'Power' Showrunner on TV's Diversity Casting: "Latino" Does Not Equal "Mexican" (Guest Column)

Illustration by: Jacqui Oakley

Writing for THR, Courtney Kemp Agboh argues that the climate is improving, "but 'Power' + 'Empire' + Shonda Rhimes + 'Black-ish' is progress, not parity — we still have a long way to go."

This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles from New York in 2004 to try to break into television, I couldn't believe how segregated it was — how many neighborhoods were nearly all-white or all-black or -Asian or -Latino. People drove and still drive around in the compact bubbles of their cars, rarely interacting with strangers. New York definitely has ethnic neighborhoods, but on the way to work everyone is crowded on top of one another: wealthy Wall Street guys, sanitation workers, college kids and socialite ladies who lunch. That forced mixture lends New York a level of awareness about different cultures that you can't find anywhere else.

When we started on Power, I was committed to respecting the differences among Spanish dialects: Dominican, Nuyorican, Mexican, etc. I wanted the language our characters spoke to be as specific as possible, to reflect New York as it is. In L.A., Latinos and Asians often get lumped together, with actors often cast without regard for specificity. Latinos often are thought of as "Mexican" in L.A., and many people fail to notice if a Colombian guy plays a Mexican drug dealer with a Colombian accent. Would you cast an Irish actor as an Australian and not have him change his accent? Then quit doing that in Spanish.

I have had some infuriating conversations lately with executives who say they want to recruit a "diverse" audience with their programming, but what they mean is "black people." I am tired of people using "diverse" to mean "of color." That's not what that word means. "Diversity" means people of all different races, all together — like a New York City subway.

I do think the climate is improving in TV made in L.A. Execs are realizing that "mainstream" audiences no longer are turned off by seeing people of color. But Power + Empire + Shonda Rhimes + Black-ish is progress, not parity — we still have a long way to go.

Happily, younger viewers don't care at all; they just want a good story. Which is what we all should want: a good story. The Shawshank Redemption isn't a movie about a black guy and a white guy who become friends — it's a movie about freedom. At the end, the cathartic experience of seeing our own emotions reflected back to us, that's the purpose of storytelling. The closer we can get to the realism of our diverse world, the more those stories resonate — on either coast.

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