Hollywood’s Urgent Responsibility to Tell More Authentic Stories (Guest Column)

Hollywood sign with an inset of Angela Harvey
Getty Images; Courtesy of Angela Harvey

The question for writers shouldn't be rooted in whether or not one can write a story — it's whether or not they should.

You know what working from home makes me miss? Water coolers. If Hollywood still gathered in offices and writers rooms, one of the hottest topics around those coolers today would be authentic storytelling onscreen.

In September, the announcement that Ron Howard was attached to direct an adaptation of Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s memoir (scripted by Michele and Kieran Mulroney) drove director Lulu Wang to Twitter to express her dismay at Hollywood telling yet another distinctly Chinese story while excluding Chinese voices from the key creative team. More directly and controversially, novelist and former Congressional candidate Saira Rao recently tweeted: “White people need to stop writing Black and brown characters,” with The Wire creator David Simon replying in part, “How about humans research and write other humans and results are judged?” and Orphan Black scribe Aubrey Nealon responding, “It’s plainly wrong to claim that in a wildly inequitable system, all that matters is the quality of the product.” Queen of the South writer Jorge Reyes added, “You can't say on one hand that you advocate for BIPOC inclusion, then bang on for the right to write BIPOC stories, as if the opportunities to do such stories are infinite.”

This passionate, multifaceted, disjointed conversation shows how far we have to go in figuring out what exactly authentic storytelling means. The social unrest and political upheaval in our country show just how imperative it is that we figure it out. As a co-chair of the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE) and as a Black woman, I’m glad these conversations are happening. It shows Hollywood is finally hearing underrepresented voices, even if it's still not quite listening to us. What is authentic storytelling, and how is it achieved? Who gets to tell what stories and why? Isn’t all writing about the expression of shared humanity and therefore open to all? Yes. But also, no.

Much of why people think and behave the way they do is rooted in race, identity and culture. Even when — perhaps especially when — that race is white. The societal acceptance of whiteness as neutrality is one of the biggest roadblocks to authentic representation. Hollywood, too, sees all-white spaces — neighborhoods, workplaces, social circles — as normal. Anything outside of that experience gets relegated to “politics” or “a very special episode.” But this approach erases giant swaths of the human experience.

Culture is absorbed at home, beginning in infancy. We become who we are by repetition and ritual, conscious and unconscious. We learn about ourselves and the world around us through facial expressions, shared meals, familiar smells. You can’t read or research your way into another person’s identity, particularly when you’ve always lived in a society that’s exclusionary and even hostile toward that identity. Intellectual ascension to other cultures is of course possible, but the heart and emotion of identity is individually unique. More than that, ingrained identity helps define what “feels right” or “rings true” to writers, readers and ultimately, viewers.

In America, particularly in Hollywood and in the news, we have under- and misrepresented most people for the better part of a century, to disastrous consequences. As global consumption of television and film continues to rise, we are exporting those misrepresentations with all of our societal biases and prejudices intact. Therefore, the question of authentic storytelling can’t be rooted in whether or not a writer can write a story. The question must be whether or not they should. Over 70 million people in this country voted for a candidate who espoused open racism, violence and oppression in the 2020 presidential election. They didn’t do that in a vacuum. They have ideas about who BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and disabled people are, despite personally knowing very few people from marginalized communities. Those ideas come, at least in part, from the media they consume.

For the past several years, studios and networks have hired underrepresented writers as consultants and lower-level writers, or for “authenticity” or “culture” passes on existing projects. But you can’t put sugar into a cake after it’s already baked. The "culture pass" is an attempt to pour glaze over that cake baked without the necessary ingredients. It may become edible, but it will never be delicious. The stories we tell should be a celebration of our differences and the specific things that make each of us who we are. The best way to make that happen is to empower underrepresented creatives to control their own stories.

But as countless studies (including the BTS Report from TTIE) have shown, underrepresented writers continue to face significant roadblocks in television and film. Few such writers even exist in the ranks of showrunners and studio-credited screenwriters due to discrimination, hostile work environments and systematic exclusion. At the same time, even if all things were equal, it would still be impossible for any writer or room of writers to be part of each and every community they portray. The truth is there can be no hard and fast rules. It’s going to take hard, specific work for every story to find its own authenticity.

Toward that end, TTIE has created the #WriteInclusion: Tips for Accurate Representation project to foster and support more honest, inclusive, authentic storytelling. Created in conjunction with Storyline Partners, The Geena Davis Institute, Women in Film, Color of Change and other social change organizations, the project consists of a series of factsheets to help rectify the harmful history of tropes and stereotypes from Hollywood.

The first six factsheets releasing on Wednesday are about African Americans, disabled people, Latinx people, migrants, criminal justice issues and Muslims. Each offers details about the specific community: why authenticity matters; examples of overrepresented stories and harmful stereotypes; accurate alternatives to those tropes; definitions of often-misused terms; key demographic statistics; and online resources. They are not intended to serve as roadmaps to authenticity, nor can they replace underrepresented writers. They are created by television writers from underrepresented communities and they are intended for use in conjunction with, and in support of, underrepresented creatives. In short, they are intended to help everyone write everyone else, without relying on stereotypes.

There’s no denying the central tenet of President-elect Biden’s campaign — we truly are in a battle for the soul of this nation. Defeating Donald Trump will be just one small part of that. We’ve spent a long time pretending that everything is OK in America when for many of us, it never has been. Now is the time for storytellers to own our contributions to pop culture and society. I realize that not all of us came to Hollywood to tell authentic stories. Many of us are here for the money, for fame or for the party. But whatever brought us here, we’re now the ones in the room. We all now have the unique responsibility and opportunity to make meaningful contributions if we so choose. As professional storytellers, if we use our time and our resources wisely, we can make winning this epic battle for the nation’s soul just a little bit easier.

Angela Harvey is a writer/producer developing pilots with I Am OTHER and Bad Robot, and she will serve as co-executive producer on the upcoming season of American Horror Story. She is a co-chair of Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity.