Amber Riley.credit: Shalae Madison
By Elaine Low, Angelique Jackson
Former “Glee” star Amber Riley remembers the time early in her career when a producer told her that she and other actors of color were “a little more disposable, because that’s the way the world is.” As her professional trajectory continued, she witnessed her fair share of bad behavior, and knew who would — or would not — be held accountable.
“Being told that the white girls are not fireable is being told that you’re disposable,” she tells Variety. Riley internalized that message to the point that she was “distraught” going into auditions in her post-”Glee” career, dealing with anxiety and a loss of confidence.
“I just felt like, there’s a million Black actors that want this — what is special about me? … That’s what that feels like [when] nobody cares,” says Riley. “They don’t care that you’re being abused on set, whether that’s verbally or otherwise. They don’t care.”
Riley recalls all this in the wake of “Glee” actor Samantha Ware revealing that the show’s star, Lea Michele, allegedly threatened in 2015 to “s— in [her] wig.” Riley’s support of Ware on social media led to Black actors with similar experiences reaching out, and prompted her to create #unMUTEny, a movement to “end Black silence in the entertainment industry, hold power structures accountable for suppressing Black experiences and confront microaggressions with courage.”
“We need to address behaviors that are allowed on sets,” says Riley. “We need to address why the Black experience is diminished when it comes to telling you what happened, why we’re not believed, why we feel afraid for our jobs, why we feel disposable.”
Riley is not the only one in Hollywood and elsewhere speaking up about the need to lift Black voices. The death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police in late May has been a catalyst on an international scale, prompting hundreds of thousands to march in the name of Black Lives Matter and to call for reform of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. This has permeated other industries, including Hollywood, whose controversy-shy mega-corporations took the unusual step of issuing public statements decrying racism as thousands of Black artists shared their experiences with workplace discrimination.
What many in the entertainment industry are ready to say aloud is this: The institution itself is imbued with white supremacy and a patriarchal structure designed to proffer advantages unequally. Now the question is whether Hollywood, a town built on the very premise of exclusivity and gatekeeping, can make good on its commitment to inclusion — and amplify the voices of Black talent and other creatives of color the way it has purported to.
The tenor of the current conversation around racism and police brutality has undergone a tectonic shift, even though unarmed Black men have been dying at the hands of police officers for years. The 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, for instance, sparked waves of outrage but no internal soul-searching in, say, the headquarters of NASCAR or Aunt Jemima parent company Quaker Oats.
Some surmise that the coronavirus pandemic left the millions confined to their homes little choice but to pay attention; others attribute the acceleration of the Black Lives Matter movement to the increasing power of social media. The entertainment industry’s recent reckoning with gender parity, sexual misconduct and #OscarsSoWhite has perhaps positioned it to be more inclined to engage in some self-interrogation.
“Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, all those deaths coming in quick succession — I think it’s opened up an entirely different conversation that particularly in Hollywood, coming in the wake of #MeToo, I think everyone is realizing that the business has been built on some systemic wrongs that need to be righted,” Netflix vice president of original content Channing Dungey tells Variety.
Regardless of the cause, this moment appears to be an inflection point in the way we think about institutional racism. But no part of the issue is news to the Black community.
“This is no more urgent today than it was four months ago to people who’ve been paying attention,” says The Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard. “And it’s great that there are some people who are now saying, ‘Oh, maybe we should be doing things differently,’ but the need for that change has existed certainly for as long as I’ve been in the business, and I would argue that it’s been necessary since the first Hollywood blockbuster was ‘The Birth of a Nation.’”
The industry has long evolved past films like “The Birth of a Nation” and Disney’s “Song of the South,” and more women and people of color have come to occupy positions of power, both in front of and behind the camera. But that has not been enough to cancel out generations of hurt and exclusion.
Black writers still “can’t get a shot to write their stories,” says director Matthew A. Cherry, who won an Oscar this year for his animated short film, “Hair Love.”
“If you look at a big majority of studio films that have come out, be they biopics or stories with primarily Black characters, a lot of times you have white screenwriters who are able to tell those stories,” he says. “This is tricky, because a lot of times they’ll say, ‘OK, we want a big-name writer on it,’ or ‘We need to rely on the credits of said writer.’ It’s just like a lose-lose situation because you can’t get credits if you don’t get opportunities. And the people that’ve been getting opportunities for the last 30, 40, 50 years haven’t been us.”
Most studios and networks boast a slate of well-intentioned inclusion initiatives to showcase acting, directing and writing talent from communities of color. But structural shortfalls, perhaps more damaging in their subtlety, persist. Take TV diversity programs, which are often great stepping stones for writers and directors of color to get their first job on a series.
“But what ends up happening is that a lot of them get stuck there, right?” says Dungey. “Because once they’re no longer the diversity hire that’s paid for through the program, they still are facing that same barrier to entry. They don’t have the same relationship. It makes me so frustrated when we’re putting together a director list for a season of television, and then they come back and they say, ‘We have one woman, one person of color — that’s good.’ And then you know, the other eight are white men. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute; you’re telling me that there’s no one else you can find that makes this?’”
The salary for a writers program hire typically comes from the studio or network running the program, not the showrunner’s budget. “A Black Lady Sketch Show” staff writer Ashley Nicole Black, who has not participated in such a program but has heard from many who have, contends that such structures incentivize showrunners to not promote those diversity hires but instead replace them with a new “free” writer of color.
That’s not to say the programs have not seen writers who have gone on to big success. Mindy Kaling, Donald Glover and Alan Yang are all alumni of NBC’s Diverse Staff Writer Initiative, for instance. NBC’s program funds the salary of a staff writer for three years; if a showrunner wants to promote that writer to story editor, then he or she need only pay the difference.
But the latest Writers Guild of America inclusion report makes obvious the glaring continued racial disparity in writers’ room ranks. In the 2019-20 season, 51% of staff writers were white, and the rest were people of color. That parity did not translate to the upper echelons: More than 80% of executive producers and showrunners were white, while fewer than 20% were people of color.
“The system is racist,” says Black. “So the system is going to tend toward elevating white people and not elevating people of color. And the only way to fix the system is to attend to every single part of the system. So if you’re just getting people in the door and you’re not attending to how long they stay there, how quickly they’re promoted and elevated — the system, once they’re in the door, is going to tend toward kicking them back out the door.”
Black’s experience on the HBO comedy series has been unique — she is part of a writers’ room populated only with Black women — and a testament to the necessity of healthy representation. When she started on “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” she was “pitching hot fire,” unencumbered by having to explain cultural references to a mostly white audience in order to set up a joke.
“In a room full of all Black women I didn’t have to do that first task,” says Black. “I was just doing the comedy. And it made work so much easier. And I was like, this is how white men are working all the time. It’s like I was doing comedy with a boulder on my back and someone just took it off, and now I’m running up the hill.”
Some go so far as to indicate that the industry’s approach to diversity and inclusion is an act of misdirection, when the focus should be on the conditions that have allowed the main benefactors of the status quo — white men — to remain in positions of control.
“When people who have benefited their whole lives from white supremacy and patriarchy are asked to create a program or hire a woman or two or change the way they think about who’s qualified, they’re all pretty game to do it,” says “Transparent” creator Joey Soloway (who recently changed their name from Jill). But instead of being rewarded with an episode to direct or being given “a pat on the head,” they say, the issue is “asking white people and especially white men to really interrogate what they’re willing to give up to be anti-racist.”
The dialogue now happening in the industry is about more than inclusion and creating spaces, Soloway says. “It’s about, I think, white people and men being willing to say, ‘Wow, the help I’ve had from living in patriarchy, the help I’ve had from living in white supremacy, has really done a number on everybody else.’’
Actor Kendrick Sampson recently recruited more than 300 Black creatives — including Tessa Thompson, Sterling K. Brown, Common, Viola Davis, Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae, Octavia Spencer and Kerry Washington — to sign a letter denouncing Hollywood for “encouraging the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness.”
“The lack of a true commitment to inclusion and institutional support has only reinforced Hollywood’s legacy of white supremacy,” wrote Sampson. “This is not only in storytelling. It is cultural and systemic in Hollywood. Our agencies, which often serve as industry gatekeepers, don’t recruit, retain or support Black agents. Our unions don’t consider or defend our specific, intersectional struggles. Unions are even worse for our below-the-line crew, especially for Black women. Hollywood studios and production companies that exploit and profit from our stories rarely have any senior-level Black executives with greenlighting power.”
Internally, studios and networks have made attempts to break down barriers to entry for Black people and other people of color through executive incubators and pipeline programs. But those efforts are not as fast-moving as many would like. Look no further than a snapshot of any major entertainment company’s board of directors or executive team to see mostly white men looking back.
Tara Duncan, the incoming president of Disney-owned cabler Freeform and one of the few Black network heads in the industry, is a founding member of Time’s Up-backed Who’s in the Room, an executive mentorship program that aims to improve diversity among executives and producers. Eighty percent of its 23 mentees, all of whom started as senior assistants to decision-making executives, have since been promoted or moved into new positions since completing their first year in the program.
“I’ve had to navigate issues of being called aggressive and angry,” says Duncan of her experience in the industry, adding that she has been challenged to defend the value of projects from creators of color about which she has been passionate. “There’s this sort of instinct that if it’s featuring a predominantly Black cast or it’s from a Black creator, then that’s only going to appeal to a niche audience. So yeah, these are issues that I have faced continuously in my career. For me, that mentorship made all the difference, which is why it was very important to me that I also would become a mentor.”
Cherry similarly feels a responsibility to keep the door open for other Black creators, in the vein of Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele and Michael B. Jordan’s efforts to promote Black talent. Yet speaking out comes despite a very real fear of professional repercussions, which is why Cherry tweeted his support for John Boyega after the “Star Wars” actor took the megaphone at a Black Lives Matter protest in London on June 3 to address the crowd.
“Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that,” Boyega said at the protest. Hollywood heavy-hitters including Peele, Olivia Wilde, J.J. Abrams, Mark Hamill and Rian Johnson also publicly affirmed their support for the young star.
“I think people are realizing that we have an opportunity to actually have their back and say, ‘We support you; we’re gonna hire you regardless, you know what I mean? We do have your back,’” Cherry says, pointing to celebrities such as Gabrielle Union — who filed a harassment complaint against NBCUniversal, Fremantle Media and Simon Cowell’s Syco amid concerns about racism and on-set misconduct — and Mo’Nique, who last year filed suit against Netflix, alleging pay inequity and gender and racial bias.
For her part, “Glee” star Riley is no longer worried about speaking up. Late 2019 saw her falling into a deep depression that hobbled her so much that she couldn’t sing or work; she lost 25 pounds and ended up in the hospital. Riley has since learned how to manage what turned out to be anxiety, and does not care if she is blackballed, so long as she can improve the entertainment landscape for the next generation.
“I’ve made my money,” says Riley. “I can continue to make money in the background. I can be a part of a production team, and you don’t even know my ass is there, and be making more than being in front of the camera. There’s not going to be anyone that’s going to be able to stop me.”
The momentum is building around calls to action. Leonard and Black were among the 1,000 Black artists, including Union, DuVernay and David Oyelowo, who formed the Black Artists for Freedom collective; in an open letter they urged cultural institutions to cut ties with law enforcement and “put their money where their mouths are.”
The ball is now back in the court of Hollywood’s power players— studios, networks, agencies, production companies — to move the story forward.
“I would love to see a major studio or streaming platform make the public commitment that, at a minimum, their spend on production will reflect demographic realities of the population of the U.S. for minority groups,” says Leonard. “If we as a business are going to spend a billion dollars on content, 13% of that is going to go to the African American community for stories by and about people in that community, 50% of it will go to women, etc. If they want to really go big, they would commit to a floor of the way the world actually is.”
That may sound radical, he says, but the notion becomes less so when considering that white men make up only about 30% of the U.S. population but create the bulk of Hollywood’s output.
WarnerMedia chief enterprise inclusion officer Christy Haubegger, who recently joined the HBO and Warner Bros. parent company after spending 14 years working to improve representation at CAA, says the next step is to do more than “random acts of diversity.”
“I’m a big fan of databases,” she says. “I like taking excuses away. Nobody can say, ‘I couldn’t find them.’ And so we’re building a centralized set of tools for our executives, and for our partners, like our production company partners, to be able to access, to facilitate, looking at more diverse opportunities. Everyone’s trying to hire more female episodic directors, and everybody’s got kind of a list. I’m like, ‘No, no, we’re gonna make one big list for you.’ I’m a believer in systems, and I think systems are the only way to get sustainable change.”
As part of the move in recent years toward increased accountability, companies such as WarnerMedia and Netflix have publicly released granular internal demographic breakdowns, offering transparency on how many people of color are on staff and in the upper ranks. Whether other entertainment giants will follow suit remains to be seen. While the conversation appears to be moving in a constructive direction, executives and creators are cautiously optimistic about the changes to come.
“When I have brought this up, I have been pleasantly surprised at the willingness to listen and think there is still, quite frankly, some fear,” Freeform’s Duncan says. “I think we’re all grappling with where to start. And how do we do something that feels effective and something that’s truly going to make a difference? I will say I definitely think there is a real desire. But I think, again, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just about doing the right thing. This is also good business.”
Ultimately, Riley believes it comes down to ensuring that Black voices are properly valued, which she considers the industry’s biggest blind spot. She advises Black creatives and their allies not to lose sight of the end goal.
“I need people to understand the long game,” says Riley. “I need everyone to be disciplined, after the motions and all of the commotion and all of the passion and the performance has died down. And I need them to be consistent with their message, with their feelings, because we all know when we stop seeing results, it’s gonna take self-discipline to make sure that it gets done.”
Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.