IN THE TIME OF PLASTIC REPRESENTATION
Kristen J. Warner
On August 4, 2017, Jay Z released Moonlight, an eight-min- ute music video culled from his album 4:44. Directed by Alan Yang, cocreator of Netflixs critically acclaimed series Master of None (Aziz Ansari, 2015), Moonlight samples NBCs Friends (19942004) as its original source material. A pastiche of the blockbuster sitcom, the video replaces all of the characters from the original series with their black Young Hollywood counterparts. While the photography, costuming, and mise-en-scne of the title credits are shot- for-shot identical to the original, one change aligns with its new cast: it switches the iconic Rembrandts Ill Be There For You (1995) for Whodinis Friends (1994).
This Moonlight moves beyond being a superficial send-up when the Friends filming halts and the cast walks off set for a break. Ross Gellers black counterpart, played by comedian Jerrod Carmichael, greets fellow comedian Hannibal Buress and asks his opinion of the project. Garbage. Terrible man. Wack as shit. Episodes of Seinfeld but with black people. Who asked for that? Carmichael explains that when they asked me to do it I was like alright this is something subver- sive, something that would turn culture on its head. Buress lands the fatal blow asserting, Well you did a good job of subverting good comedy. You gonna do black Full House next? Family Ties? Resuming the Friends filming, Carmi- chael ultimately slips away from his character, too aware of his real identity to perform any longerjust in time for his Rachel and fellow actor Issa Rae to quietly whisk him away from the series and to an exit door of sorts.
This music video asks, even if it does not fully answer, critical questions about the intersections of representation and employment for black actors. How do they balance tak- ing jobs that seem facile all the while attempting to imbue the parts with depth through subversive performances that may not be as easily perceived as intended? It is Buresss query about who asked for this? that strikes me as central, because his question presumes that there is a desire and an
initiative to remake existing source material with the least amount of changes to attract different audience demographics. Swapping in and out racial groups with little adjustment to the parts themselves retains the orig- inal work as the primary driver and as a result marks the changes as superficial. The original work maintains its universality in this instance by proving that anyone can be a member of the Friends cast. As a consequence, the performances feel like hollow experiments produced in a laboratory; they feel plastic.
It stands to reason that Jay Z and Yangs desire in Moon- lights meta moment is to create this response of discomfort, amid the realization that neither playing nor watching white characters metaphorically dipped in chocolate on screen can deliver the progress that was implicitly promised by watchdog groups like the NAACP who for years have sought to strate- gically diversify the labor force in meaningful ways. However, in this moment, when consumers of blackmedia proudly state that representation matters, disavowing (black) Friends-like texts may be impossible because alternatives are few.
This season, representation matters is a catchphrase circu- lating in conversations around diversity in film, television, and theater. From social media campaignssuch as
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