On Tuesday, the always-perceptive Donald Glover tweeted that “we’re getting boring stuff and not even experimental mistakes” in TV and film these days “because people are afraid of getting canceled”. He added that, in order to avoid a social media uproar, people are afraid to make anything other than aesthetic changes in movies and other cultural output.
Dave Chapelle recently said something similar, claiming that artists and directors can no longer be creative because of lack of appreciation for comedy and opinion. For the record, I think they’re both right, and I’ve said it before.
I once wrote that 30 Rock and NBC should have never deleted their more controversial TV episodes, including one where Jane Krakowski’s character, Jenna, dresses in blackface. Almost as soon as I said it publicly, I started getting told by white people that I was wrong. These same white people then sent me advice on how I needed to change my ways of thinking, as if they could be a better Black man than I could. After that, I had to ask myself, “Will this article potentially, maybe, end my writing career?” before penning something which straightforwardly wrestled with whether “canceling” is always a good idea, just in case white social media warriors came after me.
The thing with canceling is that it makes white people feel like they’re doing something useful. But the Black community never asked people to destroy or defund or edit media output which has graced our televisions and our movie theaters and libraries for decades. That isn’t the root cause of discrimination against us. Often, it feels like the (usually white) powers-that-be preempt some sort of angry backlash from my community and act accordingly. Don’t do that. We’ll let society know, en masse, what really pisses us off.
Instead of making things easier or more respectful for Black folks, “canceling” has become a stereotype and a conversation about “we want” that we’re being shut out of. It’s a distraction and an easy straw man for right-wingers. Equality doesn’t mean anticipating what a group might want at some point in the near future because you’re afraid of a lawsuit or a demonstration in front of your building, and stifling creativity because of it. I don’t need a trigger warning on an adaptation of Gone With The Wind. I need real change in society, and I want TV and film to be able to push boundaries and to make edgy comedy which sometimes makes people uncomfortable.
Robert Downey Jr’s character in Tropic Thunder is an example of this: he appears in blackface throughout the film, but he is sending up the industry itself and the allowances it makes for white actors in pursuit of their own, blinkered, egocentric goals. That might not be to everyone’s taste, but I see no reason for such movies to be banned or kicked off streaming platforms. They grapple with complex issues; whether they succeed or not should be up to an audience to decide.
Yet, I’m not one of those people who hates “cancel culture” as a concept. In fact, I think a healthy bit of canceling and de-platforming can go a long way. Some people have the power to cause unimaginable harm with their words, and should be sanctioned by the businesses that facilitate the spread of their views accordingly. Donald Trump still has a voice, but it helps that it’s no longer on the national stage or, indeed, on Twitter or Facebook. Others like him deserve every sanction they get. The question, as always, is about intent.
For those keyboard warriors who wait for someone to mess up as if it’s some kind of sport, I would say: Stop thinking for communities you’re not a part of, and stop trying to predict the future. Creativity is what makes us human. We’ve reached a disconnect between intent and reaction, and that can only be damaging. If you have to work hard to see the malice — and especially if you’re seeing it on behalf of someone else — then I implore you, in the words of Gen Z, to take several seats. When Donald Glover thinks you’ve gone too far, you need to check yourself.