Even though the creators of Friends say they didn’t intend to create an all-white cast, Gabrielle Union says differently.
Atlanta Black Star posted a resurfaced clip of Union from her 2017 interview with Free Library of Philadelphia talking about her time as a guest star during the popular ’90s sitcom’s seventh season.
They disrespected GABRIELLE UNION??? Yet another reason why Friends is bad, and if you like Friends please understand that I respect you less. https://t.co/WVwGOK4NM2
— Kiyah (@itsorokuro) June 1, 2021
Her experiences while on set contradict what co-creator Marta Kauffman said about not intending to make a fully white cast. Union’s experiences were documented in her 2017 book, We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True.
Union relayed how some Hollywood executives would continue to treat her as someone new to the industry despite Union already being an established actor. “That dual consciousness though is what prepares me to then do an episode of Friends after being on City of Angels,” she said. “When they’re like, ‘Nikki or Gabby, do you know what a mark is?’ Yeah, I’m an actor. Didn’t have to audition for this job, because I was just on a hit show on CBS.”
Fans quickly took to Twitter to discuss how Union’s experiences resonated with how they felt about the show’s subliminal racism. One user wrote how she noticed that in one scene where Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Ross (David Schwimmer) were both fighting over Union’s character, they then had a similar situation of fighting over a monkey.
I liked Friends, but I did notice subliminal messages, that seemed racist. Gabrielle Union was on one episode of Friends. Her character was pursued by Ross and Joey. At one point, all three were at a restaurant. The guys were arguing over her. Then the men argued about a monkey.
— Monique11 (@adoringtay) June 1, 2021
Friends recently had a reunion special on HBO Max. Before the reunion, Kauffman talked to the Hollywood Reporter about her regrets about the lack of diversity.
“Back then, there was no conscious decision,” she said about the casting. “We saw people of every race, religion, color. These were the six people we cast. So, it was certainly not conscious.”
Friends executive producer and director Kevin Bright said that the casting was, at the time, reflective of his experiences in New York.
“It’s important for today’s shows to be reflective of the ways society truly is,” he said. “But for our experience, the three of us, that may have been our experience when we were young and in New York. But we didn’t intend to have an all-white cast. That was not the goal, either. Obviously the chemistry between thesee six actors speak for itself.”
Bright also flippantly said, “I don’t have any regrests other than hindsight. I would have been insane not to hire those six actors. What can I say? I wish Lisa was Black? I loved this cast. I loved the show and I loved the experience. I know Marta has a different feeling about it. I think it affects us all.”
He also said that there are “different priorities” today and that “so much has changed” in the media regarding diversity. “There was no social media when Friends was on the air. Can you imagine what every episode might have been like if it had to go under that scrutiny every week? You might not have gotten the whole series.”
What Kauffman and Bright, specifically, are discussing without realizing it is unconscious bias in casting, as well as unconscious discrimination in the industry at large. Cast members of Living Single, however, have talked about the racism they faced from the industry as an all-Black show. Their show was actually the precursor to Friends, but Friends was more fully backed by the industry than Living Single, which was only marketed to Black audiences. Friends, on the other hand, was marketed to the mainstream.
“The difference between Friends and Living Single is one of marketing and skin color,” said Erika Alexander to Shadow And Act in 2019. “What does Paul Mooney say? ‘They have the complexion for the protection.'”
“If you were on a show with a Black cast you weren’t seen as a show with a Black cast, which is how I like to see it. They saw you as a Black show. So they would often put you in a cultural ghetto. That would undermine any sort of ambitions that you might have to grow the show beyond its locked-in demographic,” she said. “I’m saying we should have gone beyond that. And I think it was just a lack of imagination and people who left money on the table.”
Alexander also spoke about the discrimination she felt from the industry regarding Living Single in an essay response to David Schwimmer’s statement of wanting an all-Black Friends to get produced in the future.
“You see, David didn’t realize that the so-called, all Black Friends had already happened,” she wrote. “In fact, I was in it. A sitcom I’m proud of, called Living Single, created by Yvette Lee Bowser. And we happened a year before his show, Friends, was on the air. In fact, Living Single had happened within the same studio, Warner Brothers, in Burbank, on the annexed lot near his called The Warner Ranch.”