We Should Challenge Clueless "Politically Correct" Scolders of Art: Why I Left Aspirational Movie Making Group

I used to be in a collective of artists whose mantra is to make movies.  I spent four years among them to gain experience as an actor, having spent many years as a network TV writer.  The reasons I left encompass numerous factors, chiefly a growing disrespect for a slew of viewpoints expressed after script readings and Facebook discussions.

Lest this appear to be a personal rant, it's really about society jumping on the bandwagon of politically correct thought, unwilling to abide challenges to people who've expressed objections, even after a presentation of facts.

Too often, people are fixed in their own mindset, myself included, but when presented with contrary evidence I'll admit I was wrong, as opposed to many who simply say "I hear what you've said and see the facts, but.....," which tells me they haven't heard anything at all.

If you have differences about taste, that's tough to deny.  The other person isn't wrong.   Yes, we don't know why they don't like something, but an inner feeling isn't something that can be disputed. I hate liver; others love it.  Who am I to say they're wrong to love liver?

However, if you have an opinion which impugns, even gently, that a writer wrote something offensive, in this case designating black characters with names deriving from Africa, and it is later proven such names are ubiquitous in our culture, and you still maintain the names are stereotypical and shouldn't be used, then I believe your belief may be challenged.

A work was written (not by me) about the continuing adventures in a planned web series of two clueless white men and their pursuits to get laid. In one episode, the men seek help from their cool African-American friend Darence and unexpectedly go to a bar mostly frequented by Blacks.  Left to their own, Eric and Kevin are in unfamiliar territory and attempt to score with two African-American women named Ja'nae and Latrice.  The result is an outpouring of racial stereotypes made funny by the unwitting men and the reaction of the women, who we learn are smart and well-educated.

You don't need to know more, except that among very complimentary notes a few attendees made remarks about stuff that offended them, comments, frankly, I found offensive.

The first was by a very intelligent and articulate black man, one of the only Writers Guild Members in the group (besides myself). He started the ruckus, suggesting the women's names were stereotypic and insulting and was soon joined by a few white folks, both men and women.

I did research and wrote on the group's Facebook page, "While people certainly have the right to his/her opinion at readings,
if they unfairly characterize a writer's indelicateness and are not reflective of reality today, they should be addressed."  In particular when it implies prejudice about the writer that isn't founded.

I listed many black actresses and personalities who have such names, indicating there are many more, plus those used by
black men.

1. Aisha Tyler (TV host)
2. Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away With Murder)
3. Anika Noni Rose (DreamgirlsBates Motel)
4. Aunjanue Ellis (Quantico)
5. Aziza Young (Hell's Kitchen)
6. Beyoncé (singer)
7. Chandra Wilson (Grey's Anatomy)
8. Ciara Renee (Legends of Tomorrow)
9. Da'vonne Rogers (Big Brother)
10. Ebonee Noel (Still Star-Crossed)
11. Emayatze Corinealdi (RootsHand of God)
12. Gabourey Sidibe (PreciousEmpire)
13. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Free State of Jones)
14. Jada Pinkett-Smith (Gotham)
15. Jameela Jamil (The Good Place)
16. Janelle Monae (singer)
17. Jurnee Smollett-Bell (UndergroundTrue Blood)
18. Keesha Sharp (Lethal Weapon)
19. Keke Palmer (Scream Queens)
20. Keshia Knight Pullam (Cosby Show)
21. Lashana Lynch (Still Star-Crossed)
22. Lonette McKee (The Game, Third Watch)
23. Marsai Martin (Black-ish)
24. Mekia Cox (Secrets and LiesChicago Med)
25. Merrin Dungey (Conviction)
26. Mo'Ni que (Precious)
27. Naturi Naughton (Power)
28. Oprah Winfrey (TV Host)
29. Omarosa Manigault (The Apprentice)
30. Patina Miller (Madame Secretary)
31. Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
32. Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation)
33. Rihanna (singer)
34. Sanaa Lathan (Family Guy)
35. Sarayu Blue (The Real O'Neals)
36. Sasheer Zamata (Saturday Night Live)
37. Selita Ebanks (Model)
38. Sepideh Moafi (Notorious)
39. Serayah McNeill (Empire)
40. Taraji P. Henson (Empire)
41. Ta'Rhonda Jones (Empire)
42. Tatyana Ali (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air)
43. Tempestt Bledsoe (Cosby Show)
44. Thandie Newton (Westworld)
45. Tika Sumpter (The Haves and the Have Nots)
46. Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black)
47. Vella Lovell (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)
48. Yara Shahidi (Black-ish)
49. Yaya Dacosta (Chicago Med)
50. Zakiyah Everette (Big Brother)
51. Zuleikha Robinson (Still Star-CrossedThe Following)

To this I received only a few "likes" and one response: "I understand where you are coming from, but it would be one thing if it is written by an African American writer. It does come off differently when coming from someone outside the culture."

To that I responded sharply, reminding that a writer's duty is to observe and tell the truth, and that the existence of this large but only partial list would lead reasonable people to believe the usage of these names by any writer, white, black or whatever background, would be a legitimate representation of society as it is, and not a denigration of a cultural group.  That she was inadvertently comparing the use of such names to the supposedly accepted sensibility that it was okay for a black guy to use the "N" word, but not those of other ethnic groups.

Two days later, another group member wrote a long post, where he said it was wrong to question any person's opinion, though oddly he was doing the same to me. Even stranger, he admitted the names were "immaterial" to him, then switched to why he was uncomfortable with the reading.  That with all the sexual violence today, the pursuit by these men, however silly and idiotic, might be supportive of horrible happenstance in society and he was bothered they emerged unscathed. In this case, he expressed displeasure to which I wouldn't object, though he'd deflected from what actually happened in the piece, as their actions were comically rude but not physical and, after all, they went home without a date!

Shortly, he received a flood of praise, with only one dissent.  I resent such sheep mentality, which often applauds kumbaya ​safe comments.  There'd been no support for my fact-based post criticizing overly sensitive, uninformed, and thus misplaced, distaste for a work mirroring something commonplace in our society.

Commonplace in a desired way, in that African-Americans decided to call babies these names.  Look around.  In schoolyards, the workplace and your neighborhood.  Much of this started after the 1977 broadcast of Roots, and it was the protesters' obliviousness to which I objected.  Imagine I met some women listed above at an industry function or on set and then wrote a script using such first names as indicative of current reality.  Would I be subject to reproach for giving characters names these people presumably were proud of and which were plastered on TV credits and movie billboards around the nation?

I wondered if there might be reverse "racism" or "intolerance" demonstrated, in this case coming from black folks such as the writer earlier mentioned who has an Anglo name.  Perhaps he finds African monikers odd or weird, thus prone to contributing to prejudice, and his view was shared by "sensitive" whites chiming in their agreement.

Some of you may remember All in the Family, a groundbreaking CBS TV series where the lead character Archie Bunker regularly spouted racist, anti-Semitic comments.  Never the "N" word or "kike," but he used "colored" and "Hebe" to make it more acceptable to broadcast standards.  However, all this made it obvious that, however lovable Archie was in certain ways, he was an idiot.  He was always confronted by more successful black folks like George Jefferson, a character later featured in another series.  Or Archie's famous confrontation with Sammy Davis, Jr.

When you write stuff like that, it makes a point.  The white guys were demonstrating ill-conceived manners and were made to appear as morons.  The black girls with the "stereotypical" African-American names were the smart ones.  What was the message then to an intelligent audience?  We shouldn't have stereotypes, we should behave better among all groups. If the writer had called a woman Jemima or a man Sambo and had them all doing jive talk, with professions such as janitors or prostitutes, instead of one of them going for her Master's Degree, then the complainers would have had a legitimate point.  As it was, to my mind and based upon facts, they did not.  That the members showed such shallowness made me realize I had no place in such a group.

Finally, imagine as in the film Denial, if someone wrote a piece about the Holocaust and somebody commented that he was offended because he KNEW the Holocaust was a fraud and that he was offended by the portrayal of Germans.  It's hard to believe anyone would be upset by a challenge to this notion.  

Obviously, this is more extreme than the instance cited, but it demonstrates there's room for criticism of a critic and I am proud to have done so.

Michael Russnow’s website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com.

Follow Michael Russnow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kerrloy

Check out his new novel, Hollywood on the Danube on all Amazon sites and Kindle

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Comment by Zanelle on October 26, 2016 at 1:12pm

I love your list of names.  Not sure if it is a good reason to leave a group but maybe there are other ways they seem disrespectful too.  I like to stay and fight but sometimes you just have to let the sheep go out the gate and close it behind them.  Thanks for writing here.

Comment by Ron Powell on October 26, 2016 at 2:41pm

If you believe that your presence and your voice would not have made a difference to at least one member of the group, then leaving to maintain your own sanity and peace of mind may well be justified. 

On the other hand,  if by staying you may have made a difference in the thinking or perspective of just one invidual, then staying might have been the better course....

Comment by Michael Russnow on October 26, 2016 at 5:07pm

As indicated in my first paragraph, the reason I left encompassed numerous factors.  The example given was the proverbial straw, but by no means the only reason.  Plus, being in this sort of group should mostly be a pleasure, and I'm not interested in a "lone wolf" persona, as my experiences there are ultimately more annoying and disappointing.  Fighting a mostly losing battle to change "at least one member of the group" (as you put it) for something not of groundbreaking importance is not worth my time.  Thanks for your comment.

Comment by nerd cred on October 26, 2016 at 7:01pm

If it matters, and I say this thinking you are talking about supposedly "made-up" names of many black actors, a number of the women you list are African born or the children of African parents. At least one isn't even African-American but that's a different story. Many of the names are actual names in African languages.

This strikes me because my name is pretty much made up and I am, by bona fide genetic analysis, about as white as white can be. 100% Northern European. Made-up name and all. And I had the experience when, in 1957, my parents gave a brother the middle name Sean and confused the hell out of the whole neighborhood. Though it was fun to mock the neighbors as ignorant buffoons it got old fast.

Whatever, the whole argument seems kind of silly but it never hurts to be respectful. Especially when treading on sensitive ground. I mean, I have a friend whose last name is Zulu and if you acted like it was strange at all she'd give you a look that would freeze your blood because she can do that kind of thing. And Zulu's just her family name. But I wouldn't use it as a name for a character. And it's probably best not to write any more stories about two clueless white men and their pursuits to get laid. It's been way overdone.

Comment by Michael Russnow on October 26, 2016 at 7:40pm

But the point I was making is that if you look around, many black men and women have such names in our current society, and so if you are presenting some characters -- probably not all but a few sprinkled about -- those character names should no longer  be considered offensive in our modern society.  And I didn't refer to "made-up" names of black actors; these are from credits of current TV shows.  I don't know how many were children of African parents or how the names were chosen, but they have become legitimate names to use in American culture.  So, where does "respect" come into play?  Why is it sensitive ground if these names are ubiquitous and widely used?  Perhaps the respect should be shown the other way by folks who themselves, whether black or white, may well be, as I suggested, reverse racists?  Perhaps it is they who found the names weird, when it is clear that they no longer are.  So, why can't you use such names in a dramatization, and/or why CAN you use those names if the author is black?  And how would you know the difference if the black author's name was Anglo, like John or Peter, considering that, sadly, most writers are not so well known and you wouldn't have a clue what race the author was. Thanks for writing.

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