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Did Netflix Just Capitulate to Elon Musk's 'Woke' Criticism?

Antiracist Baby
(Image credit: Kokila)

Netflix emerged as a powerful corporate voice for social justice nearly two years ago in the wake of George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police, moving $100 million of cash into Black-owned banks, hiring high-profile Black executives, including former CMO Bozoma Saint John, and green-lighting a number of projects aimed at progressive education for kids. 

"To be silent is to be complicit," Netflix wrote in a May 30, 2020 tweet, delivered just five days after Floyd's murder. "Black lives matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up."

Netflix tweet

(Image credit: Twitter)

But as Netflix adopts a recessionary mindset in the wake of its growth deceleration and Nasdaq collapse, sending expensive talent like Saint John out the door, and with loud voices on the far right, including loquacious future Twitter owner Elon Musk, attributing Netflix's sudden struggles to its alleged "woke" agenda, the streaming company's once refreshing post-George Floyd era of cultural progressiveness appears done. 

Certainly, Netflix also has to be watching closely as its media-business peer Disney suffers retribution from grudging far right lawmakers in Florida after inadvertently wading into the culture wars itself.

This week, Variety reported that Netflix is scuttling a planned animated project from producer and social activist Ava DuVernay, Wings of Fire, as well as an animated adaptation of race scholar Ibram X. Kendi's best seller, Antiracist Baby, a recent target of the far right in its quest to leverage political power over what it has effectively branded as an election-year boogeyman, "critical race theory." 

Confusing smoke signals have emerged from Netflix's Los Gatos, California headquarters as for the reasons for the cancellations, which were reported the same day that Netflix laid off 150 employees, a move the company tied directly to its Q1 revenue shortfall.

Quoting unnamed inside sources, Variety said the shows were scrapped for creative reasons and not business rationale. 

However, as Gizmodo reported Wednesday, many of those who received pink slips from Netflix Tuesday were technically contract workers, spread  across diversity-focused social media channels set up by Netflix. These included the Black community-focused Strong Black Lead (opens in new tab), Latinx-themd Con Todo (opens in new tab), Asian American-based Golden (opens in new tab), and the LGBTQ-focused Most (opens in new tab)

The layoffs were put into a bucket that Netflix directly attributed to the economic slowdown in company statements. 

Next TV sent an email query to Netflix press reps Wednesday, which was not immediately responded to. 

Was Netflix feigning economic hardship to meekly duck out out of the culture wars? 

Whatever Netflix's reasons, the scrapping of the two shows, the layoffs and several other moves give the appearance that, at least circumstantially, the company is pulling back from a bold agenda, and perhaps even capitulating to critics like the feckless Musk, who on Wednesday declared his own election-year allegiance to the GOP

Notably, on Monday, Musk -- who had earlier blamed Netflix's recent struggles on "woke mind virus" -- praised Netflix for changes made to its internal "Culture Memo" position paper. In its revision, Netflix says it won't censor its artists, such as the controversial Dave Chappelle, telling employees who have a problem with that policy that they might consider working someplace else. 

That message, of course, seems a far cry from a declaration that "we have a platform and a duty to speak up..." ■

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!