Jay-Z’s MOONLIGHT Video: On Whiteness As American Export
“We stuck in la la land
Even when we win, we gon’ lose.”
Friends is a globally recognizable phenomenon. Regardless of its place in the American critical canon, it was one of the first shows to traverse international boundaries to the degree that it did, coinciding with the rise of the Internet and becoming a shared cultural language. Here in India, it’s essentially ubiquitous (ironically, my first time meeting someone my age who hadn’t watched the series was when I moved to the U.S.), acting as the first point of exposure to sexuality as a conversation topic for a whole generation. It’s also tied to the infrastructure of Mumbai and of several Indian and Pakistani cities that found themselves undergoing a franchise boom in the mid-late ’90s, with couch-laden lounge cafes becoming the norm even amongst coffee chains – a rarity in New York City’s grab & go coffee culture – including a handful of joints based directly on the series’ Central Perk. For many in South Asia and elsewhere, it’s a vital part of cultural identity.
It also sells an image of an America that doesn’t truly exist.
“The One Where No One’s Ready” (1996) is one of Friends’ most recognizable episodes, affording the sextet of Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, Monica, Chandler and Joey real time interactions against a low-stakes ticking clock, with their interpersonal conflicts and individual neuroses veering in & out of focus. Here, Jay-Z and Master of None co-creator Alan Yang re-stage the comedy classic line-for-line as an expansion of “Moonlight,” off the album 4:44. At first, it appears to be a straightforward and mildly subversive retelling, enacting the series’ iconic fountain opening against Whodini’s “Friends” and casting popular black actors as its white leads.
Creative all-rounder Jerrod Carmichael (The Carmichael Show) steps in to the shoes of David Schwimmer’s Ross. The Get Out duo of stand-up comic Lil Rel Howery and poet/rapper Keith Stanfield play off each other as Matt LeBlanc’s aspiring actor Joey and Matthew Perry’s young business professional, Chandler. Issa Rae, star and co-creator of HBO’s Insecure, takes over from Jennifer Aniston as Ross’ on-again, off-again love interest, Rachel. Creed, Westworld and Thor: Ragnarok superstar Tessa Thompson plays Courteney Cox’ Monica, and rounding off the recasting is Oprah Winfrey Network regular and Girls Trip highlight Tiffany Haddish as Lisa Kudrow’s struggling songwriter, Phoebe.
These shortened résumés alone are enough to make a point, with multi-talented black artists - some whom have had to create their own opportunities - playing second fiddle to the eventual million-dollar-an-episode Friends main roster. Which is to take nothing away from the original cast (the cultural imprint of their roles speaks for itself), but barring Aniston, none of them really stayed on the A-list quite the same way after the series ended, be it in creative terms or in the popular zeitgeist. While they’ve each produced various projects since, none have had the vacuum-filling cultural impact as the likes of Creed, Girls Trip, Get Out, The Carmichael Show or Insecure, not to mention Rae’s YouTube series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, which struck enough of a chord that she was able to cross over to traditional television.
The concept, which seems to grow stale a few minutes in (as any sitcom with a laugh track or studio audience might in 2017), pulls back to reveal the bigger picture of the sketch and touches on the bigger cultural portrait in the process. The comfortable, flatly lit 4:3 image gives way to the stark, digitally colour-corrected widescreen palette of today, no longer hiding the seams of the set or the sweat on the actors’ brows. Carmichael, the leader of the narrative, steps off the familiar stage and enters a conversation with comedian Hannibal Buress, who takes him to task for his partaking in this base experiment. "It's just episodes of Seinfeld, but with black people."
Friends has often been chastised for its overly white portrayal of the historically diverse New York City (even outside of its leads), so the idea of reclaiming it to create a modern media image that better reflects the contemporary landscape has its own comedic allure. While the NBC series was still on air, Mad TV’s parody introduced African American actress Debra Wilson as a Supreme Court-mandated guest star who spooked the white regulars by her mere presence as they questioned her origins. “I’m from New York, just like you guys” was not a satisfying answer to faux-Ross and the gang, who stumbled at the mere idea of interacting with a black character. It’s a silly sketch, but it unearths the hesitance the show and presumably its non-black target audiences may have had were its dynamic to shift and more accurately mirror New York. The joke, like the Carmichael-fronted experiment, works to a degree, but they’re both built on what is essentially a false premise.
“What if Friends, but with black people?” works as an idea in the context of the mainstream, i.e. the shows that are most widely seen in the U.S. as well as the most widely exported. It remixes an idea to fit a modern and previously unseen standard of diversity on the global stage, and to the eyes of both American audiences who constantly see themselves and those on the outside who saw Friends as an entry-point into American culture, it’s a brand new image – only that, too, is something of a cultural myth. Ask most global Friends fans about the group’s living situation in any given season, and you could probably get a detailed rundown. Ask them about a show like Queen Latifah-starrer Living Single (which may soon return to television), and they aren’t likely to have heard of it, myself included until recently. It was not, after all, marketed to the rest of the world. But ask most African Americans who were around in the ’90s, especially African American women, and it’s a different story.
Living Single premiered in 1993, thirteen months before Friends hit the airwaves and a few years in to the American sitcom status quo moving away from suburban family-oriented storytelling (the kind satirized by The Simpsons), and more towards the Cheers and Seinfeld setup of single metropolitans and the friend-family dynamic. Friends was that concept hitting its zenith and staying there, the sanitized new image of New York City post the Disneyfication of Times Square. But Living Single preceded it as what has now become the modern template for the single-people sitcom (How I Met Your Mother, anyone?), that too with some eerie similarities.
The premise? Six friends – four women and two men – living in Brooklyn, connected to each other as roommates, neighbors, relatives or childhood friends. The characters? One a young business professional, one an aspiring actress, one a struggling songwriter, one an on-again, off-again love interest, etc.. The setting? Like Friends, two apartments in the same building. The major difference? An all-black cast. It ran five seasons without ever getting nearly the same push as Friends, and it also premiered a few months before Friends was conceived. Whether or not you believe it was the basis for David Crane and Marta Kaufman’s original pitch (under the title Insomnia Café), it’s emblematic of the resigned frustration in “Moonlight” wherein racial double standards make black entertainment a niche but allow white versions of the same to be perceived as "for everyone" – the very same cultural flow that allowed the likes of Eminem to popularize a primarily black art-form in India and in other parts of the world.
A recent innocuous conversation proved to be a microcosm for this long-standing phenomenon, at least as it exists on this side of the world. An acquaintance referred to the term “Slay” (in the context of an A-list celebrity outfit) as “Buzzfeed speak,” since that was her mainstream exposure to what first began as a drag term before making its way into AAVE, a dual cultural osmosis that had obscured its origins. African-American Vernacular English is the genesis for a whole host of popular online colloquialisms – “bae,” “fam,” “stay woke,” what have you – before being adopted by the largely white “mainstream” populace of influencers, until they're eventually rejected or used ironically by white folks who inadvertently decide what language is or isn’t acceptable in the popular discourse. The “clapping hands” emoji interspersed with words in a declarative statement has grown into an in-joke on Twitter, but it too has its origins in a real-world AAVE. That watered-down end result is also the version of any element of black culture (or any non-white culture) that inevitably travels elsewhere in the world through American or other mainstream media, something bastardized and contorted through the eyes of those unconnected to it as they have no context or reason to view themselves through a racial lens, not unlike most Hollywood portrayals of people of colour until quite recently.
A more pertinent example of this dynamic, one that lies outside my acecdotal social media experience, is dreadlocks, braids, bantu knots and other styles suited to black hair being lauded when adopted by white celebrities, but rejected when worn by every-day black women, including schoolgirls in America and South Africa. Language and culture have always been shared and appropriated, and which parts of appropriation are or aren’t acceptable based on historical and contemporary power dynamic is a much more complicated conversation, but in the context of a white mainstream adopting and appropriating from blackness while simultaneously rejecting it (or rather, rejecting black people), the trend goes back much further. Elvis, for instance, was an admirer of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (one of the gospel precursors to Rock 'n' Roll), who he watched at segregated whites-only events. His work has a discernibly black influence, yet his name is known across the world while the likes of Tharpe tend to come up only around Black History Month.
Which, again, is not to take away from talents like Elvis and Eminem, whose work struck chords with plenty of people, but were any satirist to claim these sounds and images in the name of blackness as some radical new idea, there would be a fundamental disconnect. “Reclaiming” them would be more accurate in the context of music history, as it would be in the context of Friends and the American sitcom. While casting black actors in these roles is subversive to audiences unfamiliar with the series’ origins, the very idea of what is or isn’t subversive based on the status quo is called into question when the status quo has always featured African American talent in its peripheries. Can an experiment like this be truly subversive when there is so much historical and contemporary precedent? To whose eyes would the experiment be subversive in the first place? While seemingly forward-thinking for most white and non-black POC audiences, to whom black entertainment is still marketed as something of a niche, it’s more along the lines of the media landscape playing catch-up for those already in the know.
Black entertainment and culture have always been there, providing a platform for the historically white American mainstream to launch off and market itself to the rest of the world, and perhaps the reason the in-story experiment comes off as so trite (and is eventually lampshaded as such) is because the mainstream itself has started to shift. Whatever undeniable impact Friends once had, the culture has since moved on. It’s being rightly left behind by a global entertainment zeitgeist expanding in consciousness, and what is perhaps most subversive about the experiment is that it still looks to Friends as the norm. While there is still much to be said about anti-blackness as a global postcolonial constant (India, for instance is not without fault), people are beginning to see changes in mainstream entertainment, with the likes of Star Wars and soon Black Panther dismantling the myth of black non-marketability.
But the frustration of the black artist persists. Even those in the video, while given a mainstream platform akin to the white stars of yesteryear, must contort themselves into the image of a white America to make a statement, in a series unlikely to be even half as successful.
The Internet has expanded the global media diet, and given the changing nature of the sitcom (propelled forward by the single cameras of 30 Rock and Arrested Development and the mockumentaries of The Office and Modern Family), Friends itself has become something of a relic – and yet, it’s a relic whose place in history remains incomplete, or at least incompletely explored. While there are super-fans the world over who know the ins and outs of the production, few are aware Living Single (let alone its similarities to Friends), or the broader history of black entertainment from which the American mainstream has always drawn – a mainstream that has been discernibly global for decades. As much as the in-world “experiment” is a step forward in terms of making this non-black audience think about blackness in the modern mainstream, it does little to reclaim the black media that was swept under the rug. Buress dismantles the idea with ease, asking what even a string of such satires would ultimately accomplish (he compares it to remaking Scooby Doo with a cat in the video's outtakes*). The frustration of un-success even within this success, and the realization of this pointlessness with regards to black audiences and the slower progress of black artists, is part of the reason Carmichael begins to mentally check out from the production. As if to ask: who does this experiment serve?
The skeleton of the set, otherwise a joyful indicator that fans are about to go behind the scenes for some extra laughs, becomes suffocating. Issa Rae, a fellow creator with her own carved-out corner in popular culture, wordlessly exits this frustrating façade and leads Carmichael out in to the open air, as the song itself finally plays a part. The title based on Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, its La La Land-centric lyrics, and the clip of the latter winning Best Picture by accident show up in quick succession, but given the story preceding them, they’re presented in a much more specific context. The line “Even when we win, we gon’ lose” speaks to the broader cultural idea Moonlight ended up standing in for when it was accidentally upstaged by a mostly white production, even its moment of victory. It's the idea that black success is still achieved on the terms of whiteness, and that too is a resigned frustration.
While both films are tremendous and the filmmakers have nothing but love for one another, Moonlight vs. La La Land was the culmination to the political proxy-war that was the 2017 awards season, coinciding with inauguration of President Trump while also being the follow-up to two straight years of #OscarsSoWhite, wherein these two frontrunners were posited as the little black movie that could, and the status-quo affirming, navel-gazing Hollywood nostalgia piece centering white people in a story of jazz, a historically black art form. While there’s certainly more to them, that’s not an inaccurate assertion.
Carmichael has no immediate solution to the myriad of representation issues he tries to solve little by little, both in the video and with his actual work. Ironically, his real-life creation The Carmichael Show was cancelled by NBC this year as it was “unable to find a stable audience” – leaving a re-enactment of the network’s most successful sitcom as what feels like his only remaining option, at least in the world of “Moonlight.” He has no “a-ha!” moment, no spark of sudden realization, and merely reflects on this frustrating reality in the moonlight, walking away from a stage wherein blackness is presented through a lens of whiteness, as it so often is in Hollywood, subsequently packaged for non-black mainstream audiences at home and abroad.
But this very concept, taking on the appearance of America’s most popular television export, is what’s being skewered. As much as exasperation sans catharsis is what's being depicted, the real exploration is the forces that dictate this exasperation, which is cathartic in its own right. The absurd idea being taken to task is that blackness must exist in the shadow of whiteness, must work its way out from underneath in order to reach the cultural sunlight, as opposed to not only being its own unique entity today – as evidenced by the carefully selected cast and the recent endeavors with which they’re synonymous – but also having always been its own entity within the media landscape. A vibrant history that has taken a backseat to the image of a mostly white America, while also fueling this image artistically.
For every La La Land, there will always be a Moonlight going forward. Always a black voice, whether parallel or in response, telling its own story now that more and more people are being granted (and are granting themselves) the opportunity, just as there was always a Living Single for every Friends. A Sister Tharpe for every Elvis, even though many of us may not have known it. And so there is no need to re-contextualize the black image purely in a white cultural vernacular. Not when the language of blackness in all its words and imagery already exists, and more of the world is beginning to notice.
*Jay-Z also released an alternate version of the video today, which leaves the Hannibal conversation for the end and focuses more on Carmichael's disillusionment: