When Community – which is one of my favorite sitcoms and which I’m slowly realizing might be favorite show period – first came onto Netflix, I started a series of posts where I’d review every single episode of the series. I’ve gotten sidetracked, and I’m still working on a review of episodes 11-15, but I wanted to take a second because there’s been an episode of Community in the news recently.
Often lauded as one of best episodes of the series, Season 2 Episode 14, titled “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” tells the story of the characters as they play Dungeons & Dragons with Neil, a nerdy and borderline suicidal student who gets bullied for his weight. Many of the main characters (who are part of a community college study group) participate to make Neil feel better, but the game is crashed by “Pierce the Insensitive” who seeks to derail and oppose the party. He antagonizes Neil and the study group, leading the characters on an emotional journey that leads to Neil realizing life is worth living. It’s a wholesome episode and shows each of the characters at their best. The YouTube channel tylermsc has a great 10-minute video breaking down on why it’s one of the series’ best episodes.
As mentioned, this specific episode has now found itself in a bit of controversy. In the episode, Ben Chang plays Dungeons & Dragons as a Dark Elf, also known as a Drow, and passionately introduces his character as “Brutalitops, the Magician,” He “dresses up” as this character by painting his skin navy blue, a Drow skin color. One of the Black characters in the group, Shirley, refers to this as a “hate crime,” and Chang clarifies that he is a Dark Elf.
Because of this, following suit with Tina Fey’s removal from streaming of episodes of 30 Rock which used blackface, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” has been taken off of Hulu and Netflix. Other sitcoms such as Scrubs and The Office have also had their episodes removed. The removal of “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” has been more criticized than these other shows, but certainly less criticized than episodes of Golden Girls, which were removed because the characters made facial mud-masks.
Many people online are arguing that “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is a bit of a different scenario than what we’ve seen in The Office and 30 Rock – in the episode, Chang isn’t pretending to be black, he’s pretending to be Drow, and the idea of Blackface is mocked – by black characters – as being offensive. The butt of the joke isn’t Black people, it’s blackface.
Among fans of the show and anyone familiar with the episode, I was hard-pressed to find people who were in favor of taking it down. Most of the responses recognize that this isn’t really blackface, it’s… drow face? Dark Elf face?
Again, it doesn’t go unremarked by the characters in the show. Shirley refers to it as a hate-crime and no one else really seems very comfortable it. In 2019, during a panel with some of the cast, Alison Brie mentioned that “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” was her favorite, and even jokingly accuses Ken of using blackface – and for what it’s worth, the only black member of the panel, Yvette Nicole Brown, laughs during the whole thing. While that isn’t necessarily an endorsement, it would have been the perfect opportunity for her to say something if she felt compelled to. (That panel can be found here and they talk about the episode at the 23-minute mark; I tried to find comments from YNB on Twitter, but she hasn’t said anything specific about the episode.)
And we have to wonder where American priorities are – we want real change. You can take Aunt Jemima off syrup, get non-white voice actors to play characters of color on The Simpsons or The Cleveland Show, and make other relatively minor changes to popular culture and entertainment, but what Black Americans want is *actual* policy reform. I could actually bring myself to care about who voices Cleveland Brown if first we arrested the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor. I could actually bring myself to care who’s on the packaging for Uncle Ben’s rice if we ended qualified immunity. “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” was removed from Netflix before Breonna Taylor’s murderers were charged or we got any real policy change from the Executive Branch (a weak and flimsy executive order notwithstanding) – and that really boggles my mind.
I’d be remiss in not pointing out that, obviously, entertainment executives and government officials are two different groups, and the presidents of Sony and Netflix aren’t making the laws about police reform. But every day now, there are brands doing things that feel exceptionally hollow.
Just as I was writing this post, my friend sent me a tweet from a comedian showing what they purported was a press release from Jersey Mike’s Subs. In the press release, Jersey Mike’s proudly announced that they’d be changing the BLT sandwich to a BLM sandwich for one day – yes, the press release is fake, but there was a split second where I desperately found myself asking, “Are they serious? They can’t be serious!” (To reiterate, this is fake and Jersey Mike’s had nothing to do with it.)
As I said in the intro, Brutalitops the Magician’s skin isn’t explicitly black – it’s clearly navy blue. That makes me wonder where Netflix would draw the line. Will they need to take down the episodes of Arrested Development in which Tobias paints his skin blue to be a part of Blue Man Group? Speaking of which, will the Blue Man Group even be able to perform?
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the episode isn’t just one of Community‘s best, but also that the episode is ultimately very wholesome. The whole narrative tension comes from a character who wants to commit suicide, and then ultimately decides not to through the power of cathartic role-playing games. This episode is basically the fantasy-RPG equivalent of It’s a Wonderful Life, with Neil coming out the other side with a greater appreciation for life. Overall, I would say that the episode’s impact is a net-positive.
While I think use of blackface can be harmful, I don’t know that this constitutes blackface or harm. That being said, I recognize that other people might feel differently. If you were offended or even mildly upset by “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” and Brutalitops the Magician, I would love to hear your perspective. The comments on this blog are always a judgment free zone, and I think that starting a dialogue about race and media is crucial.
Thanks for reading. Remember, Black Live Matter, and any day is a good day to arrest Breonna Taylor’s killers.