Last month, Color of Change did what might have seemed impossible: The racial justice organization got Disney to change its mind. After images from the upcoming “Wreck-It Ralph” sequel, “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” showed a Princess Tiana starkly different from her appearance in the 2009 “The Princess and the Frog” — slimmer nose, loose curly hair, and a significantly lighter skin tone — the organization and its membership of 1.4 million black people and allies successfully pressured the studio to restore its only black princess to her original “unapologetically black” depiction.
For 13 years, Color of Change has worked to shift perceptions of race on TV and film, including a successful 2013 campaign to kill a Oxygen reality TV series heavily panned for promoting harmful stereotypes of black families, “All My Baby’s Mommas” (Oxygen cancelled the series before an episode aired). And last fall, the organization worked with UCLA to release a damning report, “Race in the Writers’ Room,” that highlighted systematic exclusion of black talent and other writers of color from TV writers’ rooms, and how this failure negatively influences the depictions of black people on television.
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Executive director Rashad Robinson has been leading Color of Change for seven years, but said this is only the beginning. “I recognized how important it was for black people to have institutions that were holding Hollywood accountable while also working to engage Hollywood, given how important content is in shaping our understanding of one another, and in dictating the written and unwritten rules of our country,” he said.
This has included behind-the-scenes work with popular reality shows around violence portrayals, as well as collaborating with writers’ rooms for Netflix series “Seven Seconds,” BET’s “Being Mary Jane,” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” among others. Said Robinson, “We’ve been hosting salons with writers across the industry for a couple of years now, in an effort to engage them in conversations about structural racism, how influential screen portrayals can be, and really dealing a blow to certain negative tropes that are constantly repeated.”
That initiative now takes the form of the Hollywood Writers’ Room project, led by Color of Change’s new culture & entertainment advocacy director, Kristen Marston. Her goal is to ensure that narratives and portrayals of black people are authentic and multidimensional, and that workplace practices are fair to all people of color. She’ll also be expanding the organization’s work into film, employing a similar strategy.
Marston came to Color of Change from Define American, a nonprofit media organization that uses story to shift the conversation about immigrants and citizenship. She consulted on over 27 television shows and documentaries, including ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” which resulted in a recent episode, “Beautiful Dreamer,” in which one employee’s future at the fictional Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital is threatened by possible deportation.
Marston said the programs often initiate the process. “They reach out to us because they’ve heard about the work we do, and they’ll invite us for an initial conversation. Sometimes that means diving into a specific topic; for example, if they’re working on a series or an episode that deals with mass incarceration, we can bring an expert in and dig into that topic with them further.”
In other scenarios, Color of Change acts as a sounding board for writers and showrunners as they watch rough cuts, read scripts for accuracy, provide research, and consult on issues related to characters. Said Marston, “What might this black male experience be like, living in this specific city during this time period? What would be realistic in this specific scenario? Sometimes it’s as little as, how do we make a scene more impactful by being more inclusive in subtle ways, which they may not immediately recognize as significant.”
Marston plans more research projects similar to “Race in the Writers’ Room,” including ones that go behind the camera. “I really see it as building power for black people within the industry, both in front of and behind the camera,” she said. “It’s no longer enough to just have a seat at the table; it’s even more important that we have a voice at the table as well.” Essentially, putting resources towards more research that will reveal info that enlightens and leads to action, like the “Race in the Writers’ Room” study.
As demand for black content reaches new highs, so do requests for the organization’s services. “It’s amazing that we’re getting more diverse asks,” Marston said. “Many executives are hungry for more black content, and they’re becoming more comfortable asking for support. We’re now getting requests for things that haven’t necessarily been the kind of work we have done in the past, like public-relations support for films. Some want us to facilitate connections with black content producers, and black projects that may have slipped through the cracks.”
Original content production is also in the Color of Change strategy. This spring, the organization produced short film “The Truth About the Money Bail Industry.” Narrated by John Legend and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, it calls for an end to cash bail practices that fuel mass incarceration that disproportionally affects African Americans.
“Five to 10 years from now, what I envision is that when we turn on our screens, whatever screens we’re using to view content, that what we see are images that fully reflect our society, that are instructive on how we can engage and be better citizens,” said Robinson. “I believe the work we’ve been doing at Color of Change, and will continue to do, will help inspire, support and move content that may otherwise be ignored, even if it means producing our own.”
And, as UCLA’s 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report underscored, producing content that reflects the population that consumes it can be profitable. “Leaders in the entertainment industry today realize they are going to have to adapt to changing market conditions with respect to content, said study co-author Dr. Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and African American Studies. “We know it’s profitable to create more diverse content, even though the conventional wisdom about what sells — and how marketable and profitable genuinely multi-racial content is — often trails quite far behind the data.”