Updated Jul 3, 2023, 8:33am EDT
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Why Netflix quietly shelved an anti-racist video project

Michael Buckner/Variety/Penske Media via Getty Images

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The Scoop

Amid the turmoil after George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020, Netflix sought to address racist depictions in its film and television library in its own, particularly on-brand way.

Some entertainment companies, like Amazon, had added disclaimers before television shows like Mad Men and movies including Borat. Others, like NBC Universal, removed episodes of television shows that included blackface.

Netflix, by contrast, sought to expand its successful nonfiction series “Explained,” produced by Vox Media, into that sensitive space.

In early 2021, the company contracted with Vox to create a series of videos that would run alongside movies or television shows featuring racist or stereotypical caricatures. The videos would explain topics like the use of blackface and “yellowface” in Hollywood, as well as the depiction of native Americans in classic films and westerns.

The task fell to Vox Creative, a brand studio within the media company that aims to “influence audiences from a position of truth and purpose, and to build a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming brand experience,” according to its website.


More than two dozen Vox staffers and post-production contractors worked on the videos, which were regularly shared with Netflix executives for notes and feedback, according to two people who worked on the project.

But as the political climate cooled — and corporate racial justice initiatives faced a growing backlash from the right — the project lost steam. First, Netflix told producers that the short videos should be pieced together into a lengthier explainer on race on screen.

Earlier this year, Netflix killed the project.

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Max’s view

Netflix did not explain its decision to kill the project to the people who worked on it, and didn’t respond to an inquiry from Semafor.

But the decision represents the latest retreat by a major brand away from the social justice messaging many companies adopted in the wake of Floyd’s death in 2020.


Over the past several months, a number of prominent companies have caved to backlash from conservative groups around LGBTQ messaging. Anheuser-Busch cut ties with trans model Dylan Mulvaney, and put the marketing executives responsible for bringing her on as a spokesperson for Bud Light on leave following massive anti-trans backlash. Target pulled items from its Pride line following complaints from the right.

Advertising and marketing executives have conceded that there have been consequences for brands from highlighting issues like race, sexuality, and gender identity. Last summer chief brand officer at Procter and Gamble Marc Pritchard told an audience at Cannes Lions that advertising had “gone too far into the good” at expense of commercial goals. This year, Semafor reported that organizers of the advertising industry’s top awards ceremony quietly advised jurors to steer clear of granting awards based solely on politics and advocacy in favor of focusing on more commercially-minded campaigns.

And while many large, mainstream brands are loath to admit that they’re responding to social pressures, staffing reflects shifting priorities. Quietly, a number of companies have laid off, fired, or seen executives leave who were brought in to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. Just last week, Netflix announced that its head of inclusion strategy was stepping down in September, while Warner Bros. Discovery said it was laying off diversity executive Karen Horne on Friday amid restructuring.

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Room for Disagreement

Netflix declined to comment on the move, but the company’s business requires it to serve a broad swathe of people around the world, and its executives have been unusually blunt about the compromises that entails.

“We’re not in the truth to power business, we’re in the entertainment business,” then-CEO Reed Hastings told Andrew Ross Sorkin in 2019.

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  • “We’re programming for a lot of diverse people who have different opinions and different tastes and different styles, and yet we’re not making everything for everybody. We want something for everybody but everything’s not going to be for everybody,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos told Maureen Dowd in the wake of a controversy over comedian Dave Chappelle.