Mo’Nique Is Fighting Racial Bias In Hollywood—Is Anyone Listening?
Money is power, and women aren’t getting their share of it. In America, men earn 20 percent more than women, and that disparity is even greater for women of color. Now is the time to close that gap—and these are the women doing it.
Mo’Nique, the actress and comedian known best for her Oscar-winning role in 2009’s Precious, has a bone to pick with Netflix. Earlier this year, the streaming service offered her a $500,000 deal for a comedy special. The actress felt slighted. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle booked similar one-hour stand-up slots $20 million a piece, and Amy Schumer booked hers for $13 million (renegotiated from $11 million, which she felt was unfairly low, when compared with the men’s offers). But when Mo’Nique responded by calling for a Netflix boycott, citing gender and racial bias, the Twittersphere went quiet—some ridiculing her claims.
“You know, when I called for that boycott, there were folks that said, ‘That's extreme.’ And let me be the first to say: I agree,” Mo’Nique tells InStyle. “However, isn't inequality extreme? There are times when you have to meet extreme with extreme.”
The Netflix ordeal didn’t happen in a vacuum, she explains. Mo’nique, who made her name on The Parkers and with her hit Showtime special Queens of Comedy, says she faced racial and gender bias from the beginning. In 2009, though, with an Oscar in tow, a BET talk show, and interest pouring in, her success had reached its peak—but sharply declined after a disagreement with Precious director Lee Daniels. According to the actress, she was blackballed in Hollywood after refusing to travel to make press appearances for the movie. Mo’Nique has been criticized for this move, by Whoopi Goldberg among others, but she had fulfilled her $50,000 contract for a movie that grossed over $63 million worldwide—and she wasn’t being offered additional cash to campaign on its behalf.
Mo’Nique was quickly labeled “difficult to work with” (“If a man told you you need to get your shit together, he's a leader. If a woman does it, what is she considered? A bitch,” she quips), and on top of facing limited roles for black women in film, she began to see lower and fewer offers roll in.
Mo’Nique points to the unanticipated success of Precious as proof itself of racial bias in Hollywood. Initially, she claims, Lee Daniels told her that he expected the film to flop because people had said, “Nobody wants to see two fat, black women on the big screen.” Her response now? “Those two black women helped that film make $63 million on just 1,000 screens.”
Netflix, Mo’Nique says, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She recounts the conversation Netflix had with her husband-manager Sidney Hicks when they told him the $500,000 was based on what they thought Mo’Nique would bring in: “Sidney said, ‘Well, based off of Mo’Nique's resume and pretty much everything that she's done, it's been number one.’ ‘Well, we don't base our deals off resume.’ So [Hicks] said, ‘Well what is it that you base the deal off of? How did you get to Amy Schumer's number?’ ‘Well Amy sold out Madison Square Garden twice, and she had a hit movie in 2017.’ So my husband then said, ‘Is that not Amy Schumer's resume?’” The conversation went quiet, Mo’Nique says. Netflix—whose offer also stipulated, among other terms, that Mo’Nique would not appear in other comedy specials during a one-year period and not use the material in the program for a two-year period—declined to negotiate further. (A Netflix representative said "Netflix does not comment on contract negotiations.")
Of her decision to go public about the failed negotiations, Mo’Nique says, “When people say, ‘You shouldn't have done that,’ I ask them, ‘Well, what is it that you suggest? For me, calling for the boycott was saying it's time that we are really, really heard.”
Many fault Mo’Nique’s husband, who has butted heads with multiple filmmakers, for her career’s downturn. Others have responded to Mo’Nique’s call to action by pointing out that she may not have the relevance today that Schumer or Chappelle do. After all, Schumer and Chris Rock’s Twitter follower counts are in the millions, while Mo’Nique’s—but also Chappelle’s—is in the hundred-thousands. The only celebrities who jumped to her defense were Chance the Rapper and fellow comedian Wanda Sykes.
But Mo’Nique isn’t satisfied with those answers, especially after Sykes revealed that she was offered her own Netflix comedy special for $250,000. “I was offended but found another home,” Sykes wrote on Twitter, thanking Mo’Nique for speaking out. “So then you ask the question,” says Mo’Nique, “What is the situation when it comes to women of color and Netflix? What is it about us that I was offered one twenty-sixth of Amy Schumer[’s offer]? Let me be clear: Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle deserve what they got. Amy Schumer deserves what she got. What is it about me and Wanda Sykes that we didn't get those types of deals? The only thing we can come up with is the color of our skin.”
“People will say it's the numbers,” Mo’Nique continues. “Well, when you start comparing numbers, they said Amy Schumer had a hit movie, Snatched. Snatched made $45 million in the theaters [domestically] on more than 3,000 screens. Almost Christmas, the movie that I was in, made $42 million [domestically on] about 2,000 screens. Snatched cost $42 million to make. What would you say their profit was? Almost Christmas cost $17 million to make.”
Mo’Nique has been experiencing the race gap for a long time—even if she didn’t know it at first, she says. “The black woman has been the lowest-paid on the totem pole. I didn't really understand it in the beginning, but I remember when The Parkers was a hit show.” After the success of the first season, Mo’Nique says she asked for a raise. The response? “‘Wait for next season.’ Well, when next season came, we were still [a hit, but the network said,] ‘We really try to wait for the third season.’ If you’re of color, the standard is to wait until the third season? There were times I just didn’t know what I was facing.”
Mo’Nique has watched Hollywood undervalue other black women too. “When you look at Forbes’s [Highest-Paid Celebrities] list, how come there are no black actresses on that list?" she says. "We don’t deserve to be on that list?”
Mo’Nique applauds women like Jessica Chastain, who helped costar Octavia Spencer negotiate the same deal she got after finding out that Spencer was initially offered a much lower rate for The Help. “Well, first let me say: Jessica, baby, we salute you, because you were brave enough and courageous enough to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not fair, and what I can’t do is stand side-by-side with my sister in entertainment knowing she’s getting far less than me. If more of us took a position of saying, ‘This is not right,’ then it would be a better place.”
It’ll take that kind of collaboration to close the race gap, Mo’Nique says, urging men, too, to “speak out and speak up.” On the part of producers and studios, she says, it’s time for movies with predominantly black casts to stop being designated as low-budget films. “Don’t keep accepting ‘This just has to be a low-budget film’ when you have Academy Award winners, hot-selling actors and actresses—how come our films are always considered low budget?” she says.
Another proposal? Pay transparency. “Let’s start posting salaries and see. You saw Shonda Rhimes got a $100 million deal from Netflix—that’s amazing, right? But why did the white guy that did Glee [Ryan Murphy] get $300 million while Shonda Rhimes's resume exceeds his?”
Mo’Nique says she’s often been advised, “You should just be grateful that you got invited to the party,” an attitude she rejects. But she isn’t holding grudges about the limited public support she received during her Netflix standoff. She expected to stand alone, she says.
“I look at a picture of Hattie McDaniel”—the first black person to win an Oscar, for Gone with the Wind in 1939—“that I keep in my closet. I look at that woman and she looks back at me and says, ‘I already took the ass whipping for you all. The conversation that she was having is no different than the conversation that we're having today. One hundred years from now will we be having the same conversation?” Mo’Nique asks, adding, “I hope the little girl who’s not born yet doesn’t read our stories and say, ‘Wow, we still dealing with the same thing.’”