With the recent success of movies like Black Panther and Hidden Figures and the rising notoriety of select Black writers (think: Tyler Perry, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe…), you might think there was a more apparent trend toward diversity in the writing rooms in Hollywood. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The result is inadequate portrayals of ethnic characters, limited perspective, and exclusionary casting. As we make the case for shifting this paradigm, let’s explore 3 powerful ways representation positively impacts Hollywood storytelling.
1. Black characters are more relatable and authentic.
In a recent report commissioned by Color of Change (COC) Hollywood, researchers found that of the roughly 4,000 overall writers across all network and cable shows, just 5% were Black. In writing rooms led by White showrunners, Black writers were extremely rare. Nearly 70% of these rooms had no Black writers, while 17% had only a single Black writer on staff. The negative impact of these statistics is two-fold. It means Black characters are fewer and farther between or are found in sub par roles. It also means the Black imagery we see on screen often leans on stereotypical or superficial depictions of Black characters. In stark contrast, shows that employed Black writers were much more likely to cast diverse characters. In addition, the COC report found portrayals of Black characters to be much more authentic and relatable when Black writers were engaged in the process.
2. Black writers enjoy more freedom and inclusion in the creative process.
The issue of Black writers is not only about inclusion by way of access to employment opportunities, it is also about having a voice to tell our story. Although some shows use quotas to fill “diversity seats,” these tokenized Black writers have reported feeling isolated in these environments. Black writers have noted increasingly more positive experiences and a greater sense of inclusion in writing rooms with more writers who looked like them. Notably, in writing rooms with 5 or more Black writers, creatives enjoyed the most real and collaborative dialogue, openly discussing race and exploring the characters and storylines with the richness and depth that comes from shared experience.
3. Black social and political narratives are explored in storytelling.
The COC report also found diverse writing rooms were much more likely to explore issues of the socio-economic plight of Black people, criminal and social justice issues, and systemic racism. While this is true, shows without Black contributors tended to dance around these ideas, glossing over blatant institutionalized inequities in the treatment and perceptions of Black characters. So, what does this tell us? If we want our truth told on screen, we need to be an integral part of the writing corps on these shows and films.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama summed it up perfectly a few weeks ago at Essence Fest when she was asked the number one lesson she learned on her world-wide book tour. Her answer: People crave stories – especially ones about people who look like them. Profound, and a nod to the fact that representation matters. It’s time Black writers get a seat at the table. Not just to satisfy diversity quotas, but as respected, trusted authorities uniquely equipped to tell the story of the Black experience and offer fresh perspective to mainstream depictions.
How’s that for motivation to get you to put pen to paper?
Well, on July 15th, I am launching the “Just Get Started” writing challenge to tackle what many deem the most critical part of your script – the first 10 pages. We are writing 10 pages in 10 days, and first impressions are everything, so I want you to knock it out of the park. To help you get started, you’ll receive a Character Blueprint immediately after signing up so you can begin to think through your characters’ personalities and ticks before we go all in. I’m tossing in a bunch of additional resources and I’ll be there to answer any questions you have along the way. Oh, and you’ll have a community of like-minded story-tellers in our private Facebook group offering feedback and cheering you on as well. Best part yet, it is only $10 to join. Are you in? If so, click this LINK to sign up today. See you there!
Hunt, Darnell. (2017) Race In the Writers’ Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories that Shape America. Los Angeles, CA. Color of Change Hollywood.