Kumail Nanjiani Urges Industry to Look Beyond "Everyone Named Chris" at Hollywood Reporter's Empowerment Event
"Power is all about what you've done for yourself. Empowerment is about what you've done for others," said the comedian, actor and writer at the inaugural event, which also featured remarks by Ciara, Selena Gomez, Don Lemon and Alicia Keys.
Kumail Nanjiani praised the power of diversity and called on Hollywood to "do way better" with inclusion behind the camera in his opening remarks Tuesday at The Hollywood Reporter's inaugural Empowerment in Entertainment gala.
"Power is all about what you’ve done for yourself. Empowerment is about what you’ve done for others — that you can then brag about to others at power lunches. Huge difference," the comedian, actor and writer joked at the event, which kicks off THR's recently announced Hollywood inclusion initiative, the Young Executives Fellowship.
He explained that empowerment means "giving someone the authority or power to do something."
"It implies a certain party does have the power. In Hollywood, it's everyone named Chris," he joked. "Everyone named Chris has all the power, and this gala is about sharing that power with people with less bankable names."
The Big Sick and Stuber star went on to explain that in practice, empowerment means opportunity. "Giving people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, women, persons with disabilities, women of color, the LGBTQ communities, people of color, women, people of varying religions, and women more opportunities to make the kinds of movies and TV shows that Hollywood lets all of the Chrises make," he said.
Nanjiani also explained the importance of diversity and inclusion onscreen. "If [movies and TV shows] don't reflect the world we live in, the image that’s onscreen gets superimposed onto our reality, and it erases groups of people, and it becomes so that only certain people are able to create, and that only the stories of certain groups of people matter," he said.
He added that seeing diversity onscreen also helps people "build empathy" and "expand and grow while being entertained," but he stressed that it's also good for business, citing a recent study "that looked at the 350 highest-grossing films from 2014 to 2017, and the ones with female leads far outperformed the ones with male leads."
And while Nanjiani said that he sees some improvement ("Brown people are playing more than just cab drivers, terrorists and computer nerds, and we’re starring in romantic comedies," he said), he emphasized that more can be done behind the camera. "Because if we want to tell different kinds of stories, we need different types of people to tell them. People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, but they only account for about 12 percent of screenwriters," he said, adding a joking nod to the current battle between Hollywood talent agencies and the Writers Guild. "I have a dream … that one day, black and brown screenwriters can all fire our agents en masse, too. Just like our white brothers and sisters."
Oprah Winfrey received the first-ever Empowerment Award at the event, honoring individuals who have created opportunities for people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community and other emerging voices in the industry. Alicia Keys presented her with the award.
In his remarks, Nanjiani geeked out over the mogul, joking, "She's won so many awards that we now have to invent awards to honor her. That's how much we love Oprah."
"She's so amazing that the entire world is on a first-name basis with her. She is the closest thing we have to royalty. Last month, we met and she touched my face, and I honestly hear angels singing in my left ear all the time," he joked.
The inaugural event also celebrated the launch of THR's Young Executives Fellowship, which will provide underserved and diverse youth from Los Angeles with entertainment career training. To the participants, Nanjiani advised, "Do your best, but feel OK to fail. Feel empowered to fail."
"Sometimes when people who don't get opportunities are given opportunities, there can be a lot of pressure put on them. It comes with a burden — you can feel you are representing a whole group of people who don't have a voice," he continued. "If you fail, you may feel like you're not just letting yourself down, you’re letting down a whole group of people. Try and ignore that pressure. Be you. Do what you do. And if you fail, know you still did your best."
He added, "I will know we have achieved actual empowerment and diversity when a movie made by and/or starring nonwhite people can flop without the industry clucking its tongue over fads and niche movies. More than anything, I look forward to everyone having the luxury to fail."
In addition to Nanjiani, singer Ciara, singer and actress Selena Gomez and CNN's Don Lemon all addressed the crowd at the event. Also in attendance at the gala were Eva Longoria, one of 50 Hollywood “Agents of Change” celebrated by THR with the Empowerment issue, Ali Wong, Caitlyn Jenner and Anthony Anderson.
Empowerment in Entertainment is presented by WME with platinum sponsor Amazon Prime Video and sponsored by Entertainment One, Imax, OWN, Starz and Casamigos.