With Hollywood’s growing appetite for diverse stories, women of color are beginning to make a bigger mark on the big and small screens.
Alice Wu wrote “The Half of It,” a coming-of-age drama about a lesbian Chinese-American teen, as a love letter to her own mother. Starring Chinese American Leah Lewis, it debuted on Netflix in May.
“I’m very comfortable being a queer Asian-American filmmaker,” Wu tells Variety. “I write from a very personal place, but if I want to make any sort of change in the world, I knew this film might make an impact.”
Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” from Mindy Kaling also boasts female actors of color, including breakout star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Of Tamil descent from Sri Lanka, the 18-year-old Canadian says she has witnessed progress even in her relatively short lifetime.
“Is it where it needs to be?” she asks. “No, it’s two steps forward, one step back kind of thing, and we have got to make sure that we don’t stop the fight for women of color, for these underrepresented minorities.”
While stories centering on women of color have grown overall, these creatives remain “severely underrepresented” behind the scenes in Hollywood, according to UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report.
The latest report, released on Oct. 22, found that women reached parity with men among digital scripted leads in television, reaching a record high of 49.4%. While actors of color posted their highest share of lead roles, their share remains at 24.1%, compared to white actors’ 75.9%.
From the 2018-19 season, men of color (11.8%) directed twice as many episodes as women of color (6.4%), while white women helmed 22.7%. In the writers’ room, women of color constituted 10.5% of credited writers, while white women made up 29.6%.
“People recognize a handful of directors, writers who are women of color, but they can name them off one hand. Especially in lead directing and writing roles, there is a detriment to the industry that they aren’t getting the perspectives, stories unique to women of color,” says Ana-Christina Ramon, director of research and civic engagement for the division of social sciences at UCLA, and co-author of the report.
According to Ngoc Nguyen, head of entertainment at Time’s Up, layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic have rolled back progress that had been made in recent years.
“Sometimes executives used what they felt were neutral criteria to furlough people, and one of those things was tenure,” Nguyen says. “The problem with furloughing newer employees is you might be undoing a lot of the inclusive work in recent years that has made a lot of gains, so we must try to make sure that people take time to be intentional about what they’re doing and understanding what those ripple effects are.”
Gina Balian, president of original programming at FX Entertainment, hopes her team’s reexamination of past hiring practices will improve the network’s storytelling.
“It’s not that we haven’t been having the conversations, and it’s not that we weren’t meeting lots of new writers,” she says. “But I think when you look at who’s making the shows and really who’s telling their own story, I think there’s more work to do there. That’s where we have to really look: We have to look at the top.”
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, EVP of entertainment diversity and inclusion at ViacomCBS, echoes the need for executives and creatives who are as diverse as their audiences. The industry veteran, who launched Eye Speak to foster female empowerment, believes permanent change is underway, however slowly.
“We hear these successful agent stories: You start in the mailroom and you get on someone’s desk and so on,” she says. “These stepping stones are the systems that need to be dismantled and reorganized. We need to challenge ourselves to look at talent and qualifications through a different, wider lens — that’s a place to start.”
— Shalini Dore and Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.