For the NAACP's Vic Bulluck, advocacy means building bridgesIt's a cold, quiet January day. Thick clouds are hanging low over the Los Angeles skyline, and beneath a steady drizzle of rain, the city is still and gray. But inside the NAACP's Hollywood Bureau, perched in a high-rise overlooking Wilshire Boulevard, it's bright, warm and bustling with activity. The organization's 40th annual Image Awards ceremony is fast approaching, the NAACP itself is celebrating its centennial, and Vicangelo Bulluck, the bureau's executive director and the show's executive producer, is being pulled in every direction.
One moment he's wanted on the phone -- first it's Alicia Keys' record label, then Whoopi Goldberg's publicist. The next moment he's pulled into a huddle with colleagues as they pair honorees with presenters. Then he's deliberating about the show's musical numbers and historical footage. He's constantly being passed messages scribbled on Post-it Notes. And he's forever thinking about the nonprofit's budget.
"I'm always asking, 'How do we pay for this and make it work?' " he says, flashing a grin beneath his neat mustache.
Despite the chaos, Bulluck exudes an air of positivity, a crucial trait for someone whose mission -- advocating for the involvement and representation of minorities in entertainment -- depends heavily on the ability to build bridges with industry figures and institutions.
The role seems a natural fit for Bulluck. Clearly a people person, he has the gift of gab, but he also knows how to listen. And he's void of pretense, at ease in sneakers and a collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, sitting on an old worn sofa in his office, surrounded by file boxes, stacks of paper and piles of DVDs and dusty VHS tapes.
Bulluck has been working in entertainment since he was an interdisciplinary major at USC, studying cinema, journalism, philosophy and theater -- "I was actually paid to write my first screenplay before I left college," he says -- and his involvement with the NAACP came just as quickly. What began with a stint as a production assistant on the Image Awards evolved into a career: Bulluck has been producing the show since 1986, and six years ago, he became what he calls a "small footnote in civil rights history" when he opened the Hollywood Bureau and became its first executive director.
Day to day, Bulluck says, his work is largely about "building the relationships, building awareness of the issue, building sensitivity to the issue, increasing the understanding that diversity and multiculturalism are good for business. ... But it's an interesting time in that there really has been a lot of progress."
That progress is not always reflected in the numbers, he notes, "because you can do the numbers, and you can do the ensemble casts, and you can have the African-American, the Asian-American, the Hispanic-American within that ensemble -- but if the white leads are still the stars, the ones who get the promos on-air, the magazine covers, it sends a subliminal message. I don't know if that's intended, but it sends a message of a second-class citizenship for the other groups."
Still, Bulluck is gratified by the industry's efforts to better the situation, citing recent commitments on the part of ABC, NBC and Warner Bros. Studios to foster more diversity in their pipelines.
And in the bigger picture, with the U.S. electing its first black president, hope is in the air.
Like President Barack Obama, Bulluck is biracial. His mother is French -- he was born in Chateauroux, France -- and his father, a Baltimore native, is black.
"It was very interesting when I heard Obama describe himself as a mutt," he says, "because that's what I always called myself when I was growing up, an American mutt."
Because his father was in the Air Force when Bulluck was growing up, his family moved all over the U.S. and eventually to England. Bulluck attended high school in East Anglia, where he lived in a dormitory and spent his spare time hanging out at Cambridge and sneaking into London to go to the theater. During summer, he would get a Eurail pass and travel around the continent.
That diverse background and his many years in Hollywood -- also an independent producer, Bulluck has worked on a number of film and TV projects, from the courtroom reality show "Judge Mathis" to "Alex Haley: An American Griot," and he has had his own company, Vicangelo Films, for 20 years -- have given him a life of varied experience and a practical view of the entertainment industry that has proved invaluable.
From that vantage point, he sees Obama's election as a harbinger of progress.
"What we're hopefully going to see," he says, "now that the American public has spoken (and said) that it really does judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin -- (is) that the marketing and sales people within the entertainment industry will also recognize that. If it's a compelling story and an interesting character, I really don't think the race or gender of the actor (matters). If it's a bad story and it's a character that's uninteresting, you could have the biggest star in the world and it doesn't matter."
Bulluck has been fighting to make that happen, and it's a fight he takes personally. But that doesn't mean he's unadept at the politics of promoting his cause.
"Vic is very passionate about (the mission of the NAACP), but he's also very pragmatic about it," says Christopher Mack, who serves as the director of the Warner Bros. Television Writers Workshop and who recently worked with Bulluck on the studio's new diversity initiative, Fresh Ink. "He has a realistic understanding of how business works, and that works to his favor."
Bulluck also has reached out to educational institutions like UCLA, where he collaborates frequently with Barbara Boyle, chair of the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media, as well as the university's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies.
"Last year Vic had the idea -- in anticipation of the NAACP's anniversary -- to bring (to UCLA) a group of scholars who had been very involved in civil rights and changing attitudes," Boyle says. "We filmed these scholars -- they had a lot of discussions among themselves -- and then we had a public forum."
Bulluck also has raised money for UCLA. In 2007, he convinced NBC to give the university a $20,000 scholarship, the NAACP/NBC Fellowship in Screenwriting, to encourage diversity. Bulluck, Boyle, UCLA and Film Independent also are collaborating on a study about the effectiveness of diversity programs. "We all have the same goal in mind: to get everybody working effectively for these changes," Boyle says.
Bulluck was at his most effective in helping to broker an agreement with Tyler Perry's production company, which ultimately signed a contract with the WGA for TBS' "House of Payne," and in negotiating a waiver for the 2008 Image Awards show, which took place during the WGA strike.
"Vic was instrumental in making both of those things come to excellent resolutions," WGA West president Patric Verrone says.
But the hardest part of his job is that "the goalpost keeps moving," Bulluck says.
"When I started this, I actually approached a couple of the executives, and I said, 'What I really want is for you to allow people the opportunity to fail.' ... You have to have a certain amount of quantity to get to the quality. You can't give one shot to one writer and then think that that's going to be the home run, so you've got to give multiple shots to the one writer (so maybe they can) get it right the next time, which we've seen repeatedly for majority writers.
"And you need to spread it across lots of different writers to keep having opportunities in order for you to be able to find those gems," he adds. "(Giving a writer with a diverse background just one chance) would be like sticking the shovel in the earth one time and thinking you're going to find a diamond. It's happened, but the odds are against it."
It's "emotionally hard," Bulluck says, when talented individuals don't get the opportunities they deserve, and it's a challenge to help keep the industry focused on achieving parity for minorities. But he's no quitter.
Looking back on the Perry deal, Verrone recalls: "He was just tenacious in his pursuit of a resolution. I got calls from him as he was sitting on airplanes about to take off, and I would get a call immediately after the plane landed. He was clearly engaged -- and in a way that somebody in his position isn't always and doesn't have to be.
"Our relationship has largely been a series of fires that had to be put out," Verrone adds. "And Vic's a pretty good fireman."