Is Improved Diversity in Television Finally Here to Stay?

In 2000, after the major networks were embarrassed by accusations of a diversity-challenged “whitewash” in their casting, a Los Angeles Times reporter spent more than six months monitoring J. August Richards, through the development season. The story had a happy ending, with the young actor landing a regular role on the WB series “Angel,” and he has worked pretty steadily ever since.

Yet with casting people of color once again in the spotlight thanks to the success this season of programs featuring predominantly African-American casts, most notably “Empire” and “Black-ish,” the question arose as to what that progress looks like for black performers on the ground. Coupled with this week’s upfront presentations, that seemed as good an excuse as any to catch up with Richards, who, for one, says the advances are clear and palpable, calling this “the most exciting pilot season I’ve ever been part of.”

Notably, his enthusiastic appraisal comes after a spring that didn’t yield a significant career breakthrough. Richards remains a recurring character on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” where he plays the super-powered Deathlok; and has another steady gig in a different kind of series, Bravo’s “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” as the husband of the protagonist’s brother.

Even so, Richards said he auditioned this year for four lead parts in different pilots, each conceived with an African-American performer in mind. It is, he noted, a far cry from what he calls the “insert black guy here” roles that he has seen with some frequency and has sought to avoid.

“Sometimes you go in for that black character on a mainstream show, and you read it and go, ‘Guys, there’s no character here.’ I didn’t feel that way this year,” he said.

The advances haven’t come without controversy. That included a Deadline article in which agents anonymously griped about how the greater inclusion of minorities had reduced opportunities for white clients, while making the secondary point (almost lost in the dust-up that ensued) that a number of high-profile failures could yield a retreat, and threaten those gains already achieved.

Like a lot of people, Richards had an almost visceral reaction to the story, saying it appeared to suggest that casting minorities amounted to a “fad.” While he recognizes that progress could be short-lived, he sees this season’s positive strides as unlikely to be undone by the cycles to which TV is subject, as people inevitably sprint to replicate the most recent hits, often without a clear understanding as to why they worked.

“I kind of believe that this is the turning point,” he said. “I hope that it is.”

For development gurus, the tea-leaf reading this pilot season focused most heavily on “Empire,” a Fox drama whose explosive popularity challenged preconceived notions about the appeal of programs with minority leads. Whatever the future holds, Richards said, those who have eagerly awaited casting to better reflect America’s shifting demographics owe a debt to the creators of that show for “putting characters that have been traditionally marginalized in the front seat.”

Even with more roles available this spring, Richards conceded the competition remained fierce, and always will be. Still, it’s a huge leap from 15 years ago, when networks and producers were forced to become more sensitized by the criticism received over a pilot derby that failed to yield a single minority lead in more than two dozen network series ordered for the fall.

At the time, Richards’ then-manager, Janie Mudrick, said that while her client had prepared himself for the moment when opportunity knocked, “People were trying harder,” thanks to the pressure to exhibit greater inclusiveness. For those wondering when this discussion will become a relic of the past, that should be right around the time when programming embraces those ideals without anyone having to consciously work at it.

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