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

mad-men-illustration-small

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.

65 thoughts on “Why I Wrote a Mad Men Episode With Negroes by Erika Alexander

  1. Pingback: Erika Alexander Pens & Shares Script For ‘Mad Men’ Episode ‘With Negroes’

  2. Ms. Alexander! I’m so thrilled to have found your blog. Welcome to the blogosphere! I’ve been a fan since your Cosby show days, and I’m always drawn to my fellow Girls High girls. But, enough fawning.:) About your post. I’m not a regular fan of Mad Men, but I’m certainly familiar with the dearth of black faces on some televisions shows. Do we need to be everywhere? No, but it would be nice to be acknowledged as existing. I like what you say here: “Respectfully, I believe a storyteller has permission to imagine and create unusual situations in his or her fictional world to tell a larger truth.” Yes indeed. Very entertaining post, and I like your writing style. After I finish writing MY blog for today, I’ll come back and read your script!

    • Fellow Girls High Girl Crystal, hello. Thanks for reading my first official blog post. I was intimidated by the vast universe of bloggers, so I appreciate your enthusiastic welcome. Yes, I’ve been in the biz a while now and I want to find a way to participate in a discussion about entertainment in the one way I know how, put something out there and see if it sticks. Thanks for helping me settle in. I’ll check out your blog and please let’s keep talking. Best. E.

  3. Ms. Alexander. This Mad Men script is fantastic. I was gonna write a request that you consider writing a script that is not of an existing successful program. Like an original piece that would have more black people/ minorities in it. More black women/female minorities. Maybe even science fiction! Then I logged out and googled your name and found your website and … BLAMMO!

    You’ve already done that. I didn’t know. Now I do!

    • Hello Kirkland – Thank you for reading my “Mad Men – Uptown Saturday Night” script. I’m glad you liked it and very happy you wrote me to say so. Yeh, Concrete Park is the sci-fi comic book I write and co-created with my husband, Tony Puryear and my brother Robert Alexander. Right now it’s in Dark Horse Presents. Soon, fingers crossed, our own title will be out. In the meantime, I have other projects out there that are meant to be larger platforms for my ideas about the world I see with all people of color, women, and differently abled characters. But at the end of the day I mostly hope to make a little bit of good entertainment.
      Thanks again. Please stay in touch. xx. e.

      • Although I hear posting a screenplay on a blog does nothing, I figure since everyone else is posting stuff on the web and making it, I figure why not I. I got a couple I’ve been looking to post that I worked on for TV shows that I never submitted to.

  4. Hello Erika,
    I came across this through a repost on Facebook. Awesome. Checkmate on all fronts. Glad to see your love for sci-fi and comics too. I work in advertising, while developing a graphic novel series. All the best on your upcoming project.

  5. We need Black, Latino and Asian television execs to develop and green light shows that reflect its evolving and diverse America. But tv execs have turned their backs and have made its shows “whiter” which causes me to question them. Mad Men a great show. But tv as a whole has a problem with color and they need to address it before they lose ALL their viewers.

  6. I found your note here, spot on and the script excellent. I will start by saying I love both you and the Mad Men brand & agree with your sentiments. I read a lot and have the same trouble with fiction. It is odd to me that there are diasporas on the planet whose tales have been wholly ignored by the mainstream, it is heinous and all souls live need to work to correct it. I agree with the poster above that only brown execs will make the strides and changes we need across all genres of entertainment, yet with the state of things in the US this does not seem likely. I think we need our own Everything. Forget trying to exist within their corporate structure, link up and build our own bases of power. It can be done and in the mean time I have to really pick and choose what images and words my little ones take in while trying to instruct them to have love for humanity, since only together can we move forward. Kickstarter is a great way to fund independent projects. I look forward to more of your work, I have posted this everywhere in the hopes that it will start a discussion. You are brave and wise yet we knew this from your work. Love to you. Peace

  7. Hey Erika!! It’s Cherene from “The Long Walk Home”!!!! Sooo happy to see this topic and discussion here!!! I have ALWAYS felt that way in general and that was my very thought when i watched Mad Men for the first time!!! We exist and WE are Great Characters!!! There is no World without us no matter how hard you try!!! Our lives are Normal, Real and Interesting just like anybody else’s life is!!! Realize THAT and we may be on to Something!!!! Peace and Blessings Sista’!!!

    PS: Check my blog when you get a chance!!

    • Cherene! How gorgeous are you? What a great time we had filming in Alabama with Whoopie G. Thank you for your comment. You, and other actors like you, are the reason I wrote it. I’ll check you out. xx. e.

  8. This is amazing. I work in advertising and have had a chance to work at a few black-owned and white-owned agencies. Unfortunately what you’ve depicted hasn’t changed since the time period of your script. You’ve done an amazing job at capturing the epiphanies, tension and commonalities of minorities in advertising. Thanks for writing this. Sold.

  9. Erika, this is GREAT, for a variety of reasons.

    1. simply put, you pulled together a great story. I enjoyed reading, you captured Mad Men perfectly, you get the characters, and it just WORKS. Could EASILY be a story line on the show.

    2. You are showing Matthew Weiner that he (and others like him) can’t keep making these excuses.

    3. You have shown that blacks CAN write for whites. because stories are universal. The Harlem plot line aside, you did great service to the Pete plotline with his daughter.

    4. The WAY you did it is awesome. Enough with the complaining, here is one way, just one way to do it. You leave people with nothing else to say, Erika.

    I salute you on your work. I had a lot of fun reading it. I hope your blog, and this post BLOW UP. Im going to pass it on to a few people.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. Pingback: — TV Tattle

  11. Pingback: Erika Alexander Stirs Controversy With New Blog Post “Why I Wrote A Mad Men Episode With Negroes” | Message In A Bottle – The Official Concrete Park Blog

  12. Just finished reading and all I can say is “WOW!!!!” Truly a great script Erika! I grew up watching you portray the strong Maxine Shaw, and loved you even more in “The Long Walk Home”.
    In short your script was inspiring! As a young writer myself, and a student of history, it was an amazing experience to read along as you EASILY reinvisioned our favorite SDCP guys in Living Color.
    Longtime Mad Men fan, and my friends and I always talk about the lack of diversity or even the addressing of major social issues for African Americans in the time period. Your prose demonstrates, that while we must respect writers for staying true to their vision, we must also hold them accountable when they use “white guilt” for lack of better words, to erase color from the canvas.
    Weiner is a brilliant writer who develops full characters, however, one has to question said writer’s talents when they are loathe to create characters of color, for fear of stretching the limits of their craft.
    Again, great script and I will definitely be checking out the new show! Congrats and best wishes!

  13. No question that you should request a meeting with the Mad Men people. Tell them you have the answer to increasing their “Brown Bag” fan base.

  14. Why not just create your OWN show instead of trying to be part of someone else’s? You make it seem like Black people cannot create awesome shows on our own. Black people need to shed this mentality that nothing is legit unless white people make it. Like Marcus Garvey said, “Up, you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will!” {{-_-}}

    • Dr. Ace – please google – Concrete Park and IMDB me. You’ll see I’ve spent my career creating and performing in projects that were designed to showcase people of color. This Mad Man script is an exercise meant to address institutionalized racism in Hollywood. I’m using a show that’s popular and respected to make my point. Creators of color can and do make shows of their “own”, but too many of those artists are dismissed and go unfunded by a powerful ideology that continues to stop progress. Thankfully, the rise of the internet helps all creators bypass that ancient system, but this article and script were made to provoke discussion and demonstrate to the Hollywood writing/producing community that their overall outlook in development and casting is too narrow. Sometimes to confront a giant you have to play by their rules and use their tools to disrupt a pattern. Thanks for your comment. e.

      • “This Mad Man script is an exercise meant to address institutionalized racism in Hollywood.”
        ^^^The best way to defeat institutionalized racism in Hollywood is to own your own stuff so that none of them can ever tell you what to do.

        “Creators of color can and do make shows of their “own”, but too many of those artists are dismissed and go unfunded by a powerful ideology that continues to stop progress.”
        ^^^UNFUNDED is the operative word here. Why would you seek funding from the very same people you say are practicing institutionalized racism? Fund yourself. You got Kickstarter. Go independent. Link up with some fellow Black entrepreneurial filmmakers and create an independent Black film studio. Then make your shows BETTER than Mad Men. Then Hollywood will be forced to see how narrow their overall outlook in development is: By watching us becoming way better @ it. The only way to confront a giant is to not only stop looking @ them as giants and also to become even bigger giants than they.

        “Power never takes a backstep; only in the face of MORE power.” ~~Malcolm X. {{-_-}}

  15. Erika, I see others have said the same thing, but I came here to say it. There’s way too much meat here for mere enhancement to Mad Men. Don’t pitch a script. (Not that you were going to). Pitch a whole show. The Mad Men technique of showing us people and situations we can identify with and then slamming us against the wall with something that has changed utterly is perfect for this. People would say it was racist, people would say it went too far, or not far enough, but people would watch it. And they might even think about it.

    It’s a harder sell because, as Emanuel B. says, things haven’t necessarily changed enough that the shocking racism would be as funny as the shocking sexism in Mad Men, and for the exact reason depicted in your script, that producers are scared of their product becoming “too black” and alienating white viewers. I remember the one scene with the elevator man and the television sets–and kept watching because that was an intriguing idea and I wanted to know more.

    But if you pitch something that speaks to the black experience in the 60s and you get a tenth of what you tried for, you’re still ahead of most shows.

    I’m also impressed with how well you nailed Mad Men just in general.

    And how stupid is this stupid urge to tell you what my race is, like it should matter to my opinion, or for your opinion of my opinion? Bah. I’m Klingon.

    • Hello Klingon – Cool name. Thank you for reading my new blog and script. I appreciate your note. I’ve been getting feedback and just wrote a response to a reader, Dr. Johnny ACE, that may have addressed some of the suggestions you made. I have a few pitches for shows with leads of color out now and we’ll see how things go with that. Buying and selling a show here in LA takes a vampires lifetime. In the meantime, I hope we can keep discussing interesting topics together.

      Best.e.

  16. Pingback: Why I Wrote A Mad Men Episode With Negroes | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  17. Ah, the age-old debate … should we reform from within the system or build a new system?

    I actually don’t see this as an either/or. I see this as more of an experiment. You try it one way, it doesn’t work and so you try it another way.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with erecting a bridge or attempting to shed light into the dark. And I also don’t think there’s anything wrong (or un-strategic) about trying to make something you already perceive as pretty darn good, even better. (Remember, Ms. Alexander is a fan of the show.)

    And when I say “I don’t see anything wrong” I mean I don’t see it as a cop out, or a sell out, or as an attempt to lick the crumbs falling from Master’s lap, or any or that stuff, or even as a bad idea. It’s an offering. A pretty damn good one, I think. We’ll see what happens.

    (By the way, was anyone else slightly creeped out that these two ad firms are forging an alliance to push booze in the black community? I thought that detail made the partnership a bit sinister, but in a good tension-enhancing way. Then again, I don’t drink.:))

  18. ^^^^ “This Mad Man script is an exercise meant to address institutionalized racism in Hollywood.”
    ^^^The best way to defeat institutionalized racism in Hollywood is to own your own stuff so that none of them can ever tell you what to do.

    We must not forget that the actors, actresses, artists and musicians of Color that are in “the industry” are pioneers in of themselves inside “the institutionalized system.” The actors of Erika’s generation have blazed trails in displaying a mosaic of characters of color across emergent medias and spectrums. Not only that, but many actors of color like Ms. Alexander have been/ still are working tirelessly to create more expressions and art inside and outside the mainstream media. While working on “mainstream” shows and mediums, many also own production companies and produce great films and even some TV shows as well.

    To assume that one can’t work within the system and outside it undermines not only these artists’ craft and ability, but the number of great independent films made by people of color every year that go unnoticed even by the majority of our people, because they aren’t “mainstream”.

    We must learn to value and support these films, these productions, so that those artists can continue making quality stories and films about our people–without outside funding our mediums. When the major industry realizes then sees that Black audiences support films with people of color, and independently produced, I’m sure the major Hollywood writers won’t feel “cornered” or subject to “white guilt” to write Black characters.

    The purpose and the point of Ms. Alexander’s “exercise” was to demonstrate, that it can be done, hence the term “exercise”.
    SMH.
    I think Gil Scott Heron put it best: “THE REVOLUTION…WILL NOT BE TELEVISED…”
    Clearly.

    • Hey, I’m not the one who was saying the system has institutional racism. Mrs. Puryear did. And if that is the case, why do you still wanna be in it? Time to quit trying to fix or change the system and create a new one just for us. If you feel that it’s “undermining your craft and ability” then apply it there and give us something to actually SHOW for it. You certainly don’t find it undermining when you’re using your craft and ability to make non-Black people rich. {{-_-}}

  19. My comment was totally not intended to imply that Erika should not submit episodes to existing series, just that the depth and strength of the material could support its own series. To me, the main theme of Mad Men was the huge change that gender roles have undergone in our society, with health and safety issues like attitudes to drinking, seatbelts, environmental and smoking tucked in as comic relief. It would have been a different show if they’d added in the black experience. But that show needs to be made. I hope one of the “hey people like the 60s” bandwagon shows that follow does go that way, and I hope Erika becomes a regular writer for them.

  20. Pingback: Why I Wrote A Mad Men Episode With Negroes

  21. Love the script! This would make a great Mad Men episode, and the partnership in the story opens up all sorts of interesting dramatic possibilities. (And as a fan I could imagine Don saying he didn’t need this agency and that they needed him, which of course was b.s. or he wouldn’t be sitting in their office.)

    That you were able to do what Matt Weiner basically declared impossible reminds me that when whites say that being inclusive can’t be done for some reason or another, they haven’t pushed themselves to find answers beyond their own experiences or their own social and professional circles. That’s true, of course, for the matter of inclusiveness for many groups and communities. Being on the privileged side of unbalanced power doesn’t lend itself to humility, which is necessary to understanding that we don’t know everything.

    @Dr Johnny Ace: “Time to quit trying to fix or change the system and create a new one just for us.” A familiar question of how to approach working for social justice. If that “for us” means for African Americans, I certainly can’t argue against that, but I do think that both approaches have been beneficial, and work done within the system broadens the “us.” While the system is fundamentally flawed and heavily resistant to change, it has changed some, and many people have been touched by stories they’d never have heard any other way.

    • Tracy, thank you for your thoughtful note. I appreciate you reading my “Mad Men-Uptown” script. Your thoughts about these issues helps us all to progress and discover ourselves. Best. e.

    • “Being on the privileged side of unbalanced power doesn’t lend itself to humility, which is necessary to understanding that we don’t know everything.”

      You hit the nail on the head here! Very well said. I find that lack of humility stops a whole lot of good stuff from happening in many aspects of life. I’m not in the entertainment industry, but I’ve spent years in business (and well, entertainment IS a business, right?), and it’s all the same. “We know what we’re doing, and it’s working fine. Run along now.” Meh.

  22. I appreciate your statement of intent and applaud your ability to craft a reasonable response to a growing problem in modern media, the exclusion of people of color. It is clear your craft is of the highest order, showing both an appreciation of the show as it exists and making a possibility of a world where we are able to represent ourselves with as much dignity and class as they show themselves having.

    I happen to believe America is not only for White Men in Power. Without the efforts of all of the People of Color whose labor built this nation, they would have nothing to stand upon or crow about. We should not have to create a “separate but equal” nation. Why should we? WE BUILT THIS ONE!

    Thank you and I will be keeping an eye out for your writing. Well done, my sister, WELL DONE.

    • “We should not have to create a “separate but equal” nation. Why should we? WE BUILT THIS ONE!” – Ebonstorm

      Well said Ebonstorm. Thanks for taking the time to read “Mad Men Uptown Saturday Night.” And thanks for writing me. I appreciate it. It’s good we’re talking about this stuff. Best. – e.

      • Hannibal, my friend. Honored you read my script and even weighed in. I’m encouraged. Best. xx. e.

  23. I agree, if Mad Men were more inclusive, I would watch it; but the truth is that this show is like many other white/mostly white shows-I don’t know that I trust white people to write decent black characters, they seem to have real difficulty doing so (unless the character was initially written for a white character, but is eventually played by someone black). This is just my observation as someone outside of film/television. Black characters are generally written as cardboard cutouts, so it only makes me wonder, who are these white people? Do they have an issue with seeing people of color as people-complex and multidimensional, worthy of full consideration? Which only makes me question value of the entire hollywood project…So, I would rather see someone of color write a decent script, then go see that movie or tv show. I feel that odds are greater that I’ll be entertained and not insulted. To that end, if in the off chance your script is utilized on the show/you are contacted about writing for the show, please let us know-I would love to host a viewing party.

    • Anna – Thank you. A viewing party, huh? Wow.
      That’s a goal I can try to reach. Oh, lord I feel tired already!
      Take care.
      x. e.

  24. I’m a fan of Mad Men, but have been a little disappointed in it lately. Just read your script — it’s better than anything they’ve aired in season 6. Wish they would produce it!

    • Tim – Thank you for reading Mad Men Uptown Sat Night. I appreciate your time and wonderful compliment. Best. e.

  25. Weiner needs to put you on the writing staff. That script was brilliant. You hit all the grace points that make Mad Men a great show and you still took it to task for its myopia. Love! Keep up the great writing.

    • Miranda – Thank you.
      That’s a hot compliment, because as I said, Weiner and his writers are some of the best to ever do it.
      I’ll keep keepin’ on.
      Best. xx. e.

  26. Let me start by saying,why is that we always seem to want to fit in this Caucasian world. The fact that hollywood never gives us these roles is because they don’t want to. Black women always want to be down with them. They don’t care anything about you except for sleeping with you and exploiting you. How is that if we make an all black show we are racist,but there not. Ericka I would have dug it if you just used that effort and create your own show. Finance it your self employ some creative black directors and camera men,Editors come up with something that tells our story with out them. We seem to always need them to come to our rescue. I have no interest in what a white business man from the 60′s does,because quite frankly I am sure he does not care about any blacks unless he is sleeping with one. We keep looking for others to tell your story ,why would they Ericka it does not benefit them. It also further pushes the white male supremacy agenda. White man always saving the world on film. When in truth he is the one exploiting everyone and subjecting all races and objectifying his own women and others as well. America is full of many different races but yet 90%of television is white. Sister you and a lot of black women want to belong to this establishment and be problack it does not work that way. If you really want diversity create your own. Instead of making fantasy scripts to ease you non exceptance in to the white mans world.

  27. Amazing! I’m a TV blogger and I’ve wondered about the race questions surrounding “Mad Men” for a while. While I agree that tokenism is something that could be a problem, I agree that given the time and place of this show, it should pull in diversity and not just the “token hippie” and other counterculture figures. Dawn had only a brief light shone on her this season with her friend in the diner, but we haven’t seen anything to follow that up. This screenplay fits in with the show perfectly, in my opinion and was really entertaining to read! I feel like I just watched a “Mad Men” episode.

    • Claudia – Thanks for reading Mad Men Uptown Saturday Night. I appreciate your comment and compliment. Xx. e.

  28. A brilliant script on many levels. Exquisite and nuanced. Addressing the issues of race/ethnicity, female/male dynamics, father/child and the angst of being a human being with developmental issues……..I enjoyed the moments with the black muslin brother, the witness sister and the polar opposites.

    On a personal note my dad was in the navy during world war II as a member of the black sea bees. He ended his naval career as a store keeper in charge of a supply center.

    I met you at the screening of ‘La Mission’ at the castro theatre. We had a conversation about Kali and her mantra ‘om krim kalikayeh namaha’.

    anyway…hope to see the script come to fruition.

    lo todo dice, philmore’

    • Hello Philmore, how are you? Thanks for reading my script and the compliments. I’m glad you enjoyed it. What good fortune that your father was actually in the navy ‘stores’. My father-in-law was a Sgt. in Patton’s army driving supply trucks in Europe. Small world huh? “La Mission” was a fantastic experience. I’ve stayed in touch with so many cool people in the bay area and I am thrilled you reached out. Thanks for reminding me of the mantra. The fierce Kali will always be one of my spirit guides. Here in H-wood she is needed! xx. e.

  29. Pingback: MAD BLACK MEN

    • Congrats to clever blog Mad Black Men. Thanks for featuring Mad Men Uptown Saturday Night. Bon Voyage! Check it out. e.

      madblackmen.tv/?p=25

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