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Black players changed 'Big Brother' forever. Fans say the show can't 'tiptoe' around it

Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

When the unprecedented breakthrough the CBS reality competition series "Big Brother" had been building to all summer finally happened, it first appeared that the series would rush to mark the occasion.

The "eviction" of fashion entrepreneur Alyssa Lopez during last Thursday's live broadcast eliminated the final target of the "Cookout," an alliance of six Black contestants who had plotted to evict all non-Black competitors from the "Big Brother" house to carry out its master plan: ensuring that the show, which has been rocked by charges of racism and cultural insensitivity since its premiere in 2000, would finally crown its first Black winner.

"Big Brother" host Julie Chen Moonves seemed poised to single out a "historic moment" when, a few minutes after Lopez joined Chen Moonves for the traditional post-eviction chat, the host cut the discussion short and had Lopez escorted offstage, telling her: "What I'm about to say to America, you cannot hear."

But instead of elaborating on what made the moment noteworthy — the series' often fraught treatment of race, the network's successful pledge to diversify, its reality show casts even the impressive gameplay required to sustain a six-person alliance — Chen Moonves used the final minutes to hype upcoming episodes and a special previewing CBS' fall lineup. The show then switched to the "Big Brother" house as the gleeful alliance members celebrated their victory.

Throughout this season, the series' 23rd, Chen Moonves and producers have appeared to distance themselves from the Cookout's mission: Despite numerous opportunities to do so, neither Chen Mooves nor the show's announcer has expressly acknowledged the alliance's purpose of breaking the series' almost all-white streak of past winners.

Given that the Cookout is the show's most prominent storyline, longtime "Big Brother" observers say the decision to downplay this season's cultural dynamic and the Cookout's mission in the recaps and Chen Moonves' commentaries is a continuation of the series' thorny racial history — one that seems especially glaring as entertainment companies, CBS among them, pledge support for racial justice and to improve their record of diversity and inclusion.

 

"I don't feel that this production is equipped to deal with race," said Andy Dehnart, creator and TV critic of realityblurred.com, a website devoted to unscripted series. "They treat this show as a light, ridiculous fun show for the summer. I don't know if they know how to have a meaningful conversation about race, so they just avoid it."

Previous casts were predominantly white, and Black contestants in the past complained of being outnumbered, bullied and mistreated by white houseguests. Accusations of manipulation were also lodged against a producer.

That casting pattern changed this season after an order made following the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted last year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. CBS Chief Executive George Cheeks mandated that starting this year, the casts of unscripted shows must be at least 50% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color).

Longtime "Big Brother" fan Thane Montgomery said that, despite the casting shift, producers this season had not shown interest in showcasing the impact of the Black houseguests or the value of multiculturalism.

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