Although the recent Primetime Emmy nominations showed the Television Academy does not have a #SoWhite problem, it doesn’t mean that diversity is not a front and center issue in the television industry.
Addressing the topic head-on, the Television Critics Association summer press tour and CTAM, the cable portion of the confab taking place at the Beverly Hilton, broke with the tradition of presenting specific shows and put on a panel Aug. 1 in the International Ballroom to discuss the hurdles of achieving diversity in front of and behind the camera.
Participating were a range of executives, actors, creatives and showrunners who work in cable: directors Anthony Hemingway (“Underground,” “American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson”) and Victoria Mahoney (“Survivor’s Remorse”); actors Tichina Arnold (“Survivor’s Remorse”) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (“Underground”); Theresa Vargas Wyatt, head of outreach for El Rey Network; showrunner Carlos Coto (“From Dusk Till Dawn”); D’Angela Proctor, SVP of programming and production, TV One; and director/writer Russ Parr (“Ringside,” TV One’s upcoming boxing film).
They were introduced by director Robert Rodriguez, fresh from speaking at the Democratic National Convention last week.
“There has never been a more important time for building understanding and sharing our similarities and differences,” said Rodriguez, who runs the El Rey Network and has directed hit films including “Spy Kids,” “Sin City” and “El Mariachi.” “Diversity should be the rule, not the exception. It involves inclusivity and opening the doors on both the artistic side and the C-suite. Through their hard work, many voices will be heard.”
Hemingway, who has worked in a number of genres, advocated for stories that are relatable and provide a point of reference, including period pieces like WGN’s series about the Underground Railroad. “I like to use these vehicles to sucker-punch you with laughter or thrills or a good time that have a purpose at the same time,” he said.
Arnold, whose credits include “Martin” and “Everybody Hates Chris,” said comedy is a great way to talk about serious issues. “We have a great platform through comedy to intertwine stories and express things you cannot really express ordinarily. With my character [on ‘Survivor’s Remorse’], the elephant in the room is really dark skin.”
Mahoney picked up on the issue of colorism between light skin and dark skin, saying it’s crucial to have the actors in such scenes have input. “Diversity is inclusivity of allowing more storytelling to human beings,” she said, adding that part of the issue is achieving noticeable shifts in representation. “We’ve been exclusive [for so long]. How about we not be exclusive anymore and just open it up?”
“But we don’t have to beat you over the head with racial topics,” said Parr. “We are going to take a chance to tell you these stories, even if we have to lose money. It wasn’t always popular to humanize African Americans and, therefore, it wasn’t profitable.
“We’re able to tell so many different stories that weren’t accepted years ago — like maybe two years ago. The big thing to understand is we have stories too. We love too. We get angry too.”
Proctor noted that she prefers the word “belonging” to “diversity.” “We have to be at the table and order from the menu — and build bridges from talent to opportunity,” she said.
Wyatt expanded on the table reference: “The generation before us was so happy to be at the table that they ate so much because they thought they may never be here again. But the democratization of the platform now is doing good work every day and creating opportunities for people.”
Hemingway talked about how multiple platforms have in fact created more opportunities. “We are continuing to persevere. I have a motto — never take a no from someone who can’t give you a yes,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said that it’s gotten easier. It hasn’t, but things are shifting. We are learning how we need to do it together and continue to build relationships that will help us forge ahead.”
The panel was questioned about their influences and inspirations as they were growing up.
“Every time I saw Sammy Davis Jr. or Sidney Poitier it was inspirational,” said Parr.
Proctor said she was inspired by the films “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and “She’s Gotta Have it,” both released in the mid- to late 1980s.
Smollett-Bell mentioned “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and 1985’s “The Color Purple.” Of the former, she said the image of a woman in a very complex world struggling to make it in a male-dominated society and be her own authentic self spoke to her, as did the women in “Purple.”
The actress, who has also recently appeared in “True Blood,” “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” said she gets offered a lot of roles as a girlfriend. “I seek out roles that are not one-dimensional,” she said. “I could make a lot of money and have a huge resume if I just played the girlfriend, but it’s not fulfilling to me. On ‘Underground,” Rosalie was not just a love interest but a living, breathing person. That’s been the challenge — fighting the stereotypes.”
“We have to consistently bring the noise, bring the funk,” Arnold added, and noted that social media has forced show business to listen to many different types of people.
Yet the challenges across the board remain daunting. “I’m a 4% hire,” said Mahoney, referring to female directors of color, of which she is one of a very few. “Right now if people want to hire a director of color, it’s a male. If they want to hire a woman, she’s white. Mike O’Malley [showrunner on ‘Survivor’s Remorse’] couldn’t find women of color directors — and writers — at the agencies. I have to confront people’s old ways of thinking and move the line in the sand. A few of us are popping through but a lot of people quit because the opening is so narrow.”
“Viewers and audiences have a right to see themselves depicted on screen,” said Smollett-Bell. “The problems come from when we hang on to the old system.”
“We should have access to the whole world,” said Arnold. “I’m huge in Brazil.”
As for what stories they’d like to tell, Coto leavened his choice with a dose of humor that played on ethnic stereotypes. “I’m dying to see a Latino family show that’s not about criminals,” he said. “I want to make a Latino show without the word ‘cartel’ in it.”