In the wake of public outcry over the lack of Black representation in the film industry, animation studios and entertainment companies at large have publicized their commitment to diversity and hiring more people of color at every level.
While these statements look like a cultural shift, a significant question hangs over them: Does this mean real change is taking place in the animation landscape and do films such as “Soul” help the push toward representation?
“That’s a tough question to answer because only time is going to tell,” says Kemp Powers, co-director of Oscar-winning “Soul” and director of the upcoming “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2.” “Animation is a slow business. It takes four to seven years to get one of these films made. It’s going to be years before we see what impact, if any, the film has had. What I do hope that ‘Soul’ did so was to have an impact on how animated films featuring characters of color can also be universal. I think so just based on the global audience that I saw [“Soul”] had and countries like Russia and China, proves that being hyper-specific, having characters from different cultures, does not exclude any audiences, especially when you are telling universal human stories. So, that’s the positive lesson I hope others have learned from the success of the film, but again, only time is going to tell.”
Kerri Grant, who has been nominated for eight Daytime Emmys and is showrunner and co-executive producer of “Ada Twist, Scientist,” from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground, thinks the storytelling won’t do all the work on its own.
“I think the films and the shows do a good job of showing what’s possible to audiences,” says Grant. “I think it works in the sense of kids out there and people out there and families out there seeing themselves on screen. I think the possibility is the first step for people to even think it’s possible to end up in an in a career like this. As far as so those films and TV shows helping to open doors, I think in only to the extent that the people behind the scenes make an effort to really extend opportunities to people of color in the industry. So I was a staff writer on ‘Doc McStuffins’ and that definitely opened that door for me.
“I think then it’s sort of like up to me, people like me in the in the kind of deciding ranks of the corporations that are airing or producing the shows to open doors for people of color in the industry who work behind the scenes. I’m not sure if the shows themselves or the films themselves necessarily open doors, but I think they show what’s possible.”
For Breana Williams, a production coordinator for Disney TV Animation on “The Proud Family” and co-founder of Black N Animated and co-host of the Black N Animated podcast, commitments to increasing representation and diversity have historical significance.
“Yes, there is a mandate, but it is a bummer to me that the mandate came from Black trauma,” says Williams. “And that’s something that I’ve sort of echoed in the past where people have asked me, ‘Isn’t it really great that there’s like more of a push?’ It’s great, but it is a little bit unfortunate that it took the murder of someone for it to happen. That’s what’s kind of a double-edged sword for me, when I look at it. I’m really excited with the content that’s been coming out. I just wish that it didn’t take something so awful for people to realize, ‘oh, Black people are in my workplace and when I go outside they’re my, my friends, my peers, neighbors.’ We’ve been saying this for a while.”
The Black N Animated organization was started to help form a community for Black animators and help them break into toon careers.
Rise Up Animation is also advocating for animators of color and seeks to broaden representation. One of the group’s co-founders, Frank E. Abney III, has worked at Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar over his extensive career that includes titles such as “The Incredibles 2,” “Coco” and “Toy Story 4.”
“I’ve started to see some small changes,” says Abney. “I feel on the executive side, there’s still a lot of work to be done. When it comes to the decision-making on the creative front for some of our large studios, I can think of two Black women executives, so that’s a problem. I think there’s still a lot more work to be done, but I think there have been some small changes that have started to happen. I think there have been waves [of diverse characters] in animation on the feature side more now than I’ve seen in the past. Growing up, I can’t think of a feature that had people of color that I identified with or felt like [people of color] were represented in an authentic way.”
Aphton Corbin, director of the lauded Pixar short film “Twenty Something,” has seen how information about animation careers and the high cost of animation education and equipment can be an additional hurdle for Black creatives.
“I think within the studios, people are recognizing the need to have more diverse voices for sure,” says Corbin, who is at work on a feature project for Pixar. “But I think there’s a gap between accessibility to getting into the industry for people of color. I’ve experienced a lot of people who are eager and hungry to help but then how to get more people through the door is still a bit of a struggle. I think it all boils down to accessibility. For me, being able to go to CalArts was a huge benefit. But I wouldn’t have been able to afford it without taking on a ridiculous amount of loans and a lot of people can’t take that risk or even have access to that.”
Marshell Becton, line producer on “Gen: Lock,” has worked as a producer on “SuperMansion” and the movie “My Little Pony: Rarity, the Queen of Fashion!” She believes diversity will increase as Black creatives are given more opportunities to begin their animation careers.
“I think there has been some progress but there’s still a lot of room to grow,” Becton says. “I still have to fight just as hard for a job as I did 10 years ago. It was a challenge to be seen but I’ve made sure my voice was heard. One of the things I think about is whether diversity is a trend or whether it will stay, and it’s hard to tell at this moment. I think it’s important to start giving diverse folks the opportunity. They don’t always have as much experience but if you’re going to lean into diversity with your crew you have to start somewhere because many people aren’t getting that first opportunity.”
Animation writer Aydrea Walden, who has worked on “Ada Twist: Scientist” and “Pete the Cat,” sees social media as a way for creatives to break through the noise by showcasing their talent and networking with animation professionals. This could address some accessibility issues for those who aren’t able to invest thousands in a high-end program.
“For the individual and for the studio to find people was very difficult even if the studio was going to have a big diversity fair in the mid-2000s,” Walden says. “When I got here it was still very difficult because studios or recruiters would kind of need to know individual people or it was focused on college requirements and by the time people get to college some sifting has occurred. So I do think the effort is sincere and I’ve been able to connect with people in both directions on social media.”
Creators including Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, executive producer of “Karma’s World,” a show based on the life of his oldest daughter, are making the content they hope will lead the way for more representative programming. They also see it as a way to speak to the next generation.
“Inclusivity and representation are very important,” Bridges says. “I have four daughters and I love for them to see themselves on screen. It’s important for them to see this animation is beautiful and that they are beautiful, too, because art imitates life. I want to be part of the solution, I am trying to be the change that I want to see in the world.”
“Karma’s World” was based on an interactive website of the same name. Bridges is also the founder of Kid Nation, an entertainment platform created with the goal of providing children with health and academic support.
Carl Jones, widely known for his work on “The Boondocks,” the first Cartoon Network show to win a Peabody Award, agrees that there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of advancing diversity but, like Bridges, he’s also looking for ways to create opportunities.
“I’m really hopeful just because I’m having an opportunity now to explore so much talent across the world,” says Jones.