File The Huxtable family of “The Cosby Show” was many black watchers' introduction to TV characters who looked like themselves. Keisha Knight Pulliam as Rudy, foreground left, was that for Angel Suttle.
Sunday, November 12, 2017 1:00 am
Netflix campaign pulls back curtain on work left to do on entertainment-industry diversity
This summer, Netflix launched a hashtag-focused brand campaign #FirstTimeISawMe. The campaign was an effort to celebrate Netflix's own inclusive and diverse programming, as well as prompt dialogue utilizing social media to place celebrities and brand ambassadors on a platform to share when they first saw themselves represented on television.
Though the initiative began as a marketing strategy, the hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe struck an emotional chord, inspiring a plethora of people with various social profiles, economic backgrounds and identities to post and connect transparently about how specific TV characters have affected their perceptions of themselves.
I was one of the media personalities selected to tell my story and film a campaign segment in New York with Netflix – and it is near the top of my “Life's Proudest Moments” list, just under the birth of my children. When asked to reflect on my adolescent years on the closed set that day under the lights and surrounded by production and the Netflix team, it was a surreal experience. I vividly recalled the first time I was able to relate to the beautiful, brown, carefree daughter of Cliff and Claire Huxtable.
For me, the character Rudy, portrayed by actress Keshia Knight Pulliam, from “The Cosby Show” was the first time I could identify myself in someone I'd seen regularly on prime-time television. She was the youngest of her siblings, intelligent, fashionable, sure of herself, and came from a home with parents who loved her immensely. That was me!
This impactful Netflix campaign shone a light on some of Hollywood's elite: actors, directors and other creatives asking when they first saw a character on screen from a similar perspective that they identified with. In powerful short videos, prominent voices in entertainment who work with Netflix like director Ava DuVernay (“The13th,” “Selma,' 'Queen Sugar”), director Spike Lee (“She's Gotta Have It,” “Malcom X”), and actor/comedian Marlon Wayans (“The Wayans Brothers,” “Naked”) speak on their experiences growing up without representation in the media and films they watched when they were young.
“The last 10 years is when I've seen more representations that feel like folks in my real life behaving in a way that feels familiar to me,” explains DuVernay. “What we're seeing now that's so beautiful in this renaissance of television and film is a centering of folks who have so often been in the margins.”
“Images are important,” Lee said in his video for the project. “You want to see yourself reflected truthfully as a child. The problem is, it's other people telling the world who we are and not ourselves.” Lee recalls seeing films in his childhood that exploited blacks and reiterated the need for diversity behind the camera also.
Many people have shared positive experiences of seeing themselves represented in a variety of media, highlighting the substantial role that such representation can play in people's everyday lives.
When you're not used to seeing on screen people who look like you or act like you, finding a character who speaks to you is a memorable occurrence. There is a vital need for inclusion and representation in all walks of life not just in front of the screen, but behind the camera lens as well. The #FirstTimeISawMe campaign also proves Hollywood still has a tremendous amount of diversity work to do.
Social media users of Asian, Hispanic, Indian and minority descent also spoke of relating to characters who only hit TV screens in recent years. This means there are people of color who literally did not see themselves properly represented on television, in media and in films until they became adults. In addition, there were people with disabilities who tweeted about not seeing much representation of characters who use wheelchairs or prosthetics and live fulfilled lives at all in television.
While it seems that Hollywood has been working to create more diversity in front of and behind the camera, there are still so many untold stories and unwritten characters.
Fortunately, conversations prompted by this #FirstTimeISawMe hashtag helps spotlight both the progress being made in mainstream media as well as the missed opportunities of stories that are left unreflected. This dialogue has begun so diversity overall can continue to mirror the realities and complexities that lie within the beauty of our expansive human race.
Angel Suttle is an on-air personality and brand director for Adams Radio Group in Fort Wayne.