'Girls Trip' Writer: How My Pitches About Women of Color Are Becoming More Accepted (Guest Column)

Tracy Oliver - Illustration - H 2017
Illustration by Zoe More O’Ferrall

Tracy Oliver details how the $137 million-grossing comedy about black women bonding is (ever so slightly) moving the needle on Hollywood reception of people-of-color projects.

Early on in my career, I tried to sell a spec script. If you had read it, you would have said, "Oh, I see how she wrote Girls Trip." The feedback I got was: "We love this script. It's really well written, but the characters are black, so we can't do anything with it." I was told there was not a studio or player in town that would buy it because it was so niche. But it wasn't niche. My sensibilities have always been broad and commercial because the films I grew up loving were Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock movies.

People would read what I wrote and say — and I don't think they meant it in an offensive way — "Oh, wow, these characters could be white women." I would say, "Well, we're all human beings, so you can have a script that is culturally specific but is still universally relatable enough to appeal beyond people of color." I reminded people that if I can relate to Julia Roberts as a young black girl growing up in South Carolina, then other people can relate to women of color. At the same time, I wasn't going to change the characters to white people. If I didn't write who I was and the women I knew, who would? We're here and we exist and we matter, so I wanted to be the person to write these characters for other people looking to see themselves onscreen.

Girls Trip was definitely not expected to be a big hit. When producer Will Packer, who is black; the director Malcolm D. Lee; Kenya Barris, who co-wrote; and I were working on it, we thought there was an audience for it that would surpass expectations, but that outlook wasn't widely shared beyond the core group.

Because of the success of Girls Trip, meetings have become night and day from before. I've been wanting to do a Girls Trip-esque TV show for a long time, and just a couple years ago, I was told there's no audience for that. Now that idea has resurfaced as a viable TV series. Every day, I'm getting calls from studios and networks bringing me in about scripts to rewrite or ideas to critique that don't have any black characters whatsoever. It's a beautiful thing, that Hollywood may be coming around to the idea that even if people have different cultural perspectives, that we're all just human.

But I don't want to oversell how positive things are. There's still a fight every time you try anything new. For example, I love horror movies, since watching The Exorcist when I was 4, but even then I knew that I loved the genre. Seeing Jordan Peele, who comes from the sketch comedy world, make Get Out is honestly inspiring. So the idea that I ended up selling to Warner Bros. was a Girls Trip-esque horror movie. It has comedic elements, but it's basically women of color at a hip-hop concert who are being hunted down one by one throughout the night.

Niija Kuykendall, the Warner Bros. executive who is a black woman, bought it in the room. But reactions from other studio executives were pure confusion. One asked, "But do black people like horror?" I explained that horror overindexes for people of color, and then he said, "But what about women? Do black women like horror? I just don't see how this makes any sense." I'm working with Pharrell on it, and both of us were like, "Really? You don't get it?"

I have a lot of conversations with friends, mostly people of color, who share crazy stories of "Guess what this executive said to me today." I think not getting it comes from living in a bubble. Not a racial bubble, but a Hollywood bubble, because when my mom saw Girls Trip in South Carolina, she told me a lot of white people were in the audience and enjoying it.

While things are definitely improving, just for fun, here are five comments that I or colleagues have recently fielded in meetings:

1. "Great pitch, but we've already got the black experience covered here."

2. "Instead of surgeons, can they be gospel artists or hip-hop dancers?"

3. "I know it's a show about women, but what about the men? We want to make sure they can see themselves in this."

4. "Can the character be biracial so we can bring in some white people?" And:

5. "Do women even like horror movies? My wife hates them."

This story first appeared in the 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.