Creators Discuss Breaking Down Power Imbalances in TV at ATX Television Festival

'Black Lightning's' Salim Akil, 'CSI: Cyber' Pam Veasey and others discuss power dynamics in the television industry at an ATX Television Festival panel.
Robin Marchant/Getty Images for BuzzFeed/The CW

It might've been 10 a.m., but that didn't stop the panelists on Saturday's ATX Television Festival panel about power dynamics in Hollywood from speaking about very real issues, from educating people about privilege to fighting for empathy and integrity in the industry.

Salim Akil (Black Lightning), Jessica Rhoades (Sharp Objects), Mauricio Mota (East Los High), Pam Veasey (CSI: Cyber, Nash Bridges) and Kathleen McCaffrey (senior vp HBO Programming) discussed the importance of setting examples in writers rooms and speaking out against abuses of power.

The panelists all agreed that the first step in helping marginalized people — women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people — take back their power is conversation. But there are two problems with the current conversation: one, it's only just beginning.

Said Mota, "I think we're in the beginning of accountability. I think it's scratching the surface. ... I think we're seeing 20 percent of the problems."

And two, even speaking out against things that make you uncomfortable requires privilege, or at least a safety net. McCaffrey noted that she's seen the generation under her much more willing to talk about things that make them uncomfortable or are inappropriate.

"The women who work at the lower levels are calling it out and they're calling it out like we have never done before," she said. "I'm so impressed by that and it's encouraging and inspiring."

But Akil pointed out in order to initiate change, he and his wife and writing/producing partner, Mara Brock-Akil, have had to speak out for years. Even with multiple shows on air and hundreds of episodes of television under his belt, producers didn't always take them seriously because their work creating shows with black casts was still considered a "genre."

"We've been in this fight for 20 years, all of our careers. We've been vocalizing and talking and screaming and encouraging people all of our careers because that's what we had to do. The struggle was real every day, for budgets, for understanding," he said. The most important thing to remember when speaking out against privilege and power is that you have something of value, he said.

"In the moment that you hit the boards you have to choose to fight because there are a lot of not only privileged but people who have been privileged for a very long time and no one has challenged them," he added. "What's interesting is it's almost like a bully. As soon as you decide, 'Fuck you, I'm not going to sit here and [let you] wield this power over me. I have something you want,' ... when you go and push back on the bully you find, 'Oh you know what, they're not really a bully — they've just been privileged and no one has said anything to them.' They'll listen. ... We're changing the dynamic. If we play into the dynamic then they'll stay the same."

One thing people who do have power can do, Veasey said, is set an example.

It starts at the top with the showrunner on the show and what they do in the room ... and what integrity they have should be followed by those who work for them. They need to be the example," she said. "You work so hard to get here and when you get here you want to stay in it, and it's such a shame to think that you'd have to trade your own personal integrity for a job. ... Right now what we need to do is to have conversations like this."