The rising tide of programming for the small screen, along with a greater push for diversity in Hollywood, has increased the number of roles for actors of color overall in recent years. And while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many of those gains have been made by younger performers — organizations such as SAG-AFTRA don’t tabulate that info — there are plenty of positive signs on the big and small screen.
Among them: Latinx characters on streamers; Kenya Barris series with a plethora of young Black talent; and roles for Asian-American kids on a number of platforms. Family-friendly shows such as “One Day at a Time” and “Party of Five” have been rebooted with Latinx families at their core, while Hulu’s “Love, Victor,” a small-screen spinoff of “Love, Simon,” centers on a Latinx teen’s struggles to fit into a new school. Ensemble shows seem almost pointedly diverse, whether it’s Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” produced by Mindy Kaling, or the streamer’s reboot of “The Baby-Sitters Club.”
“Certainly, it seems better,” says Gloria Calderón Kellett, “One Day at a Time” co-showrunner and an outspoken voice for greater diversity in Hollywood. “The stuff that my kids watch feels far more diverse than the stuff I had access to when I was a young person.”
“Baby-Sitters Club” showrunner Rachel Shukert updated the character of Dawn — who is blonde in earlier iterations — to a Latinx girl, portrayed by Xochitl Gomez in the updated series. “When I thought about what an archetypal California girl is now, I realized it’s not really this Malibu bleached Barbie,” Shukert says of the original Dawn. “She’s Latinx, she’s an activist, she’s political, she really cares about justice and making the world a better place. That’s Dawn. She’s an essential piece of the club’s modernization.”
The ensemble includes a biracial character, Mary Anne (Malia Baker), Japanese American Claudia (Momona Tamada) and Stacey McGill, a stylish blonde with an underlying health issue, portrayed by Shay Rudolph.
Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” for its part, explores racial issues with nuance, showing why a Black teen (Lexi Underwood) might be attracted to a white family that is more rooted in the community than her nomadic mother (Kerry Washington).
The East Coast boarding school in “Selah and the Spades,” a feature Amazon began streaming in April, is also racially diverse. But Black actor Lovie Simone (a star on OWN’s “Greenleaf”) is unapologetically the queen bee, and undeniably complex. Tayarisha Poe, who wrote and directed the Sundance release, is adapt-ing the movie into a series for the streamer.
“We need to tell stories about all sorts of people so there’s not a deficit anymore,” Poe says. “That’s what I think about when I think about the story I want to tell.”
Studies by UCLA and USC show that, recent gains aside, actors of color are still underrepresented on the big and small screen. The 2020 Hollywood Diversity report from UCLA’s division of social sciences found there were notable gains in film for actors of color, but they still accounted for 27.6% of lead roles, and 32.7% of all actors. The 2019 Hollywood Diversity report, the latest to focus on TV, found that 21.5% of lead actors in broadcast-scripted television are people of color. The number lowers to 21.3% for leads of both cable- and digital-scripted series.
USC’s Inclusion Initiative analyzed 1,200 films from 2007 to 2018 and found that white actors represented 63.7% to the 36.3% of people of color. According to the report the percentage of white characters decreased significantly compared to 2017, when it was 70.7%. Black characters notched a 12-year high in 2018 at 16.9%.
Reporting age and race is optional for SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000 members, and they often choose not to. A guild spokesperson said performers “who want to be known more for what they can play, rather than what they are” are reluctant to self-identify.
There are other issues beyond getting cast: Even strongly reviewed shows such as the “One Day at a Time” reboot have struggled on a business level: Pop TV picked it up after Netflix cancelled the series. Freeform cancelled its “Party of Five” reboot in April, after just one season.
Creatives such as Poe also lament colorism in casting, pointing to a long-standing tendency to give the role to lighter-skinned or biracial child performers.
“Growing up, I thought it must be better to be lighter,” Poe says.
But she takes heart from young actors of color who are pushing for success. “These kids try to protect each other and themselves; I don’t think that support system for young actors of color existed even a few years ago,” she says. “They’re barreling ahead.”