A Latino TV Writer Calls B.S. on Hollywood’s Diversity Excuses (Guest Column)

TV Writers Room - Stop Avoiding Diversity - Illustration by Tim Peacock - H 2018
Illustration by Tim Peacock

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a veteran of 20 shows, responds to the flap over CBS’ ‘Magnum P.I.’ reboot and recounts the bogus rationales he's heard that keep staffs homogeneous: "Do you want to participate in the future or pass into irrelevance?"

Being Latinx in Trump's America is an increasingly precarious business.

Even those of us in relative safety and privilege understand that the persistent chorus of "you are less-than" from the president and his mouthpieces is an insult added to injuries ranging from the forced separation and internment of families to the democide-by-neglect in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

So when the showrunner of CBS' upcoming Latino-led Magnum P.I. reboot answered a question about whether his staff includes Latinx writers by asserting it didn't because, "When you're staffing the show, it's incredibly hard to find writers," and added, "We have a very diverse writers room, it just so happens that we don't have any [Latinxs]," I wanted to chalk it up to business as usual in 'murica and get on with my work.

The next day, however, when the showrunner suddenly remembered having a Latina writer on his staff and tweeted that he had made a "mistake," I was left to wonder: To what mistake exactly was he admitting? Relegating a key creative hire to an afterthought or peddling the demonstrably false excuse that "writers" with the skill to truly articulate the subtlety and nuance of the adventures of Thomas Magnum are really — no, really — hard to find?

I neither know nor have worked for this showrunner. This is not a demand for him to be investigated or sanctioned. All he really did — regardless of what he meant — was express a still shockingly common opinion among many showrunners: "Inclusion" is a nuisance, minority writers are a burden to hire and promote, and experienced minority writers are nigh-impossible to find.

I have, by now, heard every crypto-racist, misogynist, ableist and homophobic showrunner excuse to avoid bringing those who do not resemble them into their writers rooms. These include the perennial ("I can't find anyone who can write my show"), the semi-credible ("I don't have the budget"), the "political" ("I owe that job to my assistant/son/girlfriend as a favor") and the self-serving ("My show is so special that I can only hire truly experienced writers"). Once, I even heard a showrunner refuse to hire a gay writer because he only wanted "solid citizens." These excuses continue to flourish and amount to a persistent buzz reinforcing a depressingly pervasive message: Minorities need not apply.

To this fetid panoply of bullshit, our age of both earnest attempts at, and frequent lip service to, inclusion has added a gaggle of victim-blaming showrunner shibboleths like "the studio/network is making me hire minorities," "I can't promote last season's diversity hire because he/she will cost me money I need on the screen" and the egregious (yet actually said by a showrunner) "we won't be picking up your option because we need 'fresh' diversity."

In spite of the occasional shaming of those who slip up in public, there is little incentive for change. Too many showrunners want to be left alone, be praised for token gestures and be enabled in the belief that they have "earned" the right to discriminate by dint of profit, longevity or "genius." By and large, their wishes are granted with impunity.

If you recognize yourself in the above, you have no cause for alarm. If you can avoid saying anything overtly racist on a press tour, your position is probably safe. You do, however, have a choice. You can do the job of entertaining America with some competence (and by "competence" I mean "realizing that a massive demographic shift is happening and there are greater profits to be made by accurately reflecting the country's makeup in front of and behind the camera") or eventually perish as an evolutionary dead-end.

Latinx creators — and every other marginalized group — will find a way to tell their stories (and even those of Ferrari-driving manly-man private investigators) with or without you. The question is: Do you want to participate in the future or pass away into cushy irrelevance with little else to show for it than a few measly seasons of outdated television?

This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.