Diversity and authenticity in storytelling have always been critical, but only in recent years has Hollywood seemed to take notice.
Throughout most of the history of American film and television, stories of people of color were more often than not told through the lens of a white creator. Many have sounded the alarm for years that by doing things this way, the nuance and culture of those being portrayed is lost or misrepresented. In recent years there has been some progress, though there is still a long way to go, in part because the number of white writers and producers who are signing multi-year deals still greatly outweighs the number of people of color who are put in such prime positions.
“They are our stories to tell, first and foremost,” says “Insecure” co-creator Issa Rae. “There has been a history of other people representing who we are to the public, and I think having ownership over who gets to tell our stories is essential.”
One need not look back far to see examples of what Rae is saying. Per an analysis done by Variety Intelligence Platform, there are currently just under 900 active overall deals across all studios, networks, and streaming services in Hollywood. Of those, approximately 64% are held by white people. Approximately 16% are held by Black people, while Latin and Asian people make up around 3% each. (The remainder is made up of people who are multi-racial.) Gender diversity is a bit closer to parity but also not equal: Approximately 55% of all deals are held exclusively by men, while approximately 35% are held exclusively by women, with remaining 10% made up of production companies that have at least one female and one male principal executive.
There have been many examples of shows featuring characters of color created by a white person who then brings on writers and producers of color under the guise of giving these characters authentic voices. But then those people’s opinions go unheeded, leading to conflict.
Prentice Penny, the showrunner on “Insecure,” says that while he has not experienced that type of situation directly in his career, he has been asked to participate in projects recently where it was clear to him that he was approached to rubber stamp a white writer writing a Black character.
“What was abundantly clear in the meeting that I could understand by looking at the optics was that I was definitely there to put a stamp on it, but my voice may not necessarily be seen as equal or as necessary,” Penny says. “They didn’t say those words, but that was certainly the feeling. It was very clear to me, and I absolutely was not going to be that person for them in this way.”
Kourtney Kang, whose credits include “How I Met Your Mother,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and the new Disney Plus series “Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.,” says that diversity in the production process is still treated like a chore rather than an essential component.
“When we talk about diversity, it’s almost treated like eating your vegetables. It’s something you have to do,” she says. “We need fresh perspectives and new voices. We’ve told all these same stories over and over. And now, why not tell them through a different lens and make the entertainment more specific, and more interesting, which is ultimately better for business?”
Kang also acknowledges another sensitive subject for writers of color — diversity staff writer positions. These are reserved for writers of color on TV shows, with the studio paying their salary rather than taking it out of a show’s budget. Kang says that such positions can be invaluable for young writers looking for a way to break in, but once they try to move up the ladder beyond those positions, they can be met with incredible resistance.
Gloria Calderón Kellett, the co-creator of the critically acclaimed “One Day at a Time” reboot, says that lately she has heard many white male writers lamenting that they cannot get work due to studios and networks looking to hire more people of color.
“There is a perception in Hollywood that we are coming for your jobs — that diversity is going to destroy the white man,” she says. “And I just don’t think that’s true. I think that really there’s room for all of us. I do have a lot of people say to me, ‘It must be great to be you.’ I’m like, ‘It is great to be me, but I’m one of the only ones.’ You can’t say that it’s just lousy with Latinas. It’s really not. We are still pretty invisible everywhere. So, that’s the thing that concerns me — that the town seems to care about diversity for press releases.”
The numbers bear out Calderón Kellett’s point, as Variety Intelligence Platform found with the aforementioned statistics.
One thing most who spoke to Variety agree on is they don’t want to be seen as pitching a Latina show or a Black show, but rather just a show that could appeal to everyone.
“As meaningful as these conversations are and how honored I am to represent my community, I want to be able to talk about crafting a joke or a coming-of-age story and not just what the background of my lead is,” says Ilana Peña, creator, “Diary of a Future President.”
Take for example the new FX on Hulu comedy “Reservation Dogs,” which hails from Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. Harjo says that he intentionally avoided over-explaining the world of the series, which takes place on a reservation in Oklahoma, because he has faith in the audience.
“For ‘Reservation Dogs,’ the idea was to not hold anyone’s hand,” he says. “It’s just dropping you in the middle of a story. And I don’t over-explain anything, I don’t explain the slang. I don’t explain the nuance. I don’t explain the rhythm, I don’t explain any of the humor. Nothing. I think that when you trust an audience, and you respect the audience enough to do that, I think the audience leans in, and they find their own way in, and then they become stronger fans of the show, and of the story that you’re telling. They become absorbed in it.”