Michaela Coel turned down Netflix’s offer because she recognized her worth. She questioned the ways they planned on exploiting her and found a better plan.
People always say to “know your worth.” “Recognize your value.” “Stand in your power.” “Don’t settle for anything less than you deserve.” But this always turns into a public debate when the person recognizing their worth is a Black woman. This is an issue globally, really, but it seems to be hyper-true about Black women in Hollywood.
Michaela Coel recently reminded us of this when she publicly revealed via Vulture that she turned down a one million dollar deal from Netflix for her newest project, I May Destroy You—which eventually found its home at HBO and BBC One. And though Netflix appeared like they were ready to open their purses wide, a determined Coel questioned their entire process and was surprised to find out that she wouldn’t have been able to own any kind of percentage of the show that she created.
The show that is her story.
So. I actually find this story very interesting. And mainly for two reasons. Firstly, besides the sheer audacity of Netflix trying to pull this (while recognizing how unethical it is), it’s also a good reminder of the fact that Netflix has been shady with other Black women in the past too. The primary example of this remains, to this day, Mo’Nique. Mo’Nique was very upfront about the bullshit that Netflix was trying to sell her, insultingly offering her a meager $500,000 for a comedy special. When we know that Netflix has been more than willing to give heftier checks to other comedians…who just so happen to not be Black women. Obviously, lots of people, including Charlamagne from The Breakfast Club (blech), tried to play her like she was simply just “bitter” and “difficult.” But other Black female comedians, like Wanda Sykes, would eventually co-sign her experience, detailing how they were also offered even lower amounts of money from Netflix.
The second thing concerns how Coel bravely navigated the whole situation is how simple her approach was. Sure, she probably recognized immediately that the deal she was being offered was horseshit. But what struck me the most about it is that it was Coel, not her representation, who got Netflix themselves to explain exactly why the deal was a no-go. And she did it by playing up the fact that she was ignorant of the process. Like, she was very unafraid of looking foolish and naive in front of those executives and got them to explain word-for-word the ins and outs of the deal. Which eventually let Coel know every reason why she shouldn’t take it.
See? It was a brilliant move. And one I think most of us might not have considered because of that “afraid to look foolish” aspect. Still. I imagine it was still stressful because of how walking away from such an offer would look. Besides being pressured by her representation, CAA Agency, to take the faulty deal, Coel talked about feeling “crazy” in regards to how skeptical she was about the deal:
“I remember thinking, I’ve been going down rabbit holes in my head, like people thinking I’m paranoid, I’m acting sketchy, I’m killing off all my agents,” Coel says. “And then she said those words to me, and I finally realized — I’m not crazy. This is crazy.”
And of course, the opposite proved to be true when the Netflix executive she spoke to implied that she was right to ask questions:
“There was just silence on the phone,” Coel told journalist E. Alex Jung “And she said, ‘It’s not how we do things here. Nobody does that, it’s not a big deal.’ I said, ‘If it’s not a big deal, then I’d really like to have 5 percent of my rights.’ ” Silence. She bargained down to 2 percent, one percent, and finally 0.5 percent. The woman said she’d have to run it up the chain. Then she paused and said, ‘Michaela? I just want you to know I’m really proud of you. You’re doing the right thing.’ And she hung up.”
There’s a bunch of things we can take from this story if I’m being frank. But the one I’m personally going to keep in mind is that both Coel and Mo’Nique showed us—through their experiences with Netflix—that we should never feel “crazy” for questioning people’s intentions. And questioning all the ways they plan on mistreating us in the name of it being “just business.”
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