Seemingly misrepresenting white-led films with custom thumbnails of minor black characters
It’s no secret that our online lives are dictated, at least in some part, by shady algorithms nowadays. Well, Netflix is at least fairly open about the way it directs viewers to certain films, explaining in a 2017 blog post their process of artwork personalisation and how it, “could find the best artwork for each of our members to highlight the aspects of a title that are specifically relevant to them”. Good Will Hunting, for example, would be represented by a picture of romantic leads Matt Damon and Minnie Driver for romance fans, or one of Robin Williams for comedy fans. Convenient. But now users seem to have spotted a slightly more troubling trend in the streaming giant’s personalisation techniques.
There have been claims that Netflix is misrepresenting the amount of racially-diverse representation in films to appeal to non-white audiences. Writer and podcast-creator Stacia L Brown raised this idea on Twitter, asking: “Other Black @netflix users: does your queue do this? Generate posters with the Black cast members on them to try to compel you to watch? This film stars Kristen Bell/Kelsey Grammer and these actors had maaaaaybe a 10 cumulative minutes of screen time. 20 lines between them, tops.”
Other Black @netflix users: does your queue do this? Generate posters with the Black cast members on them to try to compel you to watch? This film stars Kristen Bell/Kelsey Grammer and these actors had maaaaybe a 10 cumulative minutes of screen time. 20 lines between them, tops. pic.twitter.com/Sj7rD8wfOS— stacia l. brown (@slb79) October 18, 2018
The post is accompanied by a title image of the film Like Father: an image that contains the black actors in question, Leonard Ouzts and Blaire Brooks, and none of the principal cast. It may seem like a pretty logical step for Netflix to target those interested in watching films with, say, black actors in them, with films that also contain black actors. But it’s the misrepresentation of these characters’ screen time that has led to viewers feeling cheated.
“It’s beyond feeling duped,” Toby Aremu, a filmmaker, tells The Guardian. “Because if something is black, I take no offence in being catered to. I am black, give me black entertainment, give me more – but don’t take something that isn’t and try to present like it is.”
Tolani Shoneye – of The Receipts Podcast – has also expressed her distaste for the practice and the fact that, despite Netflix’s attempts to cater to a more diverse audience, it hasn’t succeeded in creating enough actual, relevant content. “There was 30 minutes of a romcom I ended up watching last week because I thought it was about the black couple I was shown on the poster,” she says. “I want to see those stories. They know I want to see those stories. Why don’t they just make more of them?”