Hollywood cheered — or possibly sighed in relief — when Sterling K. Brown ascended the stage at the Emmys after his historic win for lead actor in a drama. The African-American “This Is Us” star was just cranking into his speech when he got played out, completing the thank you offstage where he ultimately joined other winners of color, Riz Ahmed, Donald Glover and Lena Waithe, that night.
The industry did what it does best on Emmy night — celebrate the industry — and no one expects the underlying issues of inclusion to be solved in a single glittering evening. Under fire for its hiring bias and disproportional representation of women and people of color, the ensuing debate pitting TV against film in the race to diversify seems like small change in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which signals that the issues of diversity and inclusion confront a thornier cultural crisis. But clearly, the most recent progress has appeared on the small screen.
“You see more diversity at the Emmys than the Oscars,” says producer Will Packer, who recently leveraged the $19 million “Girls Trip” to a $136 million worldwide gross. “There are multiple reasons: more platforms and a broader array of entry points for artists exist in TV than for theatrical film, which has seen a decline in box office. It’s harder in that arena. When it gets harder there are fewer movies made and therefore fewer opportunities for movies that are diverse in front and behind the camera.”
Children’s TV series are also a space in which diversity is now being expanded on in a much more serious way than it ever has before.
“The best stories are always told from different perspectives,” says Joe D’Ambrosia, senior vice president, original programming, Disney Junior. “It is important for us that our programming and characters be reflective of the diverse and multicultural world that today’s kids live in, and we strive to enlist diverse talent among our production teams to help tell these stories in the most authentic way.”
For women, according to Academy Award-winning actress and advocate Geena Davis, the place to be is the small screen. “TV has done a better job for a while now,” says Davis. “There are more women on screen, more directors and writers. And if you happen to be somebody like me, a female actor who’s an adult, then TV is by far the better place to be.”
Meanwhile, movies are attempting to catch up. From his perspective as the head of the film initiative at Netflix, Scott Stuber says: “One of our key missions for the film group is that we believe in promoting all kinds of diversity in front of and behind the camera. This summer we released ‘Okja’ directed by the visionary Bong Joon-ho. Right now we are working with director Dee Rees on ‘Mudbound.’ Susanne Bier is about to start production on ‘Bird Box,’ starring Sandra Bullock, and Fernando Meirelles will soon be shooting the untitled pope film down in Argentina.”
This makes good business sense at Netflix where “our subscriber base is over 100 million people,” says Stuber. “We have a hugely diverse audience that demands we be as inclusive as possible and give them as much choice as possible.”
It’s a successful business model, says Packer. “If you are at this long enough and do it at least semi-proficiently and make money for people, they’ll keep hiring you. I’ve seen some great recent success and hopefully will continue to with an amazing team around me despite the fact that I started off without a lot of Hollywood connections. No matter who you are, or what you look like, or what your ethnicity is, you can make money. The challenge is that initial opportunity to be able to craft stories.”
And it’s at that crossroads — that entry point into the marketplace — where women and minorities often struggle against the establishment. “Hollywood is a bit of a social club,” says Packer. “You work with people you relate to or identify with and, unfortunately, look like you, think like you.”
But is it enough to set a course for diversity and inclusion and, in the words of Captain Jean Luc Picard, make it so? The wrinkle is that without acknowledging the actual barriers to entry, the industry may be offering a Band-Aid for a gaping wound.
John Cho, who inspired the viral hashtag #starringjohncho highlighting the dearth of Asians in lead roles, flipped the script. “Diversity, in a way, is a very perfumed word rather than using racist hiring practices,” says the actor of Korean descent now on Fox’s “The Exorcist” series. “The idea of being diverse for diversity’s sake is patronizing. It allows you to look away from the more difficult challenges. To open up every role to every color, to allow directors and writers to tell stories that are true to them rather than plugging in people of color in ancillary roles.”
Rebecca Carroll, editor of special projects at WNYC and critic-at-large at the Los Angeles Times, agrees with Cho.
“Talking about diversity and inclusion across the board specifically in television is an outdated model,” she says. “If we were discussing this 50 years ago, then hiring would be the first step. What diversity should mean is not just the hire. It’s what actually happens when that person is hired: How does that culture change?”
Strides have been made but it’s time to embrace change, not resist it. “Representation is not insignificant,” says Rajendra Roy, Celeste Bartos Curator of Film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “I’ve been aware that me being in the room is an important thing; just having female faces, older faces, all the areas of diversity, on screen really represents. But the issue transcends representation. You really have to change the culture.”
And that culture, that fabric of relationships and power, changed with President Trump’s election.
“Leading up to Nov. 9, 2016, we had this black cultural ascendance in television, film and literature,” Carroll says. “We were seeing an ascendance that was being embraced and valued as a counterpoint to Black Lives Matter in the work of Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae and Donald Glover.”
Adds Roy: “That’s what needs to start happening more — whether studios, arts organizations or production companies. We want diverse points of view: to find the best people, develop the best talent, you have to go beyond the hiring and change the culture. That’s where the rubber hits the road.”
“The hill to die on is dismantling structural racism and white supremacy,” Carroll says. “I am a firm believer in the power of art in the conversation. I need people to focus and make their brains as big as possible to alter structural racism in this country: make art.”
In shaping “Hostiles,” director-writer-producer Scott Cooper reached out to Native Americans. “Native Americans are still fighting [for] their identity, as much of their customs and culture is known only through media portrayals and is seemingly lost to a younger generation,” he says.
“Speaking racially, in general, the sticking point involves the top levels of the executive suite where diversity is severely lacking. If we diversify the top ranks of the industry, we will give the underserved a better opportunity to commit their narratives to film. It all starts at the top.”
This battle reflects a convergence of male and female, gay and straight, white and other — humans who have grown up saturated in pop culture and yearn to be a part of its creation.
Cho, who plays Sulu most recently in “Star Trek: Beyond,” says the rich sci-fi universe that has shifted fluidly between TV and film for over half a century, underscores this.
“The last movie was directed by [Taiwanese-American] Justin Lin,” he points out. “That franchise is particularly mindful about who they hire because of the ‘Star Trek’ franchise origin story, which is Gene Roddenberry’s ideal and his vision of an egalitarian future.”
We know where we should be. The challenge is crashing the existing structures so that we can chart a course into an inclusive future.