Hey Hollywood: If You Care About Diversity, Start With Your Own Team (Guest Column)

Black Panther still and inset of Thomas- H 2020
Courtesy of Marvel Studios; Travis Geter/Courtesy of Subject

Hollywood attorney Jaia Thomas' initial excitement over the 'Black Panther' groundbreaking achievements was muted after she realized the film's talent was almost entirely represented by white teams. She is determined to change the landscape.

I distinctly remember when Black Panther was released in 2018. I rushed to the movie theater excited to see the varying shades of Black faces onscreen. For days, weeks and even months, the industry lauded Black Panther as a step in the right direction for diversity in Hollywood. But what many deemed as a major milestone sparked my own concerns and reservations.

While fans and critics extolled the film's diversity onscreen, little attention was given to the lack of diversity offscreen. As an entertainment attorney who has been practicing law for 14 years, I am a big believer in due diligence. A few weeks after the film's release, I spent some time researching the names of the attorneys, agents, managers and publicists who represented the cast. Chadwick Boseman's lawyer? White. Michael B. Jordan's publicist? White. The thrill of watching such breathtaking production faded against the irony of Black actors discussing "Wakanda forever" with almost all-white teams.

In late 2018, I decided to launch Diverse Representation, a website with the names of Black agents, attorneys, managers and publicists across the country. I had no five- or 10-year plan. I just knew I had grown tired of not seeing enough Black representatives. I used my own time, money and resources so that no one would again be able to offer the excuse that they couldn't find a black publicist, agent or lawyer.

What started off as a website has grown into an organization that curates various programs, initiatives and events throughout the country. Meanwhile, operating the company has taught me a lot about the nuances of Hollywood's diversity challenges. I have learned that many artists, even those who are the most vociferous advocates for diversity, often treat the makeup of their own teams as an afterthought.

Black people yield significant creative influence, but few reap the economic rewards. We must ensure we not only have a substantive economic stake but also yield greater influence over the decision-making process.

As we enter into this new season of racial awakening, my hope is that artists spend less time looking externally for solutions. Now is the time for artists to ask themselves: "Do I have a Black attorney? Do I have a Black publicist? Why not?" And for those who are represented by companies with little diversity, it's time to start holding those firms accountable and demanding that their staff better reflect the diversity of their client rosters. If, as artists, you are infusing millions of dollars into these firms, ensure that their values are aligned with yours.

Now is also the time for agencies and firms to start asking why they have such limited Black leadership. Are they creating pathways for higher recruitment and retention of Black employees? They must create strategic long-term partnerships with colleges and universities to recruit a more diverse slate of candidates and make their hiring process more open and transparent.

We also need far more Black-owned talent agencies, management companies and law firms. This can be done by creating incubators focused on such growth or cultivating deeper, more meaningful relationships with the ones that already exist. Overall, there is a lot of work people in the entertainment industry can do in their own backyard before turning to the NAACP or Urban League for answers.

As a Black female attorney, I have spent my career debunking the fallacy that legal representation comes only in the form of older white men. I would like us to begin re-imagining an industry where Black faces not only permeate our screens but our boardrooms, conference rooms and press rooms.

Jaia Thomas is an entertainment attorney and the founder of Diverse Representation.

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.