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Crosspost: The Difficulties of Juggling Diversity Activism and a Directing Career in Hollywood

Crosspost: The Difficulties of Juggling Diversity Activism and a Directing Career in Hollywood

The following has been reposted from Lexi Alexander’s blog with permission of the author. Our version below includes minor edits.

2015 was an interesting year for me. After finally getting back behind the camera at the end of the summer to shoot The CW’s “Arrow,”  I found myself a couple of months later in a federal building in downtown Los Angeles, trying to convince half a dozen security guards to let me make my EEOC appointment despite my expired driver’s license.

Luckily, ACLU lawyer Melissa Goodman, the patron saint of women directors, was with me and was able to convince the no-nonsense guards that I wasn’t a threat. 

I ended up talking (testifying?) about my career for a good 3-4 hours. By the time I was done, I felt like I had just finished a three-day, full-contact kickboxing tournament: bruised and emotionally beat. 

As I left the building, a high-profile female director arrived and made her way through security. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to introduce myself because we’re not all “out” about how much we’re part of this investigation, but I will never get that image out of my head of her laughing while being patted down by a security guard — and me knowing that she wouldn’t be laughing in a few hours, once her interview was done.

Don’t get me wrong: the EEOC people are amazing and obviously on our side. It’s just that they have years and years of experience in investigating gender discrimination, so they know what kind of questions to ask. Kind of like a good therapist who can bring out all the shit you had conveniently been in denial about or didn’t have the tools to recognize. 

It’s brutal to be faced with all of it in one session.

If I were granted one wish from a genie, I would ask that our male peers, especially those who insist there is no discrimination in Hollywood, have to go through an EEOC interview like this one. Because it’s unlikely they will ever be able to empathize how shitty that feels and how it is something nobody in their right mind volunteers to do, unless there is absolutely no other option.

We arrived at the “no other option” dead end a long time ago and everybody knows it. Yet we still hear people speak of “merit” or “lack of qualified candidates” without embarrassment. It’s almost comical how un-liberal liberal Hollywood is when it comes to fighting gender and racial bias.

People ask me all the time if I have seen any changes happen since the ACLU and EEOC announcements, and that’s a difficult question for me to answer. Confession: I’m still trying to figure out how to be an activist and a working director simultaneously. Fear runs rampant inside the gates, and sadly I’m not completely immune to it. We all love what we do, and the idea that a blog post or tweet that criticizes the system could result in the system locking me out again terrifies me.

But as luck would have it, I just recently decided to take up a new martial art, which is all about mastering fear. So during the holiday break, I spent day after day learning how to recognize, grab and shift fear by taking blows to the body from a master of a Russian KGB martial art called Systema (yup, that’s what I consider perfect vacation fun).

So, the good news is I’m ready to answer the question as to whether or not I have seen any changes: Yes, but none of them are good, some could eventually backfire and the vast majority are the usual fake diversity campaigns.

I’m not saying there aren’t people who take diversity and inclusion seriously; they do exist. I’ve had dozens of meetings over the past couple of months (courtesy of my amazing manager and a team of new high-performance agents). These meetings are set up for me to talk about directing and developing TV, but nowadays almost everybody brings up an article I’ve written about women directors or my diversity activism on Twitter. (More than a few times now, I’ve been elevated to VIP status with an important executive because one of their family members, friends or children follows me on Twitter, which is quite amazing if you consider the wider connotation.)

Some of the executives I’ve met are honestly trying. Some studios have even, on shareholders’ orders, created entire diversity task forces to increase their numbers. And a good 60% of Hollywood companies still don’t care at all and are convinced that they don’t have a diversity issue. (Pro tip: Unless you work for Shondaland, your Hollywood workplace probably hasn’t mastered diversity and inclusion.)

As for those who are trying, you can split them into two groups: Film or TV executives who have no understanding of the issue and haven’t bothered to educate themselves on what inclusion actually means, and real diversity experts who have no internal company support and are drowning in the stormy ocean as their carefree colleagues and superiors hit them in the head with their jet skis.

I met one of the latter, a woman of color executive who knows what’s up and who recognized that I know it too. But since it was a meeting that included several of her superiors and colleagues who aren’t even close to being aware, it turned into a rather comical event where much was said between her and me with covert gestures and looks.

This is Hollywood’s biggest problem. It sucks to be the only aware person in the room, and apparently it sucks even when there’s two of us. It’s that famous Matt Damon/Effie Brown moment or the less famous Wyatt Cenac/Jon Stewart moment, which is something that happens to all of us who understand the issue on any given work day, unless we cease to speak up about any issues we notice.

And it doesn’t take long for us to shut up, because there’s nothing like a confident, successful white male telling you he knows all about diversity and representation and that there’s nothing you can teach him. Especially when that person is also in charge of deciding if you get hired again or not. 

So Hollywood pretends it wants to be an inclusive industry, but it consistently disregards and alienates the only people who really know what that means. And while I can’t speak for Effie Brown and Wyatt Cenac, I dare to assume that just like myself, they don’t actually want that gig. We want to be producers, writers, directors — not diversity oversight officers. But in an industry where sexism and racism still run rampant (don’t make me copy and paste the Sony hack emails here; you all read them) and there’s no discrimination oversight agency, who else can point out that it’s a bad idea to cast the only actor of color as a chauffeur but the one lone person who recognizes this?

Nothing would make me happier than Hollywood getting serious with this by hiring proper diversity experts and giving them full power to create a safe, inclusive, diverse industry. But that looks like a pipe dream. 

Instead, we now have Hollywood power people organizing diversity camps, which we get to read about in articles that include hilariously gung-ho diversity quotes from the worst — no, let me write this in capital letters — THE WORST diversity offenders in Hollywood. 

And nobody bats an eye. Not a single entertainment reporter thinks to compare these people’s diversity record against the story they’re spinning. 

So, that’s my long answer to your question. The short answer would be: We are still shit at diversity and inclusion.

But we don’t have to be. We really don’t. 

If we could just for a minute remember that millions of studies have proven how diversity and inclusion will result in higher profits, then why not consider treasuring people who truly understand how to achieve that?

The next time you’ll come across somebody as wise and brave as Effie Brown, consider not shutting her up mid-sentence, but instead opt to recognize that you’re in the presence of your very own diversity whisperer. If there was any other skill or knowledge that was proven to increase profits, every suit in Hollywood would be wining and dining its experts, right?

And to those of you enjoying Hollywood fare but who aren’t involved in making it, please continue to care who tells the world’s stories and join voices with us, the activists, troublemakers, rebels — or as the status quo likes to call us, “the outrage crowd.” This always makes me laugh, because I haven’t heard of a single historical event where a marginalized group gained rights without outrage. 

I say let’s grab fear, shift it and then turn the volume up on our outrage, shall we?

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