You’re likely familiar with Wendell Pierce from Amazon’s Jack Ryan and HBO’s The Wire. But if he has his way, he’ll be joining the long-running Fox shows, The Cleveland Show and Family Guy.
Now that Mike Henry has consciously given up the role of Cleveland,I am publicly starting a campaign to voice the role myself on The Cleveland Show. #WendellIsCleveland @TheClevelandSho @SethMcFarlane_ pic.twitter.com/Ux3F0uk1p6
— Wendell Pierce (@WendellPierce) June 28, 2020
The horrific deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of either police or lynch mobs, coupled with the frustrations from COVID-19, created an explosion of protests. Those protests have brought about a reexamining of issues facing people of color in America and around the world, particularly with regard to racism. As a result, every industry is coming to terms with systemic racism. Well, they are at least giving lip service to it in the wake of the recent protests.
When it comes to Hollywood, that examination is in the form of how representation matters in the executive suites, the writers’ rooms, in front of the cameras and behind the voices. Mike Henry previously voiced the character of Cleveland on Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, but recently stepped down.
It’s been an honor to play Cleveland on Family Guy for 20 years. I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role. pic.twitter.com/FmKasWITKT
— Mike Henry (@mikehenrybro) June 26, 2020
Henry isn’t the only one to bid farewell to a character of color that he portrayed. Other stars are either stepping away from playing people of color or disavowing roles they voiced. In the past week, we’ve seen Alison Brie (BoJack Horseman), Kristen Bell (Central Park) and Jenny Slate (Big Mouth) all announced that they will no longer play roles of people of color. In the case of Brie, it was an expression of regret for having played Diane Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American writer on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, which just had its last season air this year.
Will it be Different This Time?
2017’s The Problem with Apu was probably the last notable effort to bring attention to the issue of having people of color played by white actors in animation. While the film sparked a lot of conversation on the issue, the response from those in power was less than desirable. When the Simpsons got around to addressing the issue in 2018, they used the most outspoken firebrand of social justice on the show, Lisa, to break the fourth wall and ask what to do about something that’s now “politically incorrect.” This is the same character who bemoaned outdated and sexist phrases in her Malibu Stacy doll. Woof.
It took another two years for The Simpsons and Hank Azaria, the voice of Apu, to announce that he would no longer be voicing the character. The show has only just recently announced that they would no longer use white actors to voice characters of color. Prior to this announcement, Azaria was still voicing police officer Lou, black power plant employee Carl Carlson and the Mexican-American Bumblebee Man.
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The moves of The Simpsons and the aforementioned actors are largely symbolic, particularly for those voicing the character for decades. Hollywood may have a reputation as a liberal bastion, but they’re really the ones responsible for perpetuating a cycle of white men and women playing people of color, both in animated and live-action mediums. Increased scrutiny and racial sensitivity in the wake of the previously mentioned deaths may have a chance to make the change stick.
Yes, that’s right. Systemic change for some semblance of equality, or at least the promise of it, required literal death. Perhaps that stain will be what sustains the change. Symbolic gestures don’t mean anything without conviction, so here’s hoping those actors utilize their platforms to push for diversity and inclusion in the industry.
As for Cleveland, neither Seth McFarland nor Fox has publicly responded to Pierce’s tweet. We’ll have to see what Fox does next.
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