Why I Wrote a Mad Men Episode With Negroes by Erika Alexander

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Why did I write an episode of Mad Men with negroes? And by that I mean with “negro” characters in it, not with.. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyway, why did I write an episode of TV that I know will never be made? Though I work as an actress and have pitched and sold a television series or two in my time in Hollywood, I’m not a writer on Mad Men, so this episode won’t appear anywhere but here. Why, then? And why negroes? Aren’t we finished with all that? In honor of Season 6, let me tell you about it.

I like Mad Men. A lot. I like the subject matter – advertising; I like the cast – Don Draper is hot; I like the look – sexy Eames meets Op Art; I like the writing – Matthew Weiner is a storytelling beast. I love the writing.

I have only one issue with Mad Men (ok, with a bunch of shows, but let’s stick with this one): I’d love to see more diversity. I’m a black actress, so diversity is an issue that comes up for me. A lot. Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, Girls, Veep, these are cool shows, except for the fact that they would really rock with more people of color, series regulars or otherwise. I complain, wtf?.. and bemoan, WTF!.. but alas, for all my years in TV, I’m not able to make a difference in my own living room. Or am I?

I needed to find a different way to contribute to the conversation, to answer the constant refrain from show creators that they don’t want to just “shoehorn” black characters into their shows. Lena Dunham has said “Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting”. Ok, don’t write in a token character, write five or ten great characters of color.

To be fair, Matthew Weiner has addressed this issue. “I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America… I’m very proud of the fact I’m not doing this guilty thing.” 

Respectfully, I believe a storyteller has permission to imagine and create unusual situations in his or her fictional world to tell a larger truth. But I get it, race is complicated.

So, I decided to apply my creative powers to writing an episode of Mad Men. I tried to incorporate the “difficult other” organically into the storyline. For me, it was easy. Mad Men is set in New York City in the 60’s. Those times were all about race. It was the defining issue of the 20th Century. I was born in the mountains of Arizona, but as a writer I don’t have a hard time imagining black and white on Madison Avenue. My husband worked as a black art director in advertising agencies both mainstream and “black-oriented” and my father-in-law was a pioneering black executive in the 1960s. I merged the two and brought the mountain to Mohammed. My Don Draper goes Uptown and meets his match. The show already had good bones, I just put some dark meat on them.

Here it is. It’s called MAD-MEN-UPTOWN-SATURDAY-NIGHT (shout-out). The script won’t be made, but I hope to demonstrate that it can be done, and that iconic TV characters can play well with “others”. Here’s a summary:

Don Draper finds he needs a Negro agency to help him land a big account. When he heads uptown to vet one, he discovers that his Harlem opposite number has been taking lessons from him and is more than a match for his Madison Avenue cool.

Enjoy. Let’s keep the conversation going. Let me know your thoughts. Xx. e.

ps. The Mad Men illustration by Brian Sanders was remixed by Tony Puryear.