It’s been a week since “Teddy Perkins,” the sixth episode in the sophomore season of the FX series Atlanta aired. It is still being celebrated as one of the most creatively innovative episodes in the series’ history. The episode, which aired on April 5, was directed by Hiro Murai and focuses one character’s quest to secure a piano; and a mysterious former pop star named Teddy Perkins, played by the show’s creator, Donald Glover (who wrote the episode), in white face. It was striking in that it was the only episode of the show to play around with psychological thriller/suspense devices, and (spoiler alert) it’s likely the only dramedy to ever end in murder-suicide.
But according independent filmmaker Mtume Gant, some of the details in the episode feel uncomfortably close to elements found in his own short film, White Face. Gant’s 20-minute film follows an aspiring actor who takes a lesson from his acting coach — to drop the baggage of his racial identity for the sake of getting into character — to the extreme. He goes about his day in white face, records and replays his “white voice” on a tape-recorder, and dons confederate flag paraphernalia in public. While the overarching storylines of “Teddy Perkins” and White Face are notably different, the overlapping specificities are hard to ignore.
“If any of these things lived on their own, single, I would say that they were coincidence, but the fact that it's like four, five, six [resemblances] it gets weird for me,”Gant told me in an exclusive interview with Refinery29. He took to his personal Instagram account on Sunday, April 8, to document some of similarities between “Teddy Perkins” and White Face — which he directed, wrote, and starred in. It was produced by married couple, DeWanda Wise (She’s Gotta Have It) and Alano Miller (Underground). Most prominently among these social media posts is one that shows the outlined side profiles of both Teddy Perkins and Charles (the character Gant plays in White Face) with images from projectors playing in background. In the posts included below, Gant compares his character in white face with Glover's, but also makes note of the cinematic similarities between the two projects (both characters at home, sitting in chairs, watching projections). Supporters in his comment section who’ve seen both seemed to agree that the overlap in cinematic and thematic aspects was too great to ignore.
I asked Gant to elaborate on some of these other specificities that aren’t apparent in his Instagram posts, and he laid them out to me. In addition to the use of projectors to capture certain shots, there is the issue of tape recorders. In “Teddy Perkins,” the titular character uses a tape recorder to record himself speaking and plays it back. As I mentioned earlier, Charles practices his “white voice” on a tape recorder as well. Then there are the confederate flags. Charles wears a confederate coat in White Face that he adorns with a Trump pin. “Teddy Perkins” includes a scene where Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) defaces the “Southern Made” logo on a baseball cap so that it reads “U Mad,” while leaving the confederate flag in tact.
Gant also drew nonvisual connections between the two projects. “There is also a thematic thing about parents and negative parents,” he explained. “The scene with me and Kara [Young] is a conversation that [Charles] and [his] sister have about how their mother fucked up their heads about being Black and having a negative attitude towards Blackness.” Adult recluse Teddy Perkins is still dealing with his own identity issues following years of abuse from his late father in Atlanta.
I watched White Face and can also confirm all of the aforementioned similarities. So the questions remains: Is it a coincidence, or was it actually theft? Gant says he doesn’t personally know Glover, Murai, or anyone else involved in the production of Atlanta, and it’s hard to know for sure whether or not they saw his film. What he can confirm is that production on White Face took place in June of 2016, at least two full months before the first season of Atlanta premiered. That October, Gant sent a completed White Face to film festivals and “interested parties in film and TV,” which was shortly after Atlanta was renewed for a second season. It appeared on Shadow & Act, a website dedicated to Black film, television, and web content, twice in 2017. The same year, White Face was screened at approximately 20 film festivals; was nominated for Best Short Narrative at Ashland Independent Film Festival; and won Best Short Film at the San Francisco Black Film Festival and Best Experimental Film at the Harlem International Film Festival. A password-protected version of the film on Vimeo has 670 plays as of today.
“I’ve been an actor in the business since I was 14, and I know a lot of people,” Gant added with skepticism. “The degrees of separation on all these things are miniscule.”
Gant told me that he has sought legal counsel regarding his options in a situation that he describes as “new” for him. However, taking his grievances to court may not be so clear cut. Julian Cordero is an attorney specializing in business, entertainment, and intellectual property law. He isn’t affiliated with Gant, Glover, Murai, or FX, but he offered his professional opinion on the matter. “Intellectual property refers to the creations of the mind. Laws, such as through copyright, are put in place in order to protect these creations. However, there is a common misconception that ideas are able to receive protection, and that is not the case; it is rather the expression of those ideas that may be protectable,” Cordero explained over email.
In order to substantiate a claim that there was a violation of his intellectual property, Gant has to have proof of his valid copyright and proof that the original elements of White Face were copied. Cordero said that the process of resolving the latter is fact-intensive and “complex.”
Unfortunately, even if Gant can prove his claims in court (should he pursue legal action), it would still leave him in an awkward position as a filmmaker with the acumen, support, money, and power as Atlanta frontman Glover. In a lengthy post on Facebook, Gant talked through the difficulties of getting White Face off the ground, the professional legacy he risks by moving forward in a crusade against Atlanta, and the conflict in going against a series that has been so important to Black media. It raises the question: how often do filmmakers actually get their due?
I reached out to Donald Glover, Hiro Murai, and FX for comment. At the time of publishing, I haven’t received a response.