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Diverse Voices: Actors Do the Right Thing

Feb 5, 2007  •  Post A Comment

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By Sylvia Franklin

I must say I’m elated at the glad tidings and good cheer apparent at the recent SAG Awards telecast on Jan. 28. The results (and the SAG voting body) showed writers a thing or two. Namely, actors are putting their awards where the money is-on screen with thesps of all shapes, sizes, ages and, dare I say it, colors.

Diversity pays.

From Forest Whitaker to America Ferrera, and Chandra Wilson (she’s wonderful-I will have to write something for her) to Helen Mirren, it’s raining protected classes.

Even Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori is high on diversity.

Mr. Liguori lobbed the first warning shot with regard to hiring practices on this season’s new crop of pilots: “Pay attention to diversity, or risk losing out on a series pickup.”

The edict was issued Jan. 30 at a town hall meeting of sorts, according to a report in Variety. Mr. Liguori delivered his words to more than 40 show-running hopefuls and established executive producers. According to the article, Mr. Liguori believes producers need to step up efforts to hire diverse casts, writing staffs and crew.

“We think, as a network, it’s the moral thing to do,” Mr. Liguori said. “And it’s the right business thing to do. When you look at the top 10, top 20 shows out there, they’re diverse. For TV and certainly for Fox to be vibrant, relevant and authentic, we need to be reflective of the general population.”

Impressive. Incredible. Hallelujah!

Of course, this makes me question why the rest of the industry’s entertainment heads have yet to officially weigh in on the subject. Where’s the solidarity? Is it possible everyone can come to some sort of consensus on diversity whereby everyone wins?

How did SAG manage to do something writers have been struggling with for years? What do actors know that writers don’t?

It’s no secret that talent drives this industry. TV series and feature films are often commissioned and/or greenlighted based on what A-list actor is attached.

You’re extremely lucky if you can afford an A-lister, but a star on the wane or an emerging D-lister will do just as well. Said individual might not bring in the same number of dollars, but some dollars are better than none. As long as the actor attached has name recognition, someone, somewhere will take a meeting, assist with development or possibly finance the project.

Hmm. Actors may be onto something.

Look at the number of actors turning executive producer for the small screen. You have Sandra Bullock with ABC’s “George Lopez” and Salma Hayek with “Ugly Betty,” Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg with HBO’s “Entourage” and this season’s pilot-turned-series “In Treatment.”

Actors hiring other actors. Imagine that.

Now I’m about to reveal something I probably shouldn’t-an issue most wouldn’t lend a voice to for fear of exposure (not to mention reprisal). But the thing that’s most glaring about actors hiring diverse actors is the fact that writers don’t hire diverse writers. At least not that many.

It’s particularly painful and unpleasant to say it, and not that great to read, but it’s fact. Previous columns with loads of stats support that. Why? Head scratching here. To be honest, I don’t know.

As a television writer-a proud, card-carrying member of the WGA, this just makes me want to scream. On one hand, what happens in the writers’ room is life-altering, satisfying on so many levels, sweet.

On the other-and this is more frequent than not, it can be stressful, dysfunctional and toxic. It can be rocked with the kind of political strife and shenanigans most of us love to avoid. It can be a tough gig, folks.

It’s hard to justify the treatment some writers have received, myself included.

We’re all adults, professionals, and yet we’re catapulted back to high school waiting for the cool, popular kid(s) to determine our fate. And you know what’s weird about it? The very thing that makes you you-the raison d’etre you’re hired in the first place: your life experiences-they and you are coldly dismissed when your time’s up. Oftentimes with no explanation.

The very people you spent hour upon hour with, divulging intimate personal details with, no longer consider you team-worthy. Your value has shifted, sometimes literally overnight. Game over. Welcome to unemployment.

I’m not saying this paradigm shift will be easy, but something has to give.

Imagine scripted TV peppered with even more diverse series, populated with even more diverse staffs. Imagine nirvana.

I think we writers can definitely take a page from the actors. Someone smarter than I am once said, “It’s really not about being invited to the party, but being allowed to do good work.”

Sylvia Franklin is a TV writer living in Los Angeles. She is co-chair of the WGA’s Committee of Black Writers and president of the Organization of Black Screenwriters.