One Black TV Writer on the "'Empire' Effect": "My Creative Parameters Are Limited"
What the Fox hit has wrought for one anonymous African-American scribe who has worked in TV for five years, including on an Emmy-nominated show: "Everyone in Hollywood is looking for the next 'Empire' from every black writer — because I cannot possibly have any other idea or perspective."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On a good day, after I pitched my heart out to a roomful of executives, they would not dismiss my creativity and ask if I had an "Empire-esque" idea to pitch. Why would I pitch Empire? I don’t rap, my father isn’t a rapper and even though my mother did spend time in jail, it wasn’t to serve a 17-year drug sentence. Yes, the Empire effect is real — but it’s not what you might think. The good news: If you’re an established writer of color, you can get a pitch meeting. The bad news: Everyone in Hollywood is looking for the next Empire from every black writer — because I cannot possibly have any other idea or perspective. My creative parameters are limited to the next Scandal, Black-ish or a TV version of Straight Outta Compton. (Side note: The Straight Out of Calabasas pitch that Fox purchased [a comedy about two white parents who live in the celebrity enclave and whose kid is a basketball prodigy] is a complete abomination and the reason I wonder why I even try.)
On a good day, my representation would submit me for shows that tonally fit my writing style and not merely for shows that happen to have the prototypical "person of color" character. So, I can only write for the sassy black, sassy Latino or sassy gay friend? As a person of color, I have no choice but to consider the perspectives of others!
On a good day, I wouldn’t have to decide to ignore racist and sexist statements because I don’t want to be seen as an outsider.
On a good day, after hearing news of my meeting with a showrunner, a white male colleague wouldn’t ask to be my writing partner so he can "get in on that coveted diversity spot." Apparently, there is a misconception about the diversity spot: It is not a guarantee; it is merely a suggestion. And the suggestion comes with a bribe, since the salary for that spot is covered by the studio or network. Yes, it seems a lot of showrunners have to be bribed to consider taking on a diversity writer. Still, my "friend" thinks it’s OK to passive-aggressively joke about what, in many instances, is my only opportunity to staff on a show. He thinks it’s somehow an advantage to be looked upon as the writer that agents pitch by saying, "They’re free.”"Since when did working harder than everyone in the room only to get excluded when you’re no longer free become an advantage?
As I told him, I would switch positions any day. I’d prefer to vie for one of 100 spots like him than the five or six left for me because I am free.