In Hollywood, every actor inevitably has a rebranding moment. When the wrinkles on the once desired performer’s face becomes unfashionable, the next maneuver by their trusted handlers is to carve out that next next lane. It’s how Alec Baldwin went from the dramatic edge of Glengarry Glen Ross to the self-caricature of 30 Rock. How seemingly every actress must face that oft-dreaded transition from sex symbol to “Mom Role”. Like actors, America itself gets repackaged when its image is tarnished.
Today, we are actively watching a rebrand. The immediate fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic revealed America’s gig economy to be built on incredibly shaky ground. Now Americans of all walks of life are asking themselves: “ can Capitalism REALLY protect us?”. Many are concluding that they’ve been hoodwinked by those who told them to believe in the hope of sea change driven by the genius of our market. Small business owners have found their livelihoods on the brink, while rank-n-file workers are forced to risk their lives in order to make ends meet. Further, the recent executions of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and others reignited the force of a large segment of America that felt unprotected long before we could envision a viral pandemic giving us this terrible new normal. This perfect storm has put our very system in question. It begs us to ask ourselves, why are we in a life on loop? Same shit different toilet? What happened to the promise of representation matters and hashtag activism?
The brand has lost its luster. The viewers no longer buy the premise and the show’s ratings have plummeted. So, what does America do? Well, they craft a new show. And this show's theme? Justice. But a kind of justice driven by rebranding.
Jersey City, where I reside, is a classic gentrification story. The historically working-class area largely consists of Latino Americans, but has now become a playground for a new crop of yuppies. Businesses here have been carefully cultivated to cater to the newer, more affluent constituency. This constituency has never looked to connect with the working-class inhabitants of the area. Soaring prices only help to drive them out. The yuppies and the businesses that serve them fear the uprisings against state violence inflicted upon Black people as much as anyone. They are very aware of the parasitic nature of their existence. They know that their way of life largely depends on the death of what existed before. The honorable move would be to surrender their spoils—but there is no honor amongst thieves. So their tactic is rebranding.
Rebranding is why the white yuppie cheese shop near my home, which replaced the corner grocery serving the working-class community, decides to hang a “Black Lives Matter” poster on their window. This poster is not a reflection of their anti-racist activism; it is a shield, a way for those who need to surrender their spoils to protect themselves from ever having to. Those big, yellow “Black Lives Matter” letters are not painted on sidewalks across America to protect Black life. They are here to give you confidence that our elected decision makers are arbiters of justice. The state believes in rebranding over recreation because branding is our existence in 2020 America. The “everyone is a brand” narrative is as pervasive a thought pattern there is these days. Not by replacing the American dream but making it the most necessary part of the toolkit in achieving it. The state knows it must rebrand to survive. They will construct any runway show they can to do just that.
Daniel Snyder, owner of the now Washington NFL Team, an unapologetic racist who on more than one occasion dismissed any question of the offensiveness of the team's former name to the Indigenous American community, has now decided to bend and change. Years of Indigenous activists working tirelessly to eliminate the team name and logo could never sway him. But when a major team’s sponsor like FedEx, which holds a lucrative naming rights contract with Snyder, threatens to sever ties, Snyder has all but realized for the sake of his business, that he must make some concessions. One could feel inclined to credit FedEx, but if you take one small step of additional thought, FedEx has undoubtedly watched corporate America’s rebranding effort and has understood it must step in line. They couldn’t be outdone by Quaker Oats retiring Aunt Jemima, or white voice actors in Hollywood giving up roles of characters they portrayed that were non-white people. They needed to outdo Netflix, Amazon Prime and any other streaming services' sudden curation of Black content (some of the names of curated sections hit levels of high comedy). Outdo every “We think Black Life is important” email you got in your inbox, from every corporation that somehow got your email and you don’t know how. Outdo the empty gesture of accountability that these corporations - whose internal practices when it comes to racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination have been in question for nearly as long as they’ve been in the public eye - have barely addressed in any substantive way. They will rebrand, maybe even retool, and remix only if they can keep the same rhythm, that factory line legato. It’s a performance branded as activism that our structure sees as necessary for its survival right now. Not for the survival of victims of this country’s barbarism, but of the facilities that give corporate America dominance over our lives.
But this isn’t where the performances stop. Raging against performative activism has also become a performance in itself. It is fashionable now for our most socially mobile to decry about our superstructures’ lack of good faith attempts at recompense in order to position themselves as the necessary handlers of how proper justice will be served. But once positioned with silly titles like Diversity Officer or some long absurd phrase that possess the word Inclusion, their attempts always seem to follow liberalism's favorite model: programs. As a Black Filmmaker I know these all too well. The solution given to my Black Leftist self to find ways for the Film Industry to embrace the art I envision, is for me to go to a Diverse Directors Program to find how to make my work more “ready” for the Film Industry that was built under a discriminatory framework that doesn’t value my visions in the first place. The absurdity of it all is so loud that one can be driven batty from the fact that so few people seem to hear how wretched this tired song is. These corporate institutions never have to change; they only have to give those who historically don’t fit in more opportunity to learn how to conform.
What does this tell us? That our fight for life must include a fight against the very mechanisms that sell us solutions via its duplicitous techniques. Synder changing the Washington NFL team may not redeem Synder (and it shouldn’t), but the incredible amount of capital Synder, the NFL, and FedEx have accumulated from the soon to be defunct racist brand will never be spread back to indigenous communities and their people. To even question that it should be will be deemed absurd because of the notion that justice was served by deracializing the brand. Mike Henry can cease to voice Cleveland from Family Guy, but will he choose to cease to collect the residual income from 20 years of voicing the character? You probably answered that question before you finished reading the entire sentence. And while in New York City, Mayor DeBlasio pushes for another street to have Black Lives Matter painted on it, he will continue to dismiss with flippant ease, calls to defund the police. It may feel good to watch a Football game and have one less sports team engaging in racist cosplay, but feelings aren’t evidence of material change. And inspiration can be used as pixie dust to prop up charlatans. Look at our last two U.S. Presidents.
The rebranding is just getting started. What we must do is not be so easily sold. Once our government deems this pandemic to be “behind us”, in the name of rebuilding they will call upon these “progressions” as evidence that this nation is worth saving. That Black Lives Matter painted sidewalk will be the bargaining chip to convince you to continue to buy in. But me, well, I don’t have any chips left to use, this gamble called American life got ‘em all. And I see my opponent for who it is, a manipulator who needs my faith to survive. And what I’m coming around to is an understanding that if my faith is that valuable to them, it must have a power that I greatly underestimate. So I ask myself (and encourage you to do the same), what if we put our faith in people instead of brands? In action rather than slogan? And acted brave enough to let the institutions that routinely fail us to die the death they are trying to avoid? Would it be so bad? Our imaginations deserve more than to be locked to their survival. Maybe in imagining their demise we can make room to envision a new possibility. I don’t think we have much to lose if we give it a shot, and at the very least it has the potential to be more entertaining than the rerun of this sorry program we are living in now.
It is time we reject the rebrand. Accept the death in order to embrace a rebirth. What we get might be unpredictable, but at the very least it will come from us, not a machine that uses our faith to survive.
Monthly Column by Mtume Gant