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This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Show business is one of the few industries where art drives commerce. So it is axiomatic that the key to diversity in Hollywood lies with the creators of movies and TV. The recent studies by the DGA and the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA lay the burden for our shameful lack of diversity primarily at the feet of studios, networks and talent agencies. While one can hardly absolve the corporate power grid for a status quo that in no way reflects the American experience, the American audience or the financial gains reaped by ethnically diverse programming, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Artists are innovators. And while it is tremendously difficult for an actor of color, a female writer or a Latina director to shift the paradigm of a business long dominated by white men, the artists who create the films and television that we watch are best positioned to do just that. My boss, Shonda Rhimes, altered the playing field with Scandal simply by portraying the world as she saw it. A powerful, dynamic woman of color is in love with the married white man who occupies the Oval Office. This Republican president’s chief of staff is a married gay man. Without taking anything away from ABC, which has been the industry leader in promoting diversity, the success of Scandal paved the way for How to Get Away With Murder and the juggernaut of Empire. Right in step were the ABC comedies Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat.
What seemed like a profoundly risky move, casting Kerry Washington as the first female lead of color in a primetime drama in 40 years (yes, 40), has relatively quickly established a new normal. Along came Viola Davis and Halle Berry in roles not originally conceived for black actresses. And now Taraji P. Henson — another Oscar nominee — is reminding audiences what a powerhouse she is. These bold decisions were not the result of network executives looking to push boundaries nor by powerful talent agencies insisting on equal access for their minority and female clients. They were the brainchildren of creators hungry to break new ground. In success, of course, the networks are happy to jump on board. Their survival depends on it.
Despite these recent shifts in the TV landscape, the diversity gap is enormous. Contrary to the disturbing suggestion by a Deadline Hollywood writer that this year “the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction,” the Bunche Center reports an underrepresentation factor for minority actors of 6-to-1 for broadcast scripted leads, a similar 6-to-1 for minority show creators and 4-to-1 for women creators. A recent DGA study on diversity notes that only 13 percent of first-time episodic TV directors are minorities and just 18 percent are women.
These stats are more unsettling when you consider that diversity is inarguably good business. According to the Bunche Center, for the past two years in a row, shows with 40 to 50 percent minority casts achieved the highest ratings among both black and white audiences.
So where’s the disconnect? Yes, 96 percent of network and studio heads are white and 71 percent are male. The Motion Picture Academy is 96 percent white and 76 percent male, according to a recent report. The TV Academy has never awarded an Emmy to a leading actress of color. And minorities are woefully underrepresented at the major talent agencies. This reality is undeniable and unsustainable. Credit must go to those companies pushing for meaningful change. When Richard LaGravenese and I created The Divide last year for AMC Studios and WEtv, we were told at the outset that the directors at the top of our list must be women — ideally women of color. We were only too happy to oblige. But true to my thesis, this was a natural fit because our cast was 50 percent black and had a female protagonist. Again, the impetus for change came from the creators.
So it’s on us. The artists as innovators. Corporations are designed not only to make money but to minimize risk. Artists are just the opposite. We are predisposed to try new things, to break new ground, to change the game. And the game is changing.
Tony Goldwyn is a TV and film director and a SAG-nominated actor who plays President Grant on ABC’s Scandal.
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