Why I Wrote A Mad Men Episode With Negroes

By Special Guest Contributor Erika Alexander; cross-posted from Showbiz Is Glamorous 

"Mad Men Remix." Illustration by Brian Sanders. Remixed by Tony Puryear.

“Mad Men Remix.” Illustration by Brian Sanders; remixed by Tony Puryear.

Why did I write an episode of Mad Men with Negroes? And by that I mean with “Negro” characters in it, not with.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Anyway, why did I write an episode of TV that I know will never be made? 

Though I work as an actress and have pitched and sold a television series or two in my time in Hollywood, I’m not a writer on Mad Men, so this episode won’t appear anywhere but here. Why, then? And why negroes? Aren’t we finished with all that? In honor of the Season 6 premiere, let me tell you about it.

I like Mad Men. A lot. I like the subject matter (advertising); I like the cast (Don Draper is hot); I like the look (sexy Eames meets Op Art); I like the writing (Matthew Weiner is a storytelling beast). I love the writing.

I have only one issue with Mad Men (OK, with a bunch of shows, but let’s stick with this one): I’d love to see more diversity. I’m a Black actress, so diversity is an issue that comes up for me. A lotMad MenGame Of ThronesGirlsVeep–these are cool shows, except for the fact that they would really rock with more people of color, series regulars or otherwise. I complain, wtf?…and bemoan, WTF!…but alas, for all my years in TV, I’m not able to make a difference in my own living room. Or am I?

I needed to find a different way to contribute to the conversation, to answer the constant refrain from show creators that they don’t want to just “shoehorn” black characters into their shows. Lena Dunham has said “Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting”. OK, don’t write in a token character–write five or ten great characters of color.

To be fair, Matthew Weiner has addressed this issue. “I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America… I’m very proud of the fact I’m not doing this guilty thing.”

Respectfully, I believe a storyteller has permission to imagine and create unusual situations in his or her fictional world to tell a larger truth. But I get it, race is complicated.

So, I decided to apply my creative powers to writing an episode of Mad Men. I tried to incorporate the “difficult other” organically into the storyline. For me, it was easy. Mad Men is set in New York City in the 60s. Those times were all about race. It was the defining issue of the 20th century. I was born in the mountains of Arizona, but as a writer I don’t have a hard time imagining Black and white on Madison Avenue. My husband worked as a Black art director in advertising agencies both mainstream and “Black-oriented” and my father-in-law was a pioneering black executive in the 1960s. I merged the two and brought the mountain to Mohammed. My Don Draper goes Uptown and meets his match. The show already had good bones, I just put some dark meat on them.

Here it is. It’s called MAD-MEN-UPTOWN-SATURDAY-NIGHT (shout-out). For those whose computers can’t open the PDF (for whatever reason), here’s a summary:

Don Draper finds he needs a Negro agency to help him land a big account. When he heads uptown to vet one, he discovers that his Harlem opposite number has been taking lessons from him and is more than a match for his Madison Avenue cool.

The script won’t be made, but I hope to demonstrate that it can be done, and that iconic TV characters can play well with “others”.

Enjoy. Let’s keep the conversation going. Let me know your thoughts.

–xx,

e.

  • Amelia

    Also, am I missing something? The site you linked to was talking about the Martells, who are definitely living in a Mediterranean/North African type climate and thus should be played by people of those areas, but as far as I know the Martells haven’t shown up in the show yet? It seems a little presumptuous to criticize GOT for not having the Martells played by POC when they haven’t even been cast yet.

  • naturalhairads

    I definitely read this entire script on my lunch break! I thought it was brilliantly written and true to the characters. I could see and hear everything that you were describing. Thank you for sharing!

  • tereliz

    Erika, what a fun and enlightening script. Thanks for sharing it with us. Please write an episode of Walking Dead next. ;)

  • kayjay68

    To those who suggest Ms. Alexander should write her own shows, please check her web site, http://www.erikaalexander.com. To me what she is saying is I write and produce and create projects I want to be in, but let me show you how easy it would be to create an intelligent episode of this show that I love that would feature poc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Erin-Roberts/100003549284278 Erin Roberts

    At first I thought, “Oh God, fan fiction,” but I read it and it was amazing. I felt like I was watching an episode. I would love to see this story arc play out over several episodes; I can see Leon as a recurring character. So good.

  • http://www.facebook.com/julia.phipps.71 Julia Phipps

    I agree with Ms. Akins, instead of trying to create a place for yourself in a storyline that wants nothing to do with you, I say create your own story entirely. Create a story that incorporates people of color in that time, find historical figures of that same time period, (maybe someone who was working in a similar position around that time). Of course it easy to pose such a grand idea, and not as easy to bring to life, but that, in no way, implies that you are incapable of doing it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Johnlawsharrison John Harrison

    Not much of a Mad Men viewer myself, but I have to say, your classification of Game of Thrones as a show lacking in diversity seems pretty inaccurate. I understand this is beside the point of the article but my fanboyness has to take over here. There are tons of characters, minor, recurring, and major, who are portrayed by people of color in GoT. We have Xaro Xoan Daxos, the Summer Islander we met in season 2, played by Nonso Anozie, Salladhor Saan (Davos’ pirate buddy). Not to mention Khal Drogo, a pretty major character throughout the first season, who is portrayed by an actor of Native Hawaiian descent as well as many of the actors who play other Dothraki in his/Dani’s Khalasar.

    Now, I understand if by people of color you meant more specifically black people, but I’m just some guy defending the honor of a series that is pretty close to my heart and that I would think is far from being the typical whitewashed television programming.

    Anyway back to Mad Men.

    • Katherine Hunter

      Do you realize that you were just able to name off just about all of the characters of color on GoT? You said a ton of characters are of color and then you named off three characters. People of color = anyone who isn’t white. I enjoy GoT but it does lack diversity. Not even going to get into the fact that the Dothraki are savages…..

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neville-Ross/100002343524258 Neville Ross

        The question begs, why are you watching a show set in a historical period like Game of Thrones looking for people of color in the first place? I would think seeing it for what it is would be more important than for looking for people of color as characters in what’s primarily a fictionalized version of medieval Europe.

        What Ms. Alexander should be doing is creating her own show set in a past period (or one similar to Mad Men) and creating original characters that are dealing with that historical period and what went on in it.

        • Phillipus Franciscus Faxecura

          Game of Thrones is set in the magical world of Westeros. There are giants and zombies and dragons. Last season a shadow came out of a lady’s vagina and stabbed a guy. It is not set in a “historical period”. And POC existed in medieval times, dude. They didn’t suddenly appear in the 18th century or something.

          • q____q

            THANK YOU.

            I thought I had to write another comment countering this stupid line of arguments (Fantasy=Medieval Europe=No POC Whatsoevea!, which is wrong in ALL accounts) but you already did it, cool. Hehe, I’ve also used the shadowy thing coming out of a vagina example (sigh, this show/books are so damn stupid. And racist/misogynistic for that matter) when arguing with friends.

            I think I need to start collecting evidence in one place for POC in medieval Europe but this one should be enough for now:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmed_ibn_Fadlan

            Oh, just found this again:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oseberg_ship#cite_ref-7

          • Amelia

            To be fair to GOT, they are doing what they can when the source material focuses primarily on the fate of the throne of fantasy medieval England. The vast majority of the characters are Westerosi nobles and are interrelated. I can’t really think of a way to weave more POC into the Westeros-based, though I have been surprised at how many white people are shown as living in the other parts of the GOT world. I feel like the main fault for the lack of POC in fantasy lies not with any one particular work, but more with the genre as a whole for having so many of the stories focus on the nobility of medieval England.with magic.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neville-Ross/100002343524258 Neville Ross

            It’s up to POC to rectify that situation by writing more fantasy that has an African or Asian basis (the same way that Steven Barnes wrote the Dar Kush trilogy [Lion’s Blood & Zulu Heart] to rectify what he felt were deficiencies in science fiction and sideways history) and get it published.

          • q_____q

            While I’m totally in for going away from the overused medieval Europe-setting to explore other regions of the earth (N. K. Jemisin has done a nice job on this in her Dreamblood series, imo) I think it would also be awesome if we could just start including POC in the bloody medieval Europe setting.

            And I don’t think this is a job that has to be done only by POC authors. True, critics will be harsher if a white author does it wrong but especially in fantasy there is no reason for any writer with any background to write fantasy inspired by whatever culture. If you do a bad job at it you should be called out for it no matter where you are from, what your identity is but if I don’t get this wrong by your reckoning authors would only be allowed to write fantasy inspired by their background. Which is strange.

          • Amelia

            I’m with you on this. I grew up reading mostly YA fantasy, and from what I can recall, settings other than medieval Europe were common, as were main characters that were POC and I’m pretty sure that the majority of the authors I was reading were white American women.

          • q_____q

            Well as me and others have pointed out before there IS NO REASON to not have POC in fantasy-setting that inspired by medieval England because there where POC there.

            Look: http://jfml.eu/blog/black-vikings-poc-in-medieval-europe/

            I know, I know it would just look soooooo strange for all us brainwashed people (myself included) to have POC in a setting that’s not “exotic“ but hey, BBC Merlin (Guinevere!), anyone?

          • Amelia

            I didn’t mean to imply that I thought that there weren’t any POC in medieval England, and I apologize if it sounded that way. Of course there were POC there, but I haven’t come across anything that indicated that they were particularly common, or that they would have been able to marry into the nobility with any regularity. The only character I can think of in the westeros based storyline that could have reasonably been made into a role for a POC is Varyrs, although I’m not sure if that would conflict with descriptions of him in the books (and whether the shows creators were worried that fans would pitch a fit if they changed things about the a major character when the show was just starting). My point was more that GOT the tv show is not an original work, so to fault the show for its lack of diversity is to ignore the fact that it is an adaptation and limited by the source material in ways that an original work is not. It seems like going after the adaptation of a single work is to miss the point that the problem is the lack of diversity in fantasy works in general. To me it is as if a doctor is worried about treating my acne when I have cancer.

        • tereliz

          Even if it were set in Medieval Europe (not the imaginary land of Westeros, which has many continents and many more races than have been depicted on HBO), the history of non-whites in Europe during this time has been largely ignored. Not because there were no blacks in Europe, but because traditional European scholars did not find the issue to be of much importance. This “tradition” has impeded modern scholars’ attempts to find out more about people who have been ignored and erased from history.

    • http://princessunicornsparkles.tumblr.com platypism

      So we have Xaro Xoan Daxos (an exoticized, wicked man), Salladhor Saan (an exotified, morally dubious pirate who wants to rape the lily-white queen) and Khal Drogo (a “savage” who primarily serves as a plot point for Dany’s character growth). Let’s go ahead and add Syrio Forel (another exotified character who serves only to provide growth for a white character), Mirri Maz Duur (a “savage” and a witch!), Talisa (who is once again exoticized and again exists for Robb more than for herself), and the newly introduced Missandei (another exotic POC and newly-freed slave, though perhaps she’ll get more development than the others). The rest of the POC in the show are either Dothraki “savages” or prostitutes of varying ethnic backgrounds.

      While Khal Drogo may have a big role, he exists primarily to propel Dany’s story. And his is the biggest role of any POC in the cast, as he appears in some manner in a whopping 10 episodes total. Some of these characters, on their own merits, are great, but not one of them is a point-of-view character, and many of them exist primarily to help tell someone else’s story (if not for their bodies to be put on display, either for the purpose of violence or sex). Contrast this with the enormous cast of white people whose motivations play out clearly for us, who the narrative demands we empathize or hate or love them (or some mix of them all, because this is GoT we’re talking about), and perhaps you can see the problem.

      Nobody says you can’t love Game of Thrones. I do. I think it’s a wonderfully written story full of engrossing, complex characters. But I can still wish more of those characters were POC at the same time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Akins/694459632 Kim Akins

    Love it! But the hell with Mad Men. Sell your own show. Harlem in the 60′s and the new professional class.

    • Miles_Ellison

      Good idea. The problem would be finding an audience for it.

    • UrbanWhim

      Even George Lucas had a difficult time getting funding for Red Tails because as he put it, “It features an all black cast.” And he’s George Freaking Lucas.

      • Joseph

        Seeing as Red Tails didn’t get the production cost back, that seem a wise decision in hindsight. Don’t get me wrong I think Red Tails was good and it was brave to make it, but it was fundamental a vanity project by Lucas and people knew it. If people want to have a all Black cast, they should lower the production cost, so that the movie make money, not throwing as many money after it as if it were a “mainstream” movie.