Adam Sandler’s comedy has looked dated for a while, even as he has moved into new forms of distribution in the form of a multi-picture deal with Netflix. On Wednesday, that foray into new media ran into trouble when a group of Native American actors and the cultural adviser for the project walked off the set of Sandler’s first project for the streaming service, a Western parody called “The Ridiculous Six,” arguing that their advice had been disregarded and that the project was proving more insulting than satirical.
As my colleague Soraya Nadia McDonald reported, Netflix is standing by Sandler and the project, telling her: “The movie has ridiculous in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of — but in on — the joke.” The walkout comes at a critical juncture: Native American actors have very few opportunities in film and television. But in an environment of increased scrutiny, if companies such as Netflix want to convince audiences that actors of color are in on these sorts of jokes, they also have to sell the actors on the idea that those jokes are worth being part of.
The decision to quit “The Ridiculous Six” is particularly fraught and risky, given how few roles Native American actors get to play in Hollywood.
The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found that Native American actors got less than 1 percent of the roles on either broadcast or cable television during the 2012-2013 season. Just 0.4 percent of characters on those shows were Native American or Pacific Islanders. Web programming, often touted as an alternative way for actors of color and women to create their own content and to catch the notice of larger entertainment companies, didn’t exactly provide much relief: Native American actors and characters were as underrepresented there as everywhere else.
And when those parts did exist, they weren’t exactly meaningful.
“It’s worth noting that not only did Native characters account for the smallest share of characters but they were also the least prominent in terms of scene time, a mean of just 196.5 seconds per episode/appearance (about 3 minutes and 17 seconds),” the report’s authors wrote.
It’s one thing to walk away from a production that you think is abusive, a project that has been misrepresented or a situation where your technical expertise is being misused if you have other opportunities. It’s something very different, and altogether braver, to do so when you know that even a degrading opportunity might not come again.
But there’s power in that decision, too. By refusing to play parts they found degrading, actors like Loren Anthony and David Hill are leaving Sandler, his producers and Netflix in a difficult position. Will they try to fill the roles with other Native American actors, trying to convince them to take on work that others have deemed destructive? Or will they be forced to use white actors in racial drag in the roles, making them the butt of jokes that previously would have been directed at people of color?
No matter what decisions Sandler and Netflix make, Anthony and Hill have laid down another marker for all the actors that follow them. Regardless of what mainstream Hollywood might say, some opportunities aren’t worth taking.