A "Humbling," "Inspiring" "Rollercoaster": Hollywood's Assistants of Color Reflect on 2020

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Assistants share their thoughts on a tumultuous 2020 and their hopes for the industry and their peers in the new year.

“2020 has been a hard kick in the ass," a Hollywood assistant says of the past year. Another echoes her sentiment: "It's been humbling."

The last 12 months have been difficult for everyone, everywhere. 2020 saw a global pandemic, a national racial reckoning and a turbulent election along with movie theater closures and production hurdles that turned Hollywood on its head. As a development assistant at a major production company sums it up: "The year has been about learning to be both adaptable and eternally optimistic, which are coincidentally two of the most important skills for being an industry assistant." Yet assistants of color are hopeful going into the new year, looking forward to new opportunities, new jobs and, of course, new content.

"We live in a society where people find their value by their job title," says a showrunner's assistant who lost her job earlier this year. “That's how we define how worthy we are, by who we work for, how much money we're making and our job titles, and when I got rid of all that, I was having my own personal reckoning."

She continues to share how she found a silver lining and now, after five months of unemployment, is working in the DEI area of Hollywood. “It was a good wake-up call because this particular company wasn't doing what I came here to do, which is to highlight underrepresented voices … so I had a lot more conversations with people who are in the social impact and then in the diversity equity and inclusion space."

Another showrunner's assistant also switched jobs during the pandemic and has had a difficult time connecting with her boss, who she has yet to meet in person, and her work. “I'm not able to experience the job fully because I am isolated in my own room," she says. “I didn't meet the writers, which is such a bummer for an assistant. The whole point is to have that proximity and to learn and to hopefully network and have that community. I don't have the closest relationship with my showrunner; it's really just business with her, and I think it's due to the pandemic. It's been really hard for us to get to know each other and to feel comfortable around each other even after all these months, which is so unfortunate."

The pandemic had a different effect on each assistant, unique to their situations, but most were aligned in their inspiration from the summer of racial justice protests and discussions, and their worry over the sustainability and depth of Hollywood's response.

"It feels like the entertainment industry often just acts as a vessel for whichever ideas and attitudes are in the popular zeitgeist at any given moment, rather than a generator and incubator of ideas themselves," says another development assistant. "Not every agent or executive has to be Noam Chomsky, but it would be nice to see a little more critical engagement with the world instead of blindly copying and pasting the sentiments of whichever hashtag is trending on social media during a given week. Our products shape the culture and create tastes, so it would be good to know that media executives actually believe in the ideas and voices they amplify rather than just doing so for the sake of a conglomerate's bottom line. That's how you get an echo chamber — thoughtlessly amplifying without critically engaging."

A studio assistant amplified his concern: "I couldn't help but feel that some of the conversations and actions felt performative," she says, reflecting on this summer. "I heard conversations about ensuring that writers rooms are diverse but without considering the actual showrunner, who was often a white male. The only way to really address these systemic issues head on is to hire BIPOC writers at the top level — showrunners, execs, heads of departments, etc. — because having BIPOC employees only in lower-level positions creates an uncomfortable power dynamic."

She adds that representation behind the screen is just as important as diversity and timeliness in the content being created, saying that "the industry has become more focused on stories that are urgent and timely, content that sparks conversation and perhaps can speak to the social issues we're currently facing. Without addressing some of these things, directly or indirectly, certain content can feel tone deaf now."

Another development assistant attributes some of Hollywood's issues to the insular experience of living in Los Angeles, paraphrasing a recent Joe Rogan podcast episode. "The rich and the poor, the Christian and the Muslim, the homeless and the housed, the employed and unemployed, all rub shoulders when you ride a subway," he summarizes. "In L.A. you don't have to see or interact or think about people that you don't want to because we drive everywhere — you drive from your nice apartment to your nice Santa Monica building, you get your lunch catered, and then you hang out with your friends in Hollywood."

He goes on to explain that the city landscape is closely tied to the content Hollywood makes. "When you're an executive running a studio, you don't ever have to see someone homeless, you never have to deal with that. And you can be gold-hearted person but when it comes to moments like 2020, when you actually have to act, you can't fake it. We have some world-class communicators and their words fell flat because they just never went through it. There's no way you can fake it and that's been very eye-opening."

An agency assistant notes that this secluded aspect of Hollywood is pivotal to entertainment's reaction to this year's election. "Hollywood is kind of a bubble," he says. "It's overwhelmingly liberal. I went to an outwardly liberal college and when Hillary [Clinton] lost, everyone was blind-sided because it was a bubble, and they don't realize how many people out there think differently. Hollywood is the same way, in that you know there is change happening but at a national level almost half the country still voted for Trump, so in that sense we still have a long way to go."

Still, some meaningful change has taken hold in the industry. "Great leadership, that's where it begins," the agency assistant continues, noting the number of Black executives and board members who have been promoted in the past six months, within his own company and the greater industry. "Another great thing is that some companies removed the college requirement [for employment], which, to be an assistant, is a barrier in of itself. To get into the industry, that has socio and economic implications. It's a ramification of a lot of things in the past and can make it more difficult for people of color to get into the industry."

An executive assistant also shares that she's seen a willingness to change within individuals. "Within my company, my boss attended a few protests as they occurred on the street our building is on," she explains. "He joined weekly Zooms with a colleague who organized Zoom talks with several leaders in the community from BLM to candidates running for office and all of us at his company were welcomed to attend.  He mentioned the books he was reading to understand the African-American experience, the shows he watched and the podcasts he listened to — all to gain knowledge and more empathy for the historic mistreatment of black people."

Instances such as these left a number of assistants excited and hopeful for 2021. "I'm hoping for more industry wide talks," the executive assistant continues, "more hiring of BIPOC in the executive ranks and more opportunities for BIPOC assistants such as myself to learn and grow and be provided advancement. … My career growth has been stunted in a way due to the lack of active production, being on set and the hands-on learning that provides, and also the general delay at which projects are moving."

Indeed, production is at the top of many assistant's minds, as getting filmmaking back to pre-pandemic rates is closely related to job and learning opportunities, and some are hopeful that COVID-19 is not immediately forgotten.

"One of the things that we learned from pandemic is that film and TV really is a collaboration; no one does every single job," says a development assistant. "There's a lot of people on these sets and you have to be concerned about every single moving piece or your entire projects can be canned if everyone is sick. Moving into 2021, I hope that a lot of these things that they're doing to protect the staff to protect the crew continue."