Change may come in the form of pushback from talent. At the 2018 SAG Awards in January, BlackTree TV reporter Jaleesa Lashay asked Sterling K. Brown about the “disparities between the opportunities given to black journalists in comparison to our white counterparts,” moments after he accepted his hardware for “This Is Us.” Brown’s eyes went wide as he scanned the room. “You’ve got a point,” he said. “It’s a lot of white people. You know what, I’d never paid attention. And shame on me for not having done so.”
A week after Ogbogu’s experience at “Atlanta,” Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out”) made a point of speaking to black outlets first at the MTV Movie & TV Awards. That same month, Brie Larson used her pulpit at Crystal + Lucy Awards to decry the lack of representation among entertainment journalists. “Female and underrepresented critics can’t review what they don’t see, and many are denied accreditation or access to press screenings,” Larson said. “So if you’re in this room, or you know someone who is a gatekeeper, please make sure that these invites and credentials find their way to more under-represented journalists and critics, many of whom are freelancers.” Larson encouraged Disney, which will release her upcoming blockbuster “Captain Marvel” in 2019, to consider its next Lucasfilm release: “Other people besides white dudes like ‘Star Wars,’ and would love the opportunity to do a set visit,” she said.
And in fact, Global Grind senior entertainment editor Xilla Valentine visited the set of “Captain Marvel” in late June and said that the present press, “was all black journalists. We got everybody, we got Brie, we didn’t just get the black talent.” Similarly, with the recent release of “Blindspotting,” writer/producer/star Rafael Casal prioritized underrepresented reporters and their outlets.
BLINDSPOTTING comes out July 27th and goes wide August 10th. If you’re a journalist of color, or an editorial outlet focused on issues effecting POC, I/we want to make sure we are making your requests for interviews, content, etc. a priority.
— RAFAEL CASAL (@RafaelCasal) February 27, 2018
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Earlier this year, the Sundance and Toronto film festivals committed to distributing at least 20 percent of their top-tier press badges to underrepresented groups. “It’s important for us to increase our media core, but it’s also important for press outlets to hire more underrepresented journalists and for marketing teams to hire them,” Andréa Grau, TIFF’s vice president of public relations, told IndieWire. “We’re one part of a larger equation and happy to do our part to move the dial.”
Robertson said these measures sound promising, but “it’s just really a wait-and-see thing … Someone starting out, I have fears for them, how they can actually gainfully make a living, because you only can tell your editor two or three times ‘I can’t get access’ before the editor’s going to be like, ‘I have to move on to someone who can.'”
The Los Angeles Times’ Tre’vell Anderson knows his employer’s high profile provides many more opportunities compared to most black reporters. Each time he receives an invitation, “I try to respond to that publicist and say, ‘Hey, have you invited this person?'” he said. “‘Do you know who this person is? I really think that they should be involved in the conversation too, that you should try to see what kind of coverage opportunities are available for them as well.'”
Jerry Barrow, entertainment editor for BET’s website, said, “There are some movies that are just big and while we’re grateful to get whoever you can on the red carpets, when you can’t get the director or the star for that movie, and you’ve been emailed to come and cover this, it’s kind of disheartening,” he said. “I have to hire a camera person, I’ve got to send someone out there, and that’s a lot of time and effort.”
Yet there are happy exceptions. “There are examples of talent and artists who will go out of there way to make sure that black publications or black writers get the access that they need,” Barrow said, citing former journalist Cheo Hodari Coker, now showrunner for Netflix’s “Luke Cage.” “He made sure I got all the time I needed, and then some.”
In his role overseeing more than 50 AAFCA members nationwide, Robertson gives advice on cover letters and portfolios. “We provide them with an understanding of how they need to cultivate and develop their brand, develop their following, establish relationships at the studio level with executives on the lots, with talent reps, management, PR, so that if there is an issue, they can tap other players to get in on the access that they’re looking for,” he said.
However, Anderson —who is also president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) — said the onus is on publicists to do their research. “It’s about knowing that Black Girl Nerds, for example, has a very dedicated audience, and you might want your talent to speak to them, because Black Girl Nerds can drive people directly to the theater in ways that I’m not sure mainstream press are able to demonstrate anymore,” he said.
To that end, there are plenty of significant 2018 releases from black filmmakers, from “Sorry to Bother You” to Steve McQueen’s upcoming “Widows” and Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” With Lee’s film, Universal-owned Focus Features has reportedly undertaken extreme efforts to prioritize black journalist requests at Lee’s insistence, and the filmmaker recently appeared at a screening of the film for the NABJ’s Conference and Career Fair in Detroit. He reportedly came to the stage wearing a Malcolm X hat. “Wake up, get woke,” he told the crowd. “Y’all remember in ‘School Daze,’ that was the last thing Laurence Fishburne’s character said. Nothing much has changed.”