Reckoning With Race in Hollywood: How the Events of 2020 Created Conversations on Set and Off

Hollywood Black Representation Sylvies Love Lovecraft Country Handmaids Tale
Courtesy of Amazon Studios/HBO Max/Hulu

In March, Warner Bros. Television severed ties with Greg Spottiswood following an investigation looking into allegations of racial insensitivity in the writers’ room of “All Rise,” where Spottiswood served as creator and co-showrunner. This was a far cry from late 2019, when five of the show’s original seven writers left the show after bringing forward similar allegations, including concerns about the depictions of characters of color, but the studio reported not finding cause to remove Spottiswood.

A lot has changed in that short year and a half, however. In this specific case, more concerns about the boss’ behavior resulted in a second investigation. But in the wider world, there were calls for a racial reckoning in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. The Black Lives Matter movement saw a surge in protests and the need for more diversity, greater inclusion and true equality was discussed in workspaces and headlines around not just the entertainment industry, but the country. For some Black actors, the discourse of summer 2020 included teachable calls to action for such efforts and what it truly means to be an ally in and around Hollywood. For many, it also drove home just how badly that change is widely needed.

“The unfortunate truth is that as a Black person — as a Black artist — this last year is indicative of what we know that the world to be,” says actor Jurnee Smollett (“Lovecraft Country,” “Lou”). “It’s hard for me to separate this last year from any other year. I am aware that other folks have felt an enormous awakening over the past year but, for me, the unfortunate truth is it feels like more of the same. Black folks have to wake up and live with this reality every single day.”

That reality includes the fact that only 8% of the highest-ranking jobs in television are held by people of color, according to the 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report. Furthermore, according to a study on Black representation conducted by McKinsey & Co. earlier this year, the handful of Black creatives who are in prominent above-the-line positions (creator, producer, writer or director) find themselves primarily responsible for providing opportunities for other Black talent, including promoting them. (Black people who are production staff are largely shut out of critical roles unless a senior staffer is Black, that study found.) Lack of agency and advocacy serve as direct reflection of how racial insensitivity has been allowed to flourish for so long.

Producer and actor Nnamdi Asomugha spent a year and a half taking the script for “Sylvie’s Love,” a 1960s-set love story between two Black characters, to different companies and being told those executives didn’t know who the audience was for the film. He eventually decided to just make it himself. It premiered at Sundance in January 2020 and Amazon Studios scooped up the distribution rights. The events of the past year have made Asomugha even more conscious of the projects and teams with which he aligns himself.

“We really just wanted to make a beautiful story that people could fall in love with and that told our story as Black people from a different lens than people were used to seeing, especially in the civil-rights era,” he says. “I feel like a lot of the time we’re so used to a certain type of film and the people that usually make the decisions are used to seeing a certain type of film and a lot of times you want your life or your experience to be reflected on the page and on the screen, and I feel like a lot of people we went to, or maybe all of them, just didn’t see their world in the script. I think it was fear of the unknown.”

Samira Wiley filmed Season 4 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 2020. The Hulu dystopian drama features a predominantly white cast and comes from a white creator and showrunner. Although she recalls “having so many conversations on set” about what was happening in the world, those conversations, she notes, were between herself, O-T Fagbenle and Amanda Brugel, all of whom are Black actors.

“We see each other every day on set, and all we can do is sit here and talk about what was happening at the moment,” Wiley says. “Being stuck in the pandemic, but also the racial reckoning, everything that’s happening with George Floyd, with the aftermath from that. It was just a lot. “I don’t think it’s the work of Black people in America to try and fix this problem.”

She shares that she received a slew of well-intentioned “I’m sorry” messages in the wake of last year’s events. “There’s a line [between] you trying to investigate and better yourself, but then there’s also coming to a Black person and trying to ask them every single thing. And that’s all well and good [but] that’s not going to fix anything. And actually, it really has nothing to do with me. That’s you getting your guilt off of your shoulders. That’s not the work.”

What does constitute the work, according to Smollett, is knowing the details of history so that we can move forward in a more nuanced way.

“I think about the power of images historically. Emmett Till’s mother having the courage to say, ‘I want this image of my son to be out there. I want the world to see what they did to him,’” she says. “The world could not say they did not know what was happening any longer. They couldn’t look away any longer.”

Keeping these stories in the news matters, but she believes putting them in narrative storytelling does, as well, especially when those behind the camera finally get to “tell the truth of our stories.”

“I think ‘Lovecraft Country’ really opened up a lane for such work to happen,” adds Jonathan Majors. “To put the organic, communal integrity and decorum of our work and our words inside the industry at large. I look forward to the day when there’s a brain trust and unity amongst us as a culture — that we create together and collaborate together. We’re on our way. We, as a culture, are beginning to beautify ourselves even more. I look forward to when that’s commonplace.”

Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.