Culture

Hollywood is failing Mo’Nique

Does solidarity include black female comedians?

Culture

Hollywood is failing Mo’Nique

Does solidarity include black female comedians?
Culture

Hollywood is failing Mo’Nique

Does solidarity include black female comedians?

This past weekend, two highly-publicized interviews with Mo’Nique took Twitter by storm, setting off a debate about her worth in the entertainment industry. At the center of each interview was the comedian’s failed bid to negotiate a Netflix comedy special. According to emails she released on Instagram, Netflix offered the Oscar award-winning actress a non-negotiable fee of $500,000 for one special. The deal also included the stipulations that for a year afterward, Mo’Nique would be barred from negotiating any other specials — and for another year after that, Netflix would have the right of first refusal for her next comedy special. In that two years, Mo’Nique would also be barred from performing any material from the special elsewhere, or even use material from the recorded program in any of her other recorded endeavors. After that two years, she’d have to ask Netflix anytime she did want to use the material.

All of these terms she would have to keep completely confidential. In essence, this means that Mo’Nique would earn $500,000 — not a small chunk of change, but far less than the money handed out in other Netflix deals — but would be prevented from working for two years afterward, and would be beholden to Netflix for all of that time. In response, she called for people to boycott Netflix, which led to a wave of criticism, as well as much ridicule.

In her interview with The Breakfast Club, Mo’Nique and her husband/manager Sidney Hicks fielded repeated questions from the hosts as to why she feels she deserves a multi-million dollar deal. Mo’Nique cited her own long, successful career and referenced the deals Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Amy Schumer received from the streaming giant — $20 million, $60 million, and $11 million, respectively — to illustrate just how much of a lowball her offer was. The show’s hosts, who had previously declared Mo’Nique “Donkey of the Day” for calling for a boycott, cited business considerations, saying Mo’Nique may not be as large of a draw as she thinks she is. The Breakfast Club’s Charlamagne tha God even went so far as to say, “I think you’re using racial and gender bias which are actual real issues... to focus on something that you’re dealing with individually,” conveniently forgetting that underpaying black women has long been a systemic issue.

The hosts also brought up the comedian’s reputation for being difficult, which again cannot be divorced from historical biases against black women as “angry” and “hard to work with.” Mo’Nique faced similar criticisms in a February 22 appearance on The View. There, Whoopi Goldberg went head-to-head with the comedian, citing her refusal to promote the film Precious and campaign for awards season. Mo’Nique’s defense was that she was paid only $50,000 for the film, which went on to be a huge success, and was not required to promote the film through her contract. She’s hardly the first actress to avoid the distasteful process of shilling to get an award: Joaquin Phoenix called the campaigning “utter bullshit” and Anthony Hopkins called it “disgusting”, but neither have the resulting reputation of being “difficult.” Neither actor was essentially blackballed from the industry, either, for their refusal to play the game.

Together, the tense appearances illustrate the resistance Mo’Nique faces in fighting for fair compensation, even just among black people in her industry. Most shocking, however, is how few others in Mo’Nique’s field have come out to stand by her. A Mo’Nique comedy special may not justify the same price tag as one from Chappelle or Rock — the comparison to Schumer is highly debatable — but anyone who doesn’t think the proposed Netflix deal isn’t a lowball is kidding themselves, especially when they take a look at Mo’Nique’s past successes as a comedian people want to see. Her 2001 Queens of Comedy tour, which also starred fellow black female comedians Adele Givens, Sommore, and Laura Hayes, had 13 consecutive sold out dates. She has hosted the BET Awards three times, an honor fellow comedians Rock, Chris Tucker, and Leslie Jones have thus far only garnered once each. She was the first woman to host NBC's "Showtime at the Apollo", and many of the best seats at her upcoming Mother's Day show at the historic theater have already been sold. There's little reason for Mo'Nique to accept a deal that would potentially limit her earnings to $500,000 over the next two years — and yet, according to Mo'Nique, Netflix offered her no room to negotiate the price up.

The Time’s Up movement has drawn increased attention to calls for solidarity between women in Hollywood, and several other women in the industry — from Emmy Rossum to Robin Wright — have spoken out against their own pay disparities, to much public support. Despite the many non-famous people who have spoken out in support of Mo’Nique on social media over the past few days, Hollywood leaders have been remarkably silent. (Chance the Rapper is one of the few famous people to state he’s in Mo’Nique’s corner, but he’s hardly a Hollywood insider.)

Of course, no one is obligated to speak up for Mo’Nique. But in an industry where black women are constantly underrepresented, a co-sign from a colleague with more power and privilege can mean everything. In a time when when celebrities are racing to prove their wokeness, action has infinitely more value than generalized rhetoric against women’s treatment in the entertainment industry. When you’re a powerful white person in Hollywood, it can be done. Back in the 50s, Marilyn Monroe famously helped Ella Fitzgerald score a gig at a segregated nightclub. More recently, Jessica Chastain reportedly helped Octavia Spencer win a pay raise by entering negotiations with her jointly. Hopefully, more self-styled Hollywood activists will make a meaningful show of concern for what Mo’Nique is fighting for: the idea that black women’s credentials should be valued as highly as those of white women or men. But considering how few people came forward when her reputation as a “difficult woman” was cemented during the release of Precious I won’t hold my breath just yet.

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