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Claire Tierney is a Staff Writer for The Hudsucker, and in her spare time she may be found hiking around Washington, bonding with her cat, or enjoying a fat sandwich. Claire is currently working jobs that utilize her impeccable customer service skills while she works towards achieving her dreams, whatever those may be.

Breaking Down Blackness in “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

[Image Credit: Netflix]

[Image Credit: Netflix]

By now most of us surely have The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s catchy theme song stuck in our heads. I personally can’t stop thinking about the opening credit’s star Walter Bankston, played by Mike Britt. His character is a send up on the “hilarious black neighbor” meme that has continued to crop up over the years.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

If you don’t know this meme by its name, you know it by its notorious stars. Perhaps the most famous example is Sweet Brown, who narrowly escaped a fire in her apartment building and famously exclaimed “Ain’t nobody got time for that” on the local news. People latched onto this now-infamous line in droves. This cultural reference transcends age, race, and education; society truly came together to laugh at this woman after she barely survived a fire.

This trend of quirky neighbors is undeniably racist and classist. Its stars are almost always black, and they are almost always lower/working class. Yes, there are exceptions, but these exceptions are nowhere near as famous as Sweet Brown, Charles Ramsay, and Antoine Dodson.

Many believe that the meme’s popularity is connected to society’s unconscious desire to see black people perform, which is exemplified by The United States’s long history of minstrelry and black performativity. I think we can agree that Charles Ramsey’s fame is not because he heroically rescued three kidnapped women, and that Sweet Brown’s fame is not because she is the victim of a fire. Instead these people achieved fame because people laugh at them and their presumed ignorance.

Tina Fey, who created the show, and Jeff Richmond, who oversaw the show’s music, turn this meme on its head in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Walter Bankston’s eyewitness account of Kimmy Schmidt’s release from the underground bunker is autotuned a la “Hide Your Kids”. Richmond actually worked with the creators of Songify the News to auto-tune the theme song. Bankston’s account is less a telling of events and more of a commentary about how “white dudes hold the records for creepy crimes” and how “females are strong as hell”.

30 Rock, Tina Fey’s previous show, was often criticized for how it engaged with issues of race. The show-within-a-show was self-aware, and in the mid 2000’s a simple acknowledgment of these issues was considered subversive, regardless of whether the show actually dealt with them. In the 30 Rock Episode “Alexis Goodlooking and the Case of the Missing Whisky”, Kenneth has a conversation with another white man about how asian characters are underrepresented on NBC. An Asian man briefly comes on screen to agree with him before being shooed off screen by the two white men. Here Fey acknowledges the issue of under-representation by depicting it in microcosm, but she doesn’t actually do anything about it. Her show never had any major asian characters before or after that episode.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt engages with these issues more acutely. The show’s creators don’t shy away from Bankston’s blackness, nor do they shy away from his working class status. The non auto-tuned interview is available for viewing on Youtube, where Bankston appears in front of his trailer. He begins his interview saying he “was just cutting up bike tires for his grandson”. He is wearing a do-rag and a ribbed white tank top, and he speaks in African American Vernacular English (though this is somewhat lost in the autotuned interview). Walter Bankston is clearly a working-class black man.

The show racializes Bankston without making his blackness the joke. We are laughing at what he says, but we aren’t laughing at him. He is funny, and that gives him agency. This sense of agency is heightened when he returns later in the season. He shows up at Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s trial to give Titus sage advice about fame and how it will catch up with him. Titus shrugs this off, and in the final moments of the season his estranged wife shows up. Walter Bankston ends up being right; the last shot of the show is of Bankston wordlessly tipping his hat to Titus. This silent exit leaves us wanting to know more about him.

Where 30 Rock had a tendency to fumble issues racial issues, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is more aware.  I would love to see Fey engage with these issues more, I think the result would be more complex characters of color.

In a show full of ridiculous characters of various racial identities and socio-economic classes, Walter Bankston ends up being the voice of reason. He gets the first word, and he gets the last word.

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