While the entertainment industry is moving to improve representation for visible minority actors on the screen, writers’ rooms — where characters, dialogue and storylines take shape — have a long way to go.
“In terms of volume, the numbers aren’t really increasing,” says Emmy-winning Travon Free, who was nominated this year as well for his writing on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. “Even with what looks like a big surplus or surge of writers of colour and women, it’s actually still not changed that much numerically.”
UCLA’s 2018 Hollywood Diversity report is backing that up.
Researchers looked at more than 1,200 TV shows streamed or broadcast in 2015-16. People of colour represented 15 per cent of writers but to achieve proportional representation, there should be more than twice that number.
The study also analyzed nearly 200 top-grossing films in 2016. Visible minorities on those projects represented just eight per cent of writers, compared to the approximate 38 per cent of the U.S. population who are people of colour.
“There’s a lot of competent writers that are around,” says L.A.-based Canadian screenwriter Quentin Lee. “They’re just not being found in the traditional studio system.”
Holding the door open
Lee’s 1997 indie film Shopping for Fangs — made for under $100,000 — plucked actor Jon Cho from obscurity, giving the future Star Trek and Searching star his first lead role. Lee co-wrote the script with Justin Lin, who has since gone on to direct for the Fast and Furious franchise as well as Star Trek Beyond.
Lee says he had to build his own networks to break into the business. Even now, that might be key to improving numbers behind the scenes.
Writer-actors like Insecure’s Issa Rae and Atlanta‘s Donald Glover are helping change the composition of writers’ rooms to ensure not just representation, but more accurate and nuanced portrayals. Atlanta, which has an all-black writing staff, is centred around the city’s rap scene.
“I feel like people are open to these narratives now in a way that they weren’t necessarily before,” Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry told CBC News at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. He’s nominated for an Emmy for his role as Paper Boi.
Rae, who scored an Emmy nod this year for her lead role on Insecure, is also developing future series with emerging writers of colour.
“You have so many of my peers and people I look up to taking the reigns now and saying, ‘look we got a chance to make our show and now we’re going to hold this door open and make sure other creators can do the same,'” she said while also attending TIFF.
‘I don’t have to whitewash a character anymore’
To keep that door open, the Hollywood bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in the U.S. is teaming up with studios and networks. The organization has consulted with productions such as Grey’s Anatomy, The Looming Tower and most recently, Aladdin, to offer feedback on depictions of Muslim characters and Islam.
“We’ve seen an uptick in the agencies, networks and studios asking for Muslim screenwriters,” said the group’s director Sue Obeidi.
“The dialogue changed. The invitations to come and just do a presentation to the showrunner, to the writers, changed. We were invited to just brainstorm,” she said, adding she believes the industry is heading “in the right direction.”
The shift is encouraging for Lee, who says he can finally finish a script he’s been sitting on for 10 years.
“For the longest time, I couldn’t make these characters work because I thought I had to make them someone relatable — as white,” he said.
“With everything that’s going on, I realize I don’t have to whitewash a character anymore. I can just write it as is.”
With files from CBC’s Jelena Adzic and Tashauna Reid