Netflix – treat your black customers with the respect they deserve | Lanre Bakare

By promoting their shows with bit-part black actors, Netflix is distorting the truth about Hollywood diversity

Cynical but essentially harmless? Or another instance of unacknowledged racism? Claims that Netflix’s algorithm has presented some users with “racially targeted” promotional images for films and TV shows has caused consternation among some – and shrugs from others. Does it matter if a tech company uses data to tailor a user’s experience? Isn’t it a handy corrective to the entertainment industry’s inherent bias?

Netflix has said there isn’t a case to answer, insisting that it doesn’t “ask members for their race, gender or ethnicity”, so therefore it can’t use that data to personalise its service. “The only information we use is a member’s viewing history,” it added. But the fact remains that a user who enjoys watching Spike Lee or Ava Duvernay films are more likely to be shown ads using black and brown actors to promote a film or TV show, regardless of their prominence in the production.

The truth is that Netflix has created an intrusive, blunt, and at best, clumsy tool. It’s OK for a streaming service to use your previous history to suggest shows or films you may like. Personally, I find that Netflix suggestions are usually in the right ballpark. But unthinkingly shoving a black or brown face in advertising materials is misguided in a number of ways.

First, viewers are being lured into watching something on a false premise. As much as I might want Chiwetel Ejiofor to be the lead in Love Actually, he isn’t. He’s a minor part of an ensemble. Martine McCutcheon has a bigger part than him. As a viewer I’d be pretty annoyed to find out either of those facts after investing more than two hours. Second, and more importantly, it gives a false idea of diversity in Hollywood, suggesting a never-ending stream of films and TV shows with black and brown leads. That’s not how it is.

The film industry has often used the same tactics for different ends when advertising films with large black casts outside of the US. The most egregious example of this in recent years was the 12 Years a Slave campaign in Italy. The studio decided to advertise Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film about the real-life story of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and enslavement by using an image of Brad Pitt, who is barely on screen but just happens to be the most well-known white actor in the film.

The curious thing is Netflix does have a growing collection of films starring people of colour. Bright, Nappily Ever After, The Incredible Jessica James, Burning Sands, Step Sisters and Mudbound are all projects that have benefited from Netflix investing in black talent.

It would have been great for Netflix to curate a month of great films starring or directed by people of colour for Black History Month. That would have been a progressive and daring move. Instead, we got the news that one of its biggest black-led shows, Luke Cage, was being cancelled – and now we discover that Netflix uses a crude tool to “serve” its customers.

It says a lot about the way people of colour are seen by some companies: homogeneous, simple and easily pleased, rather than the complex, demanding and cultured consumers that we are.

“Netflix doesn’t know you,” wrote Stuart Heritage in 2015 when the idea of an all-knowing algorithm was still relatively new. “Netflix is an automated system governed by a crude algorithm. It doesn’t know that you like long, contemplative walks in the park. It doesn’t know that you regularly donate to charity. It can’t see into your soul.”

It’s true, it really can’t. And it needs to change if it’s to truly serve its diverse customers.

• Lanre Bakare is the Guardian’s TV editor


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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