Pharrell Williams, H.E.R., Opal Lee and other individuals transforming the entertainment industry discussed the importance of diversity, inclusion and elevating underrepresented voices in Variety’s Changemakers Summit, which ran virtually from June 17-18.
The summit kicked off with a keynote conversation featuring H.E.R., whose song “Fight for You” from Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” won best original song at this year’s Academy Awards. Williams and Lee, also known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, discussed Lee’s ultimately successful campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
The cast and creators of FX’s “Pose,” OWN’s “David Makes Man” and Amazon’s “Small Axe” each headlined panels, as well as journalists of color, who discussed the challenges of reporting on racial issues while living through them.
Here are the 10 biggest takeaways from Variety’s Virtual Changemakers Summit:
Hollywood Needs to Look Beyond the Disability When Writing Disabled Characters
While disabled characters are starting to appear in more Hollywood productions, their storylines almost always revolve around their disability. C.J. Jones, a deaf Black actor who has appeared in “Baby Driver” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” said it’s time for Hollywood to begin breaking these barriers. “The industry needs to open itself up to this possibility and use disabled folks as the skilled and talented characters that they are, and not just focus on the disability,” he said.
Black Stories Staying Pertinent Might Be Important, But Is Still ‘A Sore Point’
Steve McQueen’s recent anthology series, “Small Axe,” chronicles the hostility and racism London’s West Indian community faced between 1968 and 1982. The series was released on Amazon Prime in November 2020, only months after George Floyd’s death and the substantial rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. McQueen rejected the notion that this was a good time for his project to be released as he wishes Floyd’s death “never happened.”
“I don’t want it to be some sort of, ‘oh, isn’t it great that’ — no, it’s not. It’s never,” McQueen said. “But unfortunately, the story continues.”
Courttia Newland, who co-wrote “Lovers Rock” and “Red, White, and Blue” with McQueen, said the timing “just speaks of how circular our experiences are, that we can do something a couple of years before this thing happens and it can still be pertinent. Just the very fact that these things remain pertinent is a real sore point for me.”
‘Entertainment Gives Us a Notion of What’s Possible’
Daniel Dae Kim boiled down why diverse on-screen representation is essential. “Entertainment gives us a notion of what’s possible,” he said. “When we see role models, we see who we can be. We see the extent of what’s possibly for us. There’s no surprise that Asian Americans are not considered leaders. When was the last time you saw an Asian American portrayed as a president or when was the last time you saw an Asian American as a CEO of a major corporation? All of these are interconnected.”
It’s Time To Throw Old Stereotypes Out the Window
The Black community in America has been fighting for equal opportunities for decades. In addition to all of the hurdles every businessperson must clear, Black entrepreneurs have to go through additional battles because of the color of their skin. Jennifer Dyer, co-founder and CEO of Yappa, discussed the twisted perception that Black people don’t know how to handle money. “Most of [the Black community] have not been raised around it, we haven’t been born with silver spoons in our mouth,” she said. Nevertheless, Dyer said it was resilience that got her to where she is today and that determination will keep her going.
More On-Screen BIPOC Stories Alleviates Pressure for BIPOC Storytellers
In addition to the joy of being able to see Native stories on television, Karissa Valencia explained that occupying more space on-screen will allow storytellers to feel less pressure to present perfect depictions of their culture, people and communities. “This sense of fear is starting to change a little bit. I think when I was pitching Native content years ago, people were afraid,” Valencia said. “Even within our own community, we get kind of nervous. We don’t want to offend our elders. We want to make sure we’re doing a good job… Knowing that we have all these different shows coming out and more to come, we’re not going to be the only ones, there will be more, that fear is starting to go away.”
MJ Rodriguez Constantly Gets Messages About How Her ‘Pose’ Character Is the Ideal Mother
“Pose” centers on the motherly trials of Blanca Evangelista as she not only catapults her house to the top of the New York City ball scene but prepares her kids for success as ambitious professionals, caring life partners and wholesome human beings. Reflecting on the impact the FX show has had on its audiences, Rodriguez revealed that “I get messages almost every single day from cis-women that I never thought would contact me when I was younger who were telling me that I was something other than a woman, who are contacting me now saying I’m the idea of what a mother could be. I never expected that.”
‘Pose’ Has Allowed the Space for a Whole Generation to Grieve the Lives Lost During the AIDS Epidemic
Billy Porter won an Emmy for his performance as ballroom emcee Pray Tell, who is HIV positive. The actor recently revealed he himself is HIV positive and further opened up to Variety that Pray Tell served as a proxy through who could heal and “shed the shame and finally get to a place of joy and peace.” The show also served as a proxy for audiences. “I am seeing in real-time my generation being given the space to remember to grieve so that through the grief, healing can happen,” Porter explained.
Having a Strong Black Female Character Was Important to ‘David Makes Man’
In the “Meet the Makers: David Makes Man” panel, actors and executives from the esteemed OWN show revealed why it was important to have such a strong Black female character in a show about a young boy’s coming of age.
“At the end of the day, these are Black mothers’ children who are being murdered or being put upon, et cetera,” showrunner and executive producer Dee Harris Lawrence said. “To have a character like Gloria that shows the love, shows the fight, shows how she really pulled together this family, was really important to us.”
People Have to Be Able to Bring Their Full Selves to Work
In the “Content, Character and Culture” panel, AMC Networks executives Aisha Thomas-Petit, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, and Jen Caserta, chief transformation and people officer, discussed how the company is promoting open dialogue and advancing diversity and inclusion. After a year of traumatic events, Thomas-Petit said that AMC Networks recognizes the difficulty of separating personal and work life during this time, encouraging their employees to bring their full selves to work.
“At the center of who we are is this celebration of what makes us unique and what we’re able to create when we value and recognize what each person individually has to offer,” Thomas-Petit said.
Journalists See Hope in the 2020 Racial Reckoning and Pandemic
In the “Journalists of Color & Allies Covering Racial Inequality and Violence” panel, journalists of color talked about how they have covered the past year’s racial reckoning and pandemic while also living through it and trying to stay safe. Though despite patterns of inequality, many of the panelists expressed hope for the future.
“If a virus can go viral and insinuate itself into every country on this [planet], why can’t something like empathy do that?” Chaz Ebert said.