to some, they speak to the challenges minority communities face when select narratives become dominate historical interpretations.   In creating “Ask A Slave” Dungie brings light not only to the challenges of communicating minority narratives in the past but also the challenges that persist even today.  Through comedy and this web-series, Dungie is able to expose a massive audience to a narrative that though often overlooked, holds much more historical validity than popular founding fathers portrayal.  And while “Ask A Slave” is far from the first media object to confront the subject of slavery and its often overlooked aspects, (Roots, Amistad,  12 Years As A Slave  etc.)  the very fact that so many still ask the questions featured in this series shows how much work is left to be done.