One of the aspects about what the Black List does I resonate with most is the number of initiatives it sponsors to open doors for writers outside the Hollywood system. Initiatives like:
I want to see a wider variety of scripted entertainment created a more diverse group of writers. Different types of narratives. Different subcultures explored. Different voices heard. Unfortunately Hollywood does not have a good track record when it comes to diversity.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Darnell Hunt, professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of the university’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American studies. There is perhaps no one more qualified to speak on the subject than Darnell for reasons that are readily apparent in this interview.
Today in Part 3, Darnell talks about the role of bias and some possible “best practices” that can emerge to address the issue of underrepresentation in Hollywood:
Scott: It looks like what the bottom line here is there’s an institutional component, as well as a conventional wisdom or perception that’s out there.
That leads us to this: What to do. One of the areas of the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report covered was to “identify and disseminate best practices for increasing the pipeline of underrepresented groups into the Hollywood entertainment industry.”
What are some of those best practices?
Darnell: I’m going to plead the fifth here and say that we’re early in the process to be able to definitively and completely provide you with a list of things that need to be done right away.
Off the top of my head, I can give you a few things I think will be important. Part of the point of the review series is with each succeeding issue of the report the picture will become sharper and sharper in terms of what’s happening and what’s not happening.
For example, this year’s report, the 2015 report, is going to go beyond the 2014 report. In addition to just reporting ratings and box office for films and TV shows, we also had access to demographic information for the audiences.
We’ll be able to talk about not only the rating for a show that’s diverse, but also who is watching that show in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, household income, all the things that advertisers care about.
We’ll also do the same for box office, and we’re also going to be looking at content analysis of a select sample of TV shows that are diverse to get a sense of what are the images and portrayals that definitively point to what’s working and what’s not.
That is to say, over time, as we see the same patterns emerge, we’ll be able to say XYZ network is getting it right with this particular approach while this particular network or this studio isn’t. I think that’s the type of specificity we’re aiming for in terms of looking at the bird’s eye view, looking at patterns, and then figuring out who the exemplars are of the positive patterns versus the negative ones.
From that type of analysis, I’d say, probably in year two or three, a pretty clear set of recommendations will begin to emerge. I think, at the minimum, there needs to be an examination of the executive suite at the major studios and networks. That is to say, “Who’s making green‑lighting decisions. Is there diversity among that group?”
Again, the point you made earlier about Hollywood just wants a good script, that’s true, but how do you define a good script? That’s a very subjective thing largely a reflection of our cultural background, where we came from, our tastes, things that we know vary according to our ethnic and racial background and our genders.
The whole idea of what’s good needs to be expanded so the room is more inclusive and more people are participating in the process of deciding what’s good and what’s going to be green‑lit. The executive suites is an area that needs to be looked at, something we are going to look at in our reports down the line.
Another area is the project development process, the pilot process in television. Data I have from the Writer’s Guild, studies I’ve done in the past show that process is as bad or worse than what we see at the end of the pipeline in what makes it to the air.
The people who get to pitch, again, largely those who are represented by the major agencies and/or are “seasoned,” which means, they’ve been around before, typically white men have a leg up on new folks who may have interesting ideas, but who don’t have the clout to actually get an audience with the network or with an agency to help move that project forward.
What we also see is that writers of color and women who, again, aren’t “seasoned,” are often paired with white male show-runners to pitch these stories. Then you have dynamics in the writing room that don’t allow the story or idea to evolve the way it would if the person was just left to his or her own devices to develop the idea.
There are all kinds of structural things in place that make it really hard to get out of what amounts to a Catch‑22. It takes talent to get work, but you can’t demonstrate your abilities because you’re not working. It becomes very difficult to break out of this double bind.
With time, our study will be able to show the few examples — and there are a few examples — that have been successful in getting around this morass. Once we have that data, I think we can make some pretty profound and compelling recommendations.
Scott: One thing that was interesting in the last couple of years on the film side: 12 Years A Slave, written by John Ridley, directed by Steve McClain, nominated for nine Oscars, winning three including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture. This year Belle, written by Misan Sagay, directed by Amma Asante did very well in the Indie film world. Then Ava DuVernay directing Selma.
All these African Americans or filmmakers of African descent, on the face of it that’s great. However each of these are racially themed stories so you wonder if it’s the people making the decisions saying, “This is appropriate for these filmmakers to be doing this because it’s something in their wheelhouse culturally and experientially.”
The question then becomes what about doing non‑racially themed movies? Why can’t women direct non‑gender based or why can’t African Americans direct non‑racially themed stories? You can even get conspiratorial. As if to say, “We’ll just give them these films that are in their wheelhouse and that should keep them happy.” I’m just curious what your perception of that is.
Darnell: That’s a good point. It’s the same type of thing we see with writers. I’m really familiar with the writing situation. I’ve been writing the Hollywood Writers Report now for eight years. We talk a lot about typecasting of writers.
It’s a very clear phenomenon. There was a whole cohort of black writers who cut their teeth on the rise of the WB and UPN back in the mid ’90s. All of those African American themed sitcoms cancelled when UPN went off the air and overnight almost half of all black employed writers were unemployed.
A lot of those writers never found work again because they were typecast as only being able to write black situation comedies, which of course, according to the Academy, aren’t very high‑quality. They’re not winning Emmys. I think you have the same type of thing going on with directors and writers in film.
There’s this presumption that people of color and women can only do niche films that pertain to topics that are relevant to the experiences of those groups and that they can’t do more universal films, for example. There are a few exceptions, of course, but, for the most part, that’s the presumption.
What it really boils down to, I think, is that, as I pointed out earlier, it’s a very lucrative industry, it’s a very competitive industry. Those who are in control do not want to relinquish control.
They want to do everything they can to affirm the belief they are in control, because they deserve to be, because they’re the most talented, they’re the most savvy, they’re the best writers, the best directors.
Everyone else is behind them in terms of merit as it relates to what the industry’s all about. If they can make this perception dominant then it becomes much easier for them to continue to profit from and benefit from their position in the industry and to keep others who would do the same basically at bay.
In the end, it boils down to that. The question is what do you do about that? I think that the business as a whole, the industry as a whole, has to see where the market is going, where the nation is going, and that’s towards diversity.
At some point, you’re no longer viable if you’re not recognizing that, if you allow the personal and individual agendas of those who currently control the industry to set the tone. I think that’s the message that we’re trying to communicate, and we’re trying to show ways that the industry as a whole would be advanced by just tapping into this diversity thing and running with it.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Darnell discusses the uptick in female-driven movie projects and the impact of the internationalization of the Hollywood entertainment industry on the issue of diversity.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Part 2, here.
You may follow Darnell Hunt on Twitter: @darnell_hunt.
To download a copy of the “2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect” mentioned in the interview, click here.