‘Afro Samurai’ Showrunner Leo Chu on Creating BIPOC Heroes: ‘We Are Building a World We Want to Live In’ (Guest Column)

Leo Chu on Creating BIPOC Heroes:
Courtesy of Hive Comm.

I remember when I became the showrunner of my first live-action series, “Supah Ninjas,” I thought I had arrived.

Somehow, against all odds, this show I created with my partner Eric S. Garcia was shooting on the Paramount lot. On the same stage as “Family Ties.” I was officially a part of Hollywood history. When I set foot on stage, I was surprisingly whisked away by an A.D. “Surely,” I thought, “I was being taken to my fancy director’s chair that would make a killer humble-post on my socials.” But instead, I found myself in the holding area with the extras. I learned two things that day. I did not look like someone’s idea of a showrunner. And the holding area is hard to leave.

It was a good reminder that perception shapes reality – and you can literally be trapped by someone else’s perception. It’s not enough to simply break in. You have to break out.

Creatively, my partner and I always try to bring something new into the world, and by doing so, change it. “Supah Ninjas” grew from us being sick of seeing women and POC as the ones being rescued all the time. So we created three teen heroes – Black, female, and AAPI – who did the rescuing instead.

With “Afro Samurai,” we wanted to see a Black hero in one of our favorite genres: animé. When Samuel L. Jackson signed on, he told us that as a Black actor he had never had a love interest before. We were floored. So we wrote him one.

But the work doesn’t stop there. You have to create the world you want to see off-screen as well by changing what people perceive and believe to be possible.

When we were staffing “Supah Ninjas,” we were told by agents that there weren’t any AAPI writers, which I knew wasn’t true because they were talking to one.

The truth is most of them didn’t bother to rep any because no one thought that’s what writers looked like. So I decided to co-found and co-chair the New Writers Fellowship through CAPE (The Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment). Now in its 10th year, I’m proud to say that our AAPI alums have staffed on over 50 television shows, and the Fellowship has become the most successful non-studio talent development program in Hollywood. No one thinks AAPI’s cannot be writers anymore.

On my shows, I continue to create the reality that I want to live in.

To do that I have 3 rules:

1) Everyone checks their egos at the door; 2) We all treat each other with respect; and 3) We all have fun.

Eric and I literally say this to every single person we hire. We’re now the showrunners and executive producers of “Ultra Violet & Black Scorpion,” Disney’s first Latinx superhero series. We made it a point to hire a truly diverse mix of talent that was authentic and true to the spirit of the production. The series stars an all Latinx cast, we staffed a majority Latinx writers room, and we hired majority Latinx, female, and POC department heads.

As a result, the collaboration allows for authentic voices to be heard at every level of the show. Several people have remarked that this is the most diverse production they’ve ever worked on. I take that as a huge compliment. And so far, no one has mistaken anyone for an extra.

With this being our third genre series, mythology and world-building have become our hallmarks. Working in a genre allows us to explore the complexity and deeper issues of the human condition. But we aren’t only building worlds in our stories. We are building a world we want to live in. In this way, we can help others see the world not as it is, but as it could be.

Leo Chu, along with Eric S. Garcia, is the award-winning showrunner and executive producer of groundbreaking series such as “Afro-Samurai,” “Alexa & Katie” and Disney’s upcoming “Ultra-Violet & Black Scorpion.” He is the co-founder of CAPE’s New Writers Fellowship which discovers and nurtures emerging writers to succeed in Hollywood.

Throughout the month of May, Variety will publish essays and stories from prominent AAPI artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of AAPI entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.