Five Questions With 'Mad Black Men' Creator Xavier Ruffin
In just a few weeks, Matthew Weiner's acclaimed "Mad Men" will premiere its seventh and final season on AMC -- but before that happens, a young filmmaker named Xavier Ruffin aims to put the black back into the '60s advertising scene with his new online series "Mad Black Men." The satirical show takes a comedic jab at "Mad Men" for its representation of African Americans -- or rather, lack thereof -- and aims to shed light on the real and untold roles of being black in the "Mad Men" era. It launches today on Dailymotion.com.
A son of drug-addicted parents and homeless during a part of his youth, Mr. Ruffin has been known to beat the odds more than a few times. As a bright and talented teen, he was accepted into a pre-college program to pursue his artistic goals, and went on to receive a BFA from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Shortly after, the 26-year-old designer and filmmaker was contacted by a Dailymotion exec who saw his work on music video spoofs via YouTube and worked for the company as a preferred content creator. Last year, he earned backing from Dailymotion to launch his series through the company's Motion Maker's Fund Grant, which allocated $50,000 across 13 winning projects.
Ruffin describes his life as the classic "model of rags to riches, but just without the riches yet."
Ad Age spoke to him about his new project.
Ad Age: What inspired you to start the web series?
Mr. Ruffin: This show is a direct response to Matthew Weiner's comment, that "there [were] no black people in advertising." Mr. Weiner may be misinformed or he may be ignorant but either way he is wrong. There were more than a handful of African Americans working in all sorts of capacities on Madison Avenue during that era. As a designer I wanted to be a fan of "Mad Men" like all of my colleagues, but I couldn't get past its representation of blacks during the first season so I just left it alone. That is Matthews Weiner's artistic expression and I'm cool with that. Artists should have the right to paint whatever picture they want. However, once I saw him being confronted on the lack of blacks with meaning on his show, and he gave that cop-out of an answer, I just wanted to offer up some "counter" art. So I resurrected an old sketch idea I wrote in 2011 for a grad school application and made a show that paid homage to some of those hard working Black ad executives and copywriters of the '60s. The point of our show is just to poke a little fun at the situation but try to keep the mainstream a little more honest.
Ad Age: How did you get backing from Dailymotion?
Mr. Ruffin: I was already a Motion Maker for Dailymotion.com. That means I am a preferred content creator, much like a YouTube partner. While I was at my first SXSW in 2012, I ran into Romain Thomassin who is now the director of creative content at Dailymotion USA. I gave him my elevator pitch on the project and he loved it. A few months later Dailymotion announced its first Motion Makers Fund Grant and Romain encouraged me to submit my idea. So I wrote my one page proposal and mailed it in back in January 2013. By the time SXSW 2013 came in March, I received a call telling me that Dailymotion wanted to screen my work at the festival in honor of being selected as one of their Motion Maker Fund winners. Fast-forward a year later, just before SXSW 2014, we are getting ready to premiere our first episode.
Ad Age: As a parody of "Mad Men," how closely were you trying to emulate the show's style and how did you go about it?
Mr. Ruffin: We wanted to stay pretty close and make it more of a "dramedy" rather than a flat out "Naked Gun 33 1/3" style parody so that "Mad Men" fans would feel some familiarity while watching it. It wasn't easy at all achieving the "Mad Men" aesthetic when we had literally less than 1/1000 of that show's budget. But, we had a great team. I was lucky enough to find some local Mid-Century Modern enthusiasts, Matthew Amman and Bethany Michaels, who donated their time and personal collections to help out. We spent hours and hours scavenging Habitat for Humanity Restore centers and following up on Craigslist posts. Our wardrobe department wasn't even a department so much as one awesome lady, Michelle Gill, who helped find boutiques and tailors to lend us suits and dresses for the cast. I tapped a good friend of mine, Daniel Fleming, who is a prolific painter in our area for all of his spare artwork to hang on the walls. I personally walked through almost every building in downtown Milwaukee looking for potential locations to film since we couldn't afford to build a set. One day I walked into the City Center Building and asked if we could borrow the vacant 10th floor for a month for free and for some reason the [management] said yes! And our director of photography, Bennett Litton, helped create some great shots to help us finish the look. It took a whole lot of good ol' fashioned networking.
Ad Age: You say Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men" misrepresents African Americans within the ad industry of the 1960s -- how so?
Mr. Ruffin: It's hard to misrepresent something when you don't give it any representation in the first place. A lot of folks took issue with the lack of depth in the show's few minority characters. That wasn't my gripe. I get that the show is written from a certain perspective, where Black America wasn't a priority so Black Americans took a back seat in the story. My gripe was with painting this white-washed picture of the industry and calling it truth when it is actually just an interpretation. In 1962 Georg Olden, a black man, was hired as a vice president at McCann Erickson. McCann Erickson is mentioned often in "Mad Men" as one of Sterling Cooper's main competitors and they almost buy Don's firm at one point. Matthew Weiner and company could have easily written an episode where Georg and Don cross paths and talk shop, if they wanted to show a man of color in a powerful position without fear of it being unrealistic. Georg would have been equally as popular as Don, if not more. He was so high profile he even appeared on TV and designed the Clio Award that Don wins in season four. Again, Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men" isn't misrepresenting African Americans in the ad industry as much as it's avoiding them. I think the [creators] feel that if black ad execs start popping up on the show then their stories will have to be about race instead of the usual infidelity, alcoholism and identity crises.
Ad Age: In terms of viewer response, what are you hoping would come out of this?
Mr. Ruffin: The main goal is to inject some color into this perception of the advertising world. There was and still is a diversity problem plaguing the industry, but to say that people of color don't exist in advertising is not true and is not fair to those who've worked hard to earn a spot in the business. I want to give a nod to black advertising greats like Georg Olden, Clarence LeRoy Holte, Tom Burrell and Caroline R. Jones while following the follies of fictional characters as they struggle with identity. I want to change some of the attitudes out there about why there are not many black ad workers and copywriters in the "Mad Men" universe and get rid of the "they didn't exist" argument. And if we can find a new audience who appreciates our work maybe this could develop into something bigger and better with a more traditional budget.