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‘Dear White People’ Producer Talks Hollywood’s ‘Black Tax’

“Dear White People” and “Leimert Park” executive producer Mel Jones is extremely familiar with growing up and watching “white men in all types of roles and never [seeing] ourselves as a part of those narratives.” Now, there may be some more opportunities for writers of color to tell their own stories, but, she notes, there is still a long way to go before they reach parity.

“There’s a black tax,” Jones said at Lifetime’s “Unmute Her: A Conversation on Lifting Up the Voices of Women” event Tuesday in Los Angeles. “In a film, things cost the same amount but somehow we get less money to make the film because we should be grateful to be there.”

As a part of its Broader Focus and Stop Violence Against Women Initiatives, Lifetime brought together women behind the scenes such as Jones, as well as “Empire” writers and producers JaNeika James and JaSheika James, Kronicle Media co-founders Korin Williams and Monique Nash, writer Kasuba Mukuka, UCLA Professor Dr. Aparna Sharma, and psychotherapist and author Stacy Kaiser.

Nash noted that it isn’t enough for those creating content to be diverse, but also the executives who are the gatekeepers to getting that content made, as well.

“A lot of times [Korin and I] go in rooms, we’re selling [and] pitching projects to people that don’t look like us,” she said. “So, there is sometimes a lack of understanding of what we’re pitching. Then, we’re being told the stories that we’re pitching are not authentic because it’s not an expected experience of what their preconceived ideas are.”

Williams echoed her creative partner’s sentiments, adding, “You’re educating at the same time you’re trying to sell a deal.”

The panelists pointed to Mukuka as an example of giving new, female writers the opportunity to pitch their ideas. Mukuka is an executive assistant in Lifetime’s movie department and is receiving support from the network to develop a script she wrote about the domestic violence in Zambia. Mukuka is originally from the African country and is using her knowledge and understanding of the culture to write a short that will be produced this spring.

The importance of understanding was further emphasized as the James sisters spoke about the recent alleged hate crime against “Empire” star Jussie Smollett. JaSheika James wore a sweatshirt with Smollett’s picture on it to show her support. JaNeika James said the event “completely rocked and horrified our entire community.” She added that the show’s current fifth season is too far along to address Smollett’s alleged attack, but that it is possible the issue could be a storyline in a future season.

“We do work to kind of address some of these issues…We have in past episodes,” JaNeika James said, noting the story they did in Season 3 when Tiana’s friend was punched in the face in a club. “We’ll see what happens going forward.”

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