Since the late-May murder of George Floyd and the massive worldwide Black Lives Matter movement that boiled over from it, we’ve seen many in the entertainment industry declare intentions to make change to do better on diversity and inclusion. Performers have been called out for blackface, while shows like 30 Rock, Community, The Office, Little Britain, and w/Bob and Dave had episodes taken out of rotation due to blackface or racial overtones.
And now it seems the issue made its way to animation. Most notably in the past, The Simpsons was met with a large amount of criticism for the depiction of Apu, the character who owns the Kwik-E-Mart, as a stereotype voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria. This was something that was dragged out for years as an issue, including being the basis of comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu, and it wasn’t until February of this year that Azaria announced that he wouldn’t be portraying Apu.
On Thursday Jenny Slate, the voice of Big Mouth’s Missy, announced on Instagram that she would no longer voice the character. “At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play Missy because her mom is Jewish and White — as am I,” Slate wrote. “But Missy is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people…In my playing Missy, I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.” This move was backed by the show’s creator, Nick Kroll, who apologized and expressed regret to casting a white actress in the role.
Kristen Bell, who plays Molly Tillerman on Apple+’s new animated series Central Park, also announced on she’d be leaving the role, stating “This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity. Casting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience.”
And that brings us to yesterday when Mike Henry, who has been voicing Family Guy favorite Cleveland Brown for 20 years now, announced via Twitter that he would no longer be voicing the character. “It’s been an honor to play Cleveland on Family Guy for 20 years,” Henry stated. “I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.”
It’s been an honor to play Cleveland on Family Guy for 20 years. I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role. pic.twitter.com/FmKasWITKT
— Mike Henry (@mikehenrybro) June 26, 2020
This was followed almost immediately by the news that The Simpsons would be making a change of their own in addition to the retiring of Apu. “Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have White actors voice non-White characters,” the show’s producers said in a statement. These characters include Azaria characters Carl Carlson, Officer Lou, and Bumblebee Man. Dr. Hibbert and Apu’s wife Manjula, voiced by Harry Shearer and Tress MacNeille respectively, are also slated to be included.
These shifts are not entirely surprising given the overwhelming calls and pledged for change in the industry. Hopefully the beginning of more progressive change to come.