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During Sunday night’s BET Awards, Netflix debuted a brand-new spot featuring 47 of the platform’s black creators and talent, including 13th‘s Ava DuVernay, She’s Gotta Have It’s Spike Lee and Orange Is the New Black‘s Laverne Cox. The timing of the commercial is rather ironic, given that it aired two days after the streaming giant fired its top PR chief Jonathan Friedland for using the N-word on multiple occasions at work and displaying what CEO Reed Hastings referred to as “unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity.” Sources say the streamer debated internally on Friday and into the weekend whether to run the spot as scheduled or pull it due to the incident — but the team ultimately decided that it would be wrong to erase the work of so many people of color due to Friedland’s actions.
The commercial (watch it below) had been conceived months ago by the company’s Strong Black Lead Team, a cross-functional group of employees spearheaded by black executives at Netflix. The spot was inspired by the legendary 1958 photo “A Great Day in Harlem,” which featured prominent jazz musicians of the time. Netflix’s iteration was photographed by Kwaku Alston, and the accompanying video was directed by Lacey Duke. In addition to DuVernay, Lee and Cox, other actors, writers and directors who appear in the spot are Justin Simien (Dear White People), Lena Waithe (Master of None) and Alfre Woodard (Luke Cage).
Narrated by Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin, the commercial serves to highlight the black artists working on projects with the streamer. “This is a new day built from the ground broken by legends, a day for our generation to see untold experiences of our blackness representing a limitless range of identity, playing kings and queens of our neighborhoods, defeating larger-than-life forces trying to flip our world upside down,” says McLaughlin in the video. “We’re not a genre because there’s no one way to be black. We’re writing while black — nuanced and complex, resilient and strong. This is not a moment; this is a movement. We are strong black leads. Today is a great day in Hollywood.”
Strong Black Lead is a new initiative started this year that represents Netflix’s ongoing intentional focus to talk authentically with black audiences. The effort spans social media — on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — along with live events, and is a way for the platform to connect with the community about series and films they love. Some examples include black creator-driven projects like Dear White People, Marvel’s Luke Cage and Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It reboot, as well as other shows that elevate black voices like GLOW, 13 Reasons Why and Altered Carbon.
“It was a pretty magical couple of hours. All these amazingly talented, beautiful individuals in one space being supportive and just looking stunning together, all here to pull off this one-take wonder,” said Duke of the shoot. “Alfre Woodard even led everyone in an epic rendition of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ before we started shooting. It was beautiful, and in a flash it was over. It was probably the most overwhelming two hours of my career. I was just so happy to be a part of history.”
The commercial comes two days after Netflix let Friedland go for “his descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions at work,” according to an internal memo Hastings sent to staff on Friday. Friedland first uttered the word during a PR meeting about sensitive words, after which several employees present told him how inappropriate and hurtful his use of the word was. He then used the word again in front of two black employees in Netflix’s human resources group who were trying to help him deal with his original offense. “The second incident confirmed a deep lack of understanding, and convinced me to let Jonathan go now,” wrote Hastings.
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