Tuesday, December 17, 2013

‘Saturday Night Live’ comes back to the 21st century

THE NEWS was just short of jaw-dropping when it arrived on Thursday. After years without a black female cast member, “Saturday Night Live” announced it was adding one to its cast sometime early next year. The sun reportedly did not rise in the west that day.

The New York Times and The Washington Post broke the news of the long-running show’s plans to make the casting addition, and the news that the show’s producers had held secret auditions reserved for black female comedians. “Bresha Webb (Love that Girl), Simone Shepherd, Tiffany Haddish, Beth Payne, Darmirra Brunson, and Gabrielle Dennis (The Game) were among those invited to perform,” The Post reported, using the names of comedians invited to one showcase.

The show, just short of 40 years in production, has had issues consistently making diversity a factor in its cast. Thursday’s news was a cause for celebration that didn’t need to be one. Jay Anderson, commenting at The Post, said it plain: “If black women are good enough to run Ivy League Universities and Fortune 500 companies, I'm guessing there are a few of them ‘qualified’ enough to read cue cards on a sketch comedy show. Everyone chill out, the world isn't crumbling here.”

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True enough. But this moment in pop-cultural acknowledgement of American reality was in part brought to you by Color of Change, the 501(c)(4) nonprofit grassroots civil rights advocacy organization that played a big role in bringing down Glenn Beck from his perch at Fox News, and getting Pat Buchanan cashiered from MSNBC for irretrievably racist comments.

Color of Change jumped in after the long-running NBC weekend comedy franchise, engaged in a rare act of self-deprecation, the kind of thing that could make viewers think they were kidding and serious at the same time.

Leave it to Kerry Washington, one of Hollywood’s best and brightest, to speak truth to some kinda power. In the skit that opened the Nov. 2 show, Washington, the star of ABC’s hit show “Scandal,” began by playing Michelle Obama, opposite the show’s standing President Obama (Jay Pharoah). Michelle’s visiting the president in the Oval Office when an advisor comes in to say that Oprah Winfrey’s waiting outside.

Washington/Michelle Obama dashes off the set and returns moments later ... as Oprah.

Moments later, another interruption from the same aide, who tells the president that, lo and behold, Beyoncé is waiting to meet him.

You guessed it: Washington/Michelle/Oprah runs off the set and comes back as ... Beyoncé.

If you didn’t get it at that point, an announcement scrolled up over the screen:

“The producers at Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play. We make these requests because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent -- and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman on the cast. Mostly the latter. We agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future, unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

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SNL” AND the show’s über jefe, Lorne Michaels, got some short-term points for that tongue-embedded-in-cheek self-awareness of something that’s been an on-again, off-again problem for the show from the beginning in October 1975. Since then, the big question was: What’s next?

Michaels addressed the criticism the following week, telling The Associated Press he was sure there would be a black woman on the cast again soon. “It's not like it's not a priority for us,” Michaels told the AP. “It will happen. I'm sure it will happen.”

For Color of Change, that generalized assurance just wasn’t enough. The organization’s director, Rashad Robinson, called on Michaels to address the issue. Seriously.

“Since Maya Rudolph's departure in 2007, SNL has failed to cast even one Black woman -- yet still manages to traffic in dehumanizing portrayals that make race and gender the butt of the joke," ColorOfChange.org executive director Rashad Robinson said in a letter to Michaels and the show’s producers at NBC. The letter was obtained and published by The Hollywood Reporter.

“SNL seems committed to aggressively continuing to push images of Black women as incompetent, rude, hypersexual and financially dependent. Frankly, we're tired of this disrespect.”

More: “[I]t's critical to note that the callous, monolithic representations of Black people peddled by SNL and others have alarming real-world impacts. Media depictions of Black individuals, families and communities irrefutably shape how we're perceived in society. ... Given the substantial real-life consequences of your ability to evolve casting practices at SNL, we are demanding to know what you will do to ensure Black women are no longer excluded from the show.”

To make sure Michaels doesn’t put this on a deep backburner, Robinson called for a phone meeting with Michaels later in November to address the situation. Whenever that phone meeting happened, it yielded some meaningful results on Thursday.

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It’ll be a huge and welcome break from the past for ‘SNL,’ whose track record on finding and retaining black talent of either gender has always been troublesome, but never as concerning as it was vis-à-vis black actresses.

Maya Rudolph, the last black actress in the show’s cast, was its fourth black female star, joining the company in 2000, following two who weren't around long enough to knock back a cup of coffee (Yvonne Hudson, from 1980 to 1981, and Danitra Vance, the first black female member of the regular SNL repertory, from 1985 to 1986). Ellen Cleghorne, one of the more promising comedians, managed to hang in from 1991 to 1995. Rudolph has made occasional appearances since she left, in 2007, to make movies and raise a family.

It raised the question of how “SNL” could so fearlessly lampoon newsmakers and life in the 21st century when the show itself hadn’t fully embraced the 21st century.

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ONE REASON that “SNL” took so long to come around on this is the mainstream media’s longstanding reluctance to engage blacks in visible media positions, and to recognize how blacks and minorities have finally gained critical mass in the American teleconversation. Michaels’ protestations notwithstanding, “SNL” had a fear of a black humor, a variation of the same fear that, until fairly recently, revealed itself in a relative wasteland for African Americans throughout electronic media.

That fear is why the recent flap over whether depictions of Santa Claus as black are culturally correct has resonated so deeply. Slate.com blogger Aisha Harris set it off by accident in a provocative Dec. 10 essay. “America is less and less white, but a melanin-deficient Santa remains the default in commercials, mall casting calls, and movies,” Harris wrote. “Isn’t it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?”

“Yes, it is. And so I propose that America abandon Santa-as-fat-old-white-man and create a new symbol of Christmas cheer. From here on out, Santa Claus should be a penguin.”

Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, host of “The Kelly File,” got all heavy about it, responding on the air: “And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.”

The Kelly comment generated the expected firestorm of criticism, and pushback. Ironically enough, one of the best, most on-point responses to Kelly happened over the weekend ... on “Saturday Night Live”:

This change to come could be the start of something big for “SNL,” an opportunity to take point on the hot-button issues of our time, to do again what the show used to do routinely: Be anything but routine. If depictions of a black Santa are central to reinforcing a sense of inclusion among African Americans in our society, it follows that including black women in the repertory of “Saturday Night Live” are just as central to reinforcing the same sense of inclusion in society at large.

Thanks to Color of Change, and the evolving Pantone spectrum of America, that message went out to Lorne Michaels: It’s high time for “Saturday Night Live” to join the rest of us in the 21st century — and stay here this time.

Judging from Thursday’s news, the message was received. Stay tuned.

Image credits: Black comedians gather: Twitter via The Washington Post. 'SNL' logo title card: © 2013 Broadway Video/NBC, via Wikipedia. Fair use rationale: The image is significant in illustrating the subject of the article, facilitating critical commentary as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description alone. Color of  Change logo: © ColorOfChange.org. Slate logo: © 2013 The Slate Group LLC.

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