2017 Favorite: ‘Moonlight’

By Sameer Rao Dec 26, 2017

From the gifs that cracked us up to the books that blew our minds, your friends at Colorlines have some very strong opinions about the best of 2017. Today, arts and culture reporter Sameer Rao reflects on the greatness of the video for Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” directed by Alan Yang.

Jay-Z and “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang share one special quality: a knack for channeling personal dread into perceptive cultural critique. They push this trait to its critical peak with the Yang-directed video for “Moonlight," a track off of Jay’s Grammy-nominated "4:44."

Clocking in at over seven minutes, the "short film" re-imagines the notoriously White ’90s sitcom “Friends” with an all-Black cast made up of Issa Rae ("Insecure"), Lakeith Stanfield ("Atlanta"), Tiffany Haddish ("Girls Trip"), Tessa Thompson ("Thor: Ragnarok"), Jerrod Carmichael ("The Carmichael Show" and Lil Rel Howery ("Get Out"). It’s a nod to the far-funnier "Living Single," the Black ’90s sitcom that its star, Queen Latifah, recently accused "Friends" of ripping off. 

While the corny "Friends" theme song is replaced by Whodini’s classic of the same name, the actors match the show’s opening sequence shot for shot. Their dialogue comes from a real "Friends" episode, "The One Where No One’s Ready." The studio audience laughs on cue. 

With Yang’s direction and Mr. Carter’s funds, this fake version could get a real straight-to-series order from any streaming network. I’d watch it.

The most important scene in the meta-commentary begins when Howery breaks out of his "Black Joey" character to answer his phone. ("It’s an AMBER Alert; an Amber Rose alert," he quips.) The cast takes five. Carmichael, who is playing “Black Ross,” asks his friend visiting the set—Hannibal Buress—for his "100 percent honest" opinion of the show. “Garbage," Buress declares. "…It was terrible, man. This is wack as shit. Episodes of ‘Seinfeld,’ but with Black people?" "It’s ‘Friends’," says a dejected Charmichael. "When they asked me to do it, I was like, ‘All right, this is something, like, subversive, something would turn the culture on its head.’" Buress shoots back,"Well you did a good job of subverting good comedy." 

Their perfectly timed exchange hits on the fear of mediocrity that every creative professional understands. Hollywood racism amplifies this dread for artists of color who must always excel to receive a fraction of the industry buzz that their White counterparts do. Jay addresses this idea in “Moonlight” with a reference to the "La La Land" #OscarFail: "We stuck in La La Land/ Even when we win, we gon’ lose.

These lines play as Carmichael walks off set through a pathway and ends up in a park staring at a full moon. The video abruptly ends with the mistaken announcement that predominantly White musical "La La Land" had beat Barry Jenkins’ Black gay coming-of-age story, "Moonlight."

“Friends” wasn’t a very good show. It didn’t need to be to succeed and eclipse “Living Single” in popularity. But series with casts of color, including Carmichael’s own recently canceled NBC show, don’t have the luxury of being just okay. Their success depends on their ability to be both great and marketable to a predominantly White mainstream. ‘Hov called on Yang to illuminate this challenge with levity. Their combined perspective makes for the funniest and most insightful music video of 2017.

More of Sameer’s favorites:

TV Show: Tie: "Mr. Robot," "Master of None"
Movie: "Get Out"
Album: Take Me Apart,” by Kelela
Song: XXX,” by Kendrick Lamar, feat. U2
Book: A Beautiful Ghetto,” by Devin Allen
Podcast: "Serious Rap S**t"
Hashtag: #ActualAsianComicWriters
Creator: Aziz Ansari 
Meme: "Fuck Yo Statue"