Just a day after Saturday Night Live announced the midseason addition of Sasheer Zamata to the cast, and still weeks prior to her scheduled debut, at least one Hollywood critic was already scribbling an asterisk by Sasheer's name.
*Token, undeserving, diversity hire.
SNL's decision to cast a Black woman for the first time in seven years -- the fifth Black woman in the show's 39-year history -- was dismissed as a "discriminatory PR stunt," and an overreaction to a few "isolated complaints."
"If SNL standards were relaxed," the critic wondered aloud, "this special initiative is going to look misguided in retrospect."
I read the article and cringed. It's precisely this type of patronizing mentality from industry decisionmakers, who in 2014 are still largely lily white, that underlies Hollywood's continued undervaluation of both Black talent and Black audiences. It is an unacceptable status quo.
I, for one, plan to watch the show Saturday night for the first time in a long time, and will be rooting for Ms. Zamata in her major television debut. Although this young comedian will take the stage under a huge spotlight, I applaud Lorne Michaels and NBCUniversal's willingness to take an innovative approach to fill a critical void that their traditional casting process left empty for too long.
Back in November, we at ColorOfChange.org sent a letter to Lorne Michaels raising concerns about recent casting decisions, as well as SNL's history of problematic portrayals of Black women. We sat down with executives at NBCUniversal just before Thanksgiving to discuss those concerns in greater detail, share a representative selection of feedback gathered from our 900,000-strong membership, and open up a dialogue about the kind of example SNL can set for other television properties -- not to mention the broader comedic universe -- in committing to modernizing its hiring practices.
Weeks later, as rumors and pictures of midseason auditions began to circulate online, we were thrilled to learn from NBCUniversal executives that the innovative casting process they had undertaken in response to these concerns was successful in identifying not only a fantastic sketch comedy performer in Ms. Zamata, but two excellent comedic writers (LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones) as well. These are important first steps that should be applauded.
But rooting for Sasheer also means rooting for a writers' room that has struggled in the past with the line between satire and stereotype. As I tune in to SNL on Saturday, I'll be curious to see how the writers' room adapts and takes advantage of all the new comedic possibilities that this new cast versatility affords -- because while the spotlight may be on Sasheer for now, the pressure is still on those backstage to produce sketches that make us laugh, rather than cringe.