From Simu Liu to Network TV, How Diversity Talk Can Shift From Cancellation to Cooperation

Behind-the-scenes tensions on shows like ‘The Neighborhood’ and ‘All Rise’ spotlight the struggle toward meaningful representation

Jasin Boland / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“Kim’s Convenience” star Simu Liu asks himself “every day” whether he should’ve spoken out last month on social media about his experience on the set of the hit CBC series, when he noted in a Facebook post the “overwhelmingly white” producers and lack of Korean voices in the writers’ room after creator Ins Choi departed. But Liu remembers watching what wound up being the anticlimactic series finale at the end of the fifth season, which had just been released on Netflix, and reflecting on the global impact of the show about an Asian Canadian family.

“It made me really sad [for] what could have been, and made me angry, in a lot of ways, that we weren’t able to pull things together to figure out our differences,” he told Variety in mid-June, shortly after being presented with the Canadian Award of Distinction at the 2021 Banff Rockie Awards. His co-star Jean Yoon echoed his initial sentiment on Twitter, decrying allegedly “overtly racist” storylines that the cast pushed back against. And this week’s Entertainment Weekly cover story featuring Liu, now the star of the upcoming Marvel Studios tentpole “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” reveals he protested a line in a script in which he refers to himself as “Egg Foo Jung.”

“In the spirit of speaking out about these issues, I really wanted — more than to cancel anybody or call anybody out — I wanted to make sure that future productions learn from our shortcomings and mistakes,” he continued. “And I outlined a lot of things that we as a cast didn’t do correctly. I think we were subject to a lot of infighting and kind of missed the bigger picture of what was happening, which is that we felt like creative control was being wrestled away from us and that we were becoming less and less relevant than our own show.” (In response to Liu’s public comments, a CBC spokesperson directed Variety back to a March statement from the show’s producers that explained they were ending the show following the departure of its co-creators.)

Liu and Yoon’s experiences perhaps speak to the juncture that much of the entertainment industry finds itself parked at: more diversity and representation on camera, but a great deal of work left to do behind the scenes.

“It’s come to a point where you can see that diversity in front of the camera has improved, and [diversity initiative] efforts have yielded some more representation,” said Dr. Ana-Christina Ramon, UCLA’s director of research and civic engagement at the social sciences division and co-author of the annual Hollywood Diversity Report. “Quantitatively, you see that the representation is there in terms of having more people of color overall on screen, but when you look at the writers and directors and creators, you still see this severe underrepresentation across all the major racial and ethnic groups.”

That lack of meaningful representation translates to “white people writing about these characters [that are] cast as people of color, but there’s never a match in terms of the writers talking about their personal experience.”

That was the case for one former scribe on CBS’ “The Neighborhood,” the Cedric the Entertainer and Max Greenfield series about a white family who moves into a predominantly Black neighborhood, based on the personal experience of creator and now-former showrunner Jim Reynolds. Reynolds departed after three seasons following complaints over his leadership style and cultural issues, including from two Black writers who had left the show, as Variety previously reported.

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous due to concerns about professional retaliation, felt that Reynolds had hired him and other writers for their perspective as African Americans but did not incorporate their experiences in a meaningful way.

“I was there for the fluff, for spicing up jokes and making it feel authentic, but my ideas as a Black man weren’t particularly valued,” the writer told Variety. “This is a white show pretending to be a Black show.”

“The Neighborhood” has since brought on Meg DeLoatch, an African-American woman, as its showrunner for Season 4. The assembled writers’ room is “70% diverse,” according to a source close to production, which the network sees as a step forward toward meaningful representation and believes will be reflected in the fourth’s season’s storylines. (CBS declined to comment.)

Separately, another CBS show, “All Rise,” saw five of its seven original staff writers leave the courtroom drama series over creator showrunner Greg Spottiswood’s reported approach to race and gender in the writers’ room, according to a New York Times report.

Part of the challenge for the industry as a whole is in creating long-term change, and going beyond short-term programming such as one-time bias training for executives, Ramon said.

“Things like that don’t create the kind of structural change that’s necessary,” she said. “And so what’s happened is that a lot of it has been performative, and a lot of it has been just a very general level of just saying a proclamation and saying that we’re going to make an effort, but not really doing a thorough analysis of what is necessary because what is necessary would be a strategic implementation.”

For Liu, who has partnered up with Made/Nous to become an ambassador of its Seek More campaign, which promotes Canadian talent from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures, believes that it’s also important for showrunners and producers to foster an environment in which everyone is able to contribute to the creative conversation.

“I look even at my experience working with Marvel, and you have industry giants like Kevin Feige and then I think about how collaborative he was every step of the way, and how willing he was to hear my thoughts and Destin [Daniel Cretton’s] thoughts and Dave Callaham’s thoughts,” said Liu, referring to the film’s Asian-American director and writer.

While Liu can’t go into specifics about what feedback he offered — as is the top-secret Marvel way — he did say there were “little tidbits that we were able to offer that really resulted in real tangible change within this screenplay and pointed the story to a better place.”

The origins of the Shang-Chi character in Marvel comics are certainly fraught; when the character debuted, he was the son of Fu Manchu, an offensive 20th century relic who embodied a suite of pernicious anti-Asian stereotypes. In 2019, right before he started filming, Cretton told BuzzFeed News that he first approached Marvel about the “Shang-Chi” movie specifically to “explain some of the things that would be offensive to me” from the comics — and he was pleasantly surprised when Marvel ended up hiring him to direct it.

“I’m so incredibly excited for people to watch the movie because it really is such a celebration of Asian-ness through all of its characters,” said Liu. “We were really happy to have evolved past the source material that we were given.”

Being “very, very lucky” to be a Marvel superhero — significantly, its first theatrical Asian American superhero — has put Liu in a position from which he feels he can speak out.

“I really don’t feel like I was just speaking out for the cast of ‘Kim’s Convenience,’” he said. “In a lot of ways I was speaking for a lot of actors and creatives who have just never felt the safety to be able to do so. It’s all in the spirit of being able to effect change long-term.”

Adam B. Vary  contributed to this report.