Netflix Isn't Actually Ready for a Strong Black Lead

The lack of support for ‘Grand Army,’ ‘On My Block,’ and ‘One Day at a Time’ suggests a theme: Is Netflix deprioritizing its POC-driven programming?

Jun 24 2021, 11:00am

Netflix has some explaining to do. Last week, Variety reported that the streaming giant had made the decision to cancel Grand Army, the teen drama following five promising students at a Brooklyn high school, after its first season. Coming on the heels of On My Block and One Day at a Time stalling out, the news felt like yet another example of what is beginning to feel like a pattern: Is Netflix deprioritizing its POC-driven youth programming?

Advertisement

For New York natives like me, Grand Army was the rare Big Apple coming-of-age tale that actually captured what it feels like to grow up here. It was void of the affluence from the snobs on Gossip Girl and its subsequent reboot, instead focusing on a largely minority cast, with an emphasis on the first-generation experiences of the children of immigrants. Joey, Dominique, Siddhartha, Jayson, and Leila didn't just speak the language of New York City (“deadass” practically rolled off their tongues), with a baconeggandacheese diet to match. Their stories provided a window into the lives of the children of working class New Yorkers. 

Dominique, a 17-year-old first-generation Haitian American, has a lot more to worry about than hallway crushes and getting good grades at school. Because of the long hours her mother and older sister put in at work, she's also the primary caregiver for her nieces and nephews, while hustling to make some extra money on the side braiding hair. Some days, to accommodate a new client, she ends up missing school entirely. But when her mother suggests that she marry a family friend for $10,000 in exchange for his American citizenship, Dominique has other plans. She wants to be the first person in her family to go to college, and has plans to study psychology. 

Advertisement

Clearly, it's a lot for one 17-year-old to handle. But for daughters of West Indian parents, there was something powerful about seeing the complexities of Caribbean diaspora experience finally reflected back to them onscreen, in all its moving parts: The rigidity of gender roles imposed by both patriarchy and colonialism; the responsibility to succeed, in things both spoken and unspoken, and not take your parent’s emigration in vain. Not to mention the characters' pitch-perfect Haitian accents, a language which by definition was birthed out of the resistance of enslaved people and a reminder of the country’s rebellion: It was the first time I could remember hearing a Haitian family speaking Creole on mainstream American television.

Although Dominique’s story does resonate with a very specific New York experience, some people understandably found some aspects of the character bothersome. When a Twitter user questioned why Black leads often carry traumatic storylines, Ming Peiffer, a writer for the show, shared that she, along with other writers of color on the show, were also unhappy with how showrunner and creator Katie Cappiello allowed Dom’s character to develop.

Advertisement

“Because the show runner wouldn’t listen to the 3 writers of color, of which I am one, including the Black writer who kept asking to not make her storyline poverty porn,” she wrote. “When we tried to change the story we were psychologically abused and all quit.” Cappiello has not responded to these claims and did not return VICE’s request to comment.

The contention between the writers and Cappiello harks back to the age-old question about who has the right to tell to certain stories. But the story of Grand Army poses a worthy follow up: Why does it feel like POC-led shows, and characters, are the most disposable?

Other Netflix shows centered around Black and brown characters have suffered a similar fate. In 2018, Netflix premiered On My Block, a coming-of-age series about four Black and Latinx kids growing up in Los Angeles. Then, in 2019, the news broke that the show was delayed ahead of its third season, due to contract negotiations: On My Block's lead cast members, who were being paid $20,000 per episode, had asked to be paid consistent with other popular Netflix series, at $218,000 per episode. The streaming giant countered with $40,000 before agreeing to their demands.  

Advertisement

Considering Netflix named On My Block one of the most binged shows of 2018, the initial offer felt like a tacit acknowledgement that the cultural significance and impact of a show always equate to dollars. By comparison, supporting cast members on 13 Reasons Why, a show centering white experiences, made up to $150,000 and the lowest paid actor on Stranger Things (Joe Keery, in the supporting role of Steve) made $150,000 in 2018. New dates for On My Block’s upcoming season have not been announced yet, but it will be the show’s final season

Considered in tandem with the cancellation of One Day at a Time, the Latinx-led remake of the eponymous Norman Lear series, four months before, it's enough to make you wonder how invested Netflix actually is in amplifying marginalized stories—or whether they know how much those stories mean to those communities. 

Advertisement

Co-written by Gloria Calderón Kellett, One Day at a Time was an intergenerational story about the two matriarchs of a Cuban American family in Los Angeles. After three seasons, the network announced that although the decision was “difficult,” they'd “spent several weeks trying to find a way to make another season work but in the end simply not enough people watched to justify another season.” 

The problem with a justification like this—that the show didn’t have enough viewers—is that it blames the audience for the show's demise instead of asking if the network could have done more to save it. The marketing behind Stranger Things made the show practically ubiquitous, from burger joints to brand collabs with H&M, Levi, and Nike. So why then, are only some shows worth that roll out?

Hearing that Grand Army was being canceled made me feel somehow responsible for it. Should I have written more about these shows, explained how much they meant to me in a way that executives at media companies could understand? As a Black cultural critic, could I have done more? 

The irony in all of this, of course, is that Netflix’s Strong Black Lead, a curatorial hub and marketing project that the company rolled out in 2018, is already doing an amazing job by providing a platform for programming for Black people, by Black people. But even though the vertical has played a crucial role in amplifying Black voices and creating a safe space for dialogue about Black experience within the film and television industry, it should not be used as a way to absolve the missteps of the company. Netflix can’t “But I have a Black friend” their way out of this any more. 

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.

Tagged:

Netflix, NEW YORK CITY, One Day At A Time, on my block, grand army

More
like this
The Hidden Gems of 'The Matrix' Are Its Black Characters
All Hail the Steve Zahn Renaissance, TV and Film's Lovable Screwup
‘And Just Like That’ Is Desperately Trying to Prove It Has Black Friends
The New Era of Black Reality TV Feels More Like Real Life
‘Nine Perfect Strangers’: Watching a White Show Through a Black Lens
The Bag That Has Its Own 24 Hour Television Channel
7 Overlooked New York City Movies You Need To Watch
What Is ‘Hellbound’? Everything You Need To Know About the Netflix Series