Naturi Naughton stops for a minute and thinks, tossing around in her head the unique perspective that she has when it comes to reimagining the 1960s on network television.
The 27-year-old actress landed a starring role on NBC's much-talked-about — and highly controversial, depending on whom you're talking to — new show The Playboy Club. In the series she plays the lone chocolate bunny, the sexy, alluring dark-skinned vixen who's vying to be the first centerfold of African descent. Last season she also guest-starred on AMC's critically acclaimed series Mad Men, another show that goes back to a time that wasn't so bright for black folks.
"[The 1960s] was a progressive time in our country and for our people," Naughton says, taking a break on the set. So far they have shot five episodes and have already jumped into painting a stark picture of what life in the 1960s was like — all parts of it, she says. "When I think of the '60s, I think of a tumultuous time. It's a real time. I put it in perspective. [On the show] I'm this gorgeous, sexy, sassy bunny, but at the same time there's a world out there who doesn't see me that way. I just always keep that in perspective."
Not to say that her show — or Mad Men or Pan Am, a new ABC show that's also set in the popular era — is all gloom and doom. When most critics talk about the emergence of TV's nostalgic throwback to that time, the focus tends to be on fashion and aesthetics or sexual struggles and strides for women, and less about race. Part of that has to do with point of view, says Mekeisha Madden Toby, television critic for the Detroit News.
"On Mad Men you don't see any black advertising executives," she says. "You see them cleaning the office or running the elevator. Obviously, African Americans did way more than that. But it's told from a very specific point of view, and it's from a white male perspective."
The demand for these nostalgic shows is about more than entertainment, Toby adds, suggesting that white men might be longing for a look back at a society in which they were the indisputable kings.
"Let's be honest and blunt," she says. "The president's black. The most dynamic Republican candidates are women. White men are threatened. It's evident in this need for nostalgia in prime time with shows like Mad Men, Pan Am and The Playboy Club."
Power politics aside, for Naughton, being a part of this series has proved to be educational. As part of her own research for her character, Brenda, she screened Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, a documentary about Hefner's civil rights activism. The film was shot by Oscar-winning director Brigitte Berman, who says she wanted to tap into a side of Hefner that was yet to be seen.
"I wanted people to be able to look at a person without judging them first," Berman said. "I just wanted them to take a look and explore all the things that he has done. And if you still come out afterwards saying, 'I really don't like what he did to women,' it's a free country." The voices in that documentary, which was released last summer, included NFL great Jim Brown. Much of the documentary focused on Hefner's activism for equal rights for blacks.
Naughton was impressed by what she discovered. The film inspired her to seek out black bunnies from the mid-'60s to gauge what life was like for them.
"I got a chance to talk to these beautiful black women and hear their stories, and I was taking notes and really taking it all in," she says. "I wanted to add layers to my character. I want to be based in truth. This is a fictional world, and this is a television show that's scripted. But I wanted to make sure that whatever I bring to the screen was true."
So far she's liking where her character is going. The story is layered, and there's complexity there, but most important, Naughton feels comfortable on set and with portraying a small slice of black life in the '60s.
"In one episode Brenda experiences rejection, and I think that's when it becomes real to her," she says. "In the club everyone says she's equal. But there are moments where she doesn't get what she thinks she deserves because of her race — and because she knows she's a 'Negro' in the '60s."
Kelley L. Carter is an Emmy Award-winning entertainment journalist.