It was a panel that may not have been able to exist even a decade ago — and that is cause for celebration.
Coming in the midst of Black History Month, the Paley Center for Media spotlighted prominent African-American showrunners and creators in a spirited discussion aptly titled “They Run the Show.”
Taking the stage on Feb. 13 at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills in a conversation moderated by “Entertainment Tonight’s” Nischelle Turner were Courtney A. Kemp (“Power”), Prentice Penny (“Insecure”), Justin Simien (“Dear White People“), Karin Gist (“Star”), Cheo Hodari Coker (“Luke Cage”) and Janine Sherman Barrois (“Claws”).
After a reel of clips from their programs played to a packed audience in the venue’s theater, Coker noted that even five years ago, Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil could have been the only participants on such a panel.
But it was Kemp who bottom-lined the issue of color straightaway. “All the networks want is green. I remember my first boss said, ‘I want “Ride Along” money.’ So I said, ‘I can’t do that unless you want me to insert a short, comedic person into a drama,’” she said.
On a much more serious note, Coker paid tribute to people of color who laid the groundwork for the careers of those on stage. “So many came ahead of us over the past 20 years to make this a reality,” he said. “People forget how hard it was to get blacks on TV, so this is cumulatively a victory for all of us.”
“As a person of color, I’ve always been on the perimeter — but that’s helpful in order to create and see how characters develop,” said Penny.
The conversation shifted to the complexities of hiring. “Now you can say that you want more people of color in jobs. Years ago, you couldn’t,” said Barrois.
“But the flipside is that all they [the agencies] send you are black writers, no matter what I say I want,” said Kemp, who also noted that at times in her career she counted as a two-fer, a woman and a black person. “Now, I want to hire better than me. Diversity is someone different from me.”
Simien agreed, asking rhetorically what the point was if everyone was the same, while adding a humorous spin to the equation. “Do we have too many gay black people here — said no one ever.”
“Technology has allowed black folks to subvert the gatekeepers,” he continued. “You gotta fill content. We had a lot of nerve walking into the building — and then not leaving. Now there’s a new era where YouTubers can get a show.”
Kemp again complained the agencies still think she wants an all-black production team, and sends her lists with certain names starred.
“The last time you put stars on people, I think there was a world war,” she said — and the audience erupted in nervous laughter.
“We have all been the only person in the room. Now, a lot of the rooms are like this stage,” Coker said. He talked about his background as a hip-hop journalist in the ’90s. “It was like a black version of ‘Almost Famous.’ But watching people like John Singleton, Mario von Peebles and Spike Lee live their dreams, I decided to go after it myself. It’s been a long road.”
The showrunners spoke of how the current era of programming not only allows for but also celebrates the complexity of characters and storytelling.
“We have the benefit of three-dimensional characters, not caricatures. Morality plays are a simple genre,” said Penny, alluding to many prior depictions of black actors.
The panel participants batted about the concept of whether white creators could depict the black experience accurately. There was praise for David Simon and “The Wire,” and some criticism for Quentin Tarantino and “Django Unchained,” particularly its prolific use of the n-word.
“Black suffering is the doorway in,” Kemp said.
“We need a black ‘Lady Bird,’” Barrois said, as the discussion continued about current films before circling back to the realities of their lives in television. Each agreed on the importance of writing.
“Like the saying ‘always be closing,’ always be writing,” Kemp advised.
No matter their success, finding balance in real life is a constant struggle for everyone.
“When you are a showrunner, it’s very insular. But having kids and a family makes me disciplined,” Penny said. “Yet I’ve just started reading books again — after four years.”