For some of the minds behind the shows working hardest to depict African-American points-of-view today, it wasn’t diversity that now created proper representation on screen: It was different perspectives that helped lead to inclusive writers’ rooms.
On February 13, the Paley Center for Media hosted a panel discussion with African-American showrunners, executive producers, and content creators to reveal their strategies towards hiring and developing new talent. The event, “They Run The Show: African-American Creators and Producers in Conversation,” was a part of the center’s ongoing celebration of Black History Month and the latest installment in their “African-American Achievements in Television: A Black History Spotlight” series.
“The ideal thing as a showrunner, for me, is to hire as many people who are different from me as possible,” “Power” creator and showrunner Courtney A. Kemp told IndieWire.
What happened when a creator failed to hire or write with that mentality became a point of discussion on the panel when “Dear White People” creator and executive producer Justin Simien brought up American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. The white writer-director has often been called racist for his polarizing portrayal and treatment of African-American characters, as well as the frequent use of the N-word in his films, most notably in “Django Unchained,” in which it is used over 100 times.
“I didn’t see myself anywhere in the film,” Simien said. For him, it was a prime example of a white writer creating African-American characters based off their perception of them.
Simien, whose Netflix adaptation of his 2014 film received similar accusations of racism for its title, told IndieWire that “when you make fun of a black person, that joke actually affects the black person’s life because there are things in the institution that keep us systematically apart from white people.”
He added that his show title “doesn’t affect the lives of white people” like that.
He admitted that he’d liked “Django,” but referenced an instance in the early ’90s when he’d seen “Pulp Fiction” in theaters; he was unnerved by the audience’s laughter in the now infamous dead body storage scene, which used the N-word repeatedly. In the dark of the theater, he’d felt that white audience members had laughed at the slur because they felt “comfortable” doing so.
The Tarantino issue was indicative of larger questions: Why was there this lack of people of color representing themselves and their stories in the entertainment industry? Where did it come from and how could it be changed?
“Insecure” executive producer Prentice Penny cited an unwillingness in creators to step out of their comfort zones.
“You hire what’s comfortable, what’s familiar, what you know,” he told IndieWire. In his now-18-year career, Penny once went eight years in the industry without working with another writer of color. He used this experience to advocate for more representation in the writer’s room.
“If you don’t ever work with people of color who look different, then you won’t bring those people with you,” he said. “Claws” showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois shared a similar perspective, comparing the Hollywood mentality to something “sort of tribal.”
“People are only thinking about their own survival,” she told IndieWire. “They’re not thinking about the politics… but I think a lot of people get these jobs and just hire their friends.”
It was the familiarity with this cycle that influenced her and the other panelists to advocate for bringing other people of color onto their projects. They wanted to be mindful in a way that the creators before them had not been, be inclusive in a way that had previously not included them.
“We need to open up the world in terms of not just ticking off a box and saying, ‘I have a black writer, an Indian writer, or a Latino writer in the room so I’ve done enough.’” “Star” executive producer and showrunner Karen Gist told IndieWire. “It’s about looking at what they [different writers] bring to the conversation and wanting to explore that on television.”
To do that, all of the panelists asserted that it was important to “be black first” in the current state of the industry. To be “black first” meant to inextricably tie one’s racial identity to their creative one. It also meant something to each panelist. To Barrois, it meant being “unapologetic” when asking for different voices in the writers’ room. To Simien, it meant acknowledging and using past successes to aid African-American content creators.
“Where does Hollywood always go when they’re trying to build an audience?” he asked. His answer: “The black people.”
He brought up a young Fox Network and the now-defunct United Paramount Network. Both had actively marketed to and maintained African-American audiences throughout the 1990s. Now in the 21st century, the panelists asserted that African-American showrunners had a responsibility to continue that success and still “be black first,” with Kemp, in particular, saying that it was “inseparable” from her identity and instrumental to her process as a writer.
“You take the specifics from your experience and you apply them,” she said.
Those experiences enabled them to make their shows more representative. It emboldened them to ask for more writers of color. It empowered them to lend their support to already established creators of color.
But perhaps most importantly, the inclusion of the African-American identity in the entertainment industry encouraged current and upcoming creators to, as Simien said, stop “thinking about your color as a hindrance, but as a blessing.”