Pop Culture

Black TV writers have often felt like ‘diversity decoration.’ Now they’re braced for another round of promises.

Top row: Lena Waithe, Ashley Nicole Black, Zahir McGhee, Monica Macer. Bottom row: Michelle Amor, Prentice Penny, Melody Cooper, Cord Jefferson. (Illustration by Katty Huertas for The Washington Post; based on Getty Images, handout photos)

Even the casual conversations left an impression on Prentice Penny.

Over a decade later, the television writer still remembers overhearing his white co-workers on a Fox sitcom chat about the overall deals they had struck or gotten renewed. Some had worked on only moderately successful shows when studios sought to compensate them for their ideas, he says. Penny, the only black person in the room, had written for “Girlfriends,” a CW series about black women that in its eighth season became the longest-running live-action comedy then airing on prime-time television.

But these were “conversations they just weren’t having on ‘Girlfriends,’ ” Penny says. “We were like the Negro Leagues of this professional league. There’s a level we’re not able to play at yet.”

Penny now serves as the showrunner of “Insecure,” the first of six shows since “Girlfriends” ended in 2008 on which he says he hasn’t been the sole black writer. The HBO series, starring Issa Rae, has earned praise for its authentic depiction of black female friendship — much of which it likely owes to the similar racial makeup of its writers room. But inclusive teams remain a rarity in Hollywood. A Color of Change report published in late 2017 found that 91 percent of showrunners were white, while only 5.1 percent were black. Of the 234 series examined, two-thirds didn’t employ any black writers.

People will just populate the room with people of color or queer people or women but not really respect those people’s voices or pay attention to what they’re saying.
Cord Jefferson

That statistic may not surprise all. After major studios issued statements decrying anti-black racism, The Washington Post spoke to several black writers about their experiences in the television industry. Most remain cautiously optimistic about whether these companies will eventually look inward. It’s not just the dearth of opportunity the writers say has hurt them — though that is certainly the first hurdle — but also the lack of upward mobility once they’re in the room. It’s the inability to be taken seriously until they have white-led series on their résumés, and the struggle to feel truly understood and heard.

Their stories point to inequitable treatment at all levels, ranging from staff writer to showrunner.

“Something that happens a lot when it comes to diversity in Hollywood ― and everywhere else ― is that people will just populate the room with people of color or queer people or women but not really respect those people’s voices or pay attention to what they’re saying,” says “The Good Place” writer Cord Jefferson. “It feels like you’re diversity decoration a little bit, as opposed to a valuable member of the team."

As an immediate response to calls for racial equity in media, some companies, including this publication, have created new positions focused on diversity and inclusion. Major networks have conducted diversity programs for years as a means of providing opportunity to people of color who might otherwise lack connections in the industry. (Of course, numerous obstacles remain, including that the odds of landing writing jobs tend to be stacked in favor of those with college degrees.)

But, as Jefferson says, making it into a writers room doesn’t guarantee fair treatment. While several writers credit these programs with helping them get a foot in the door, they also mention the stigma that can be attached to entering the industry as a “diversity hire.” A 2003 graduate of Fox’s program, Monica Macer recalls the time a studio executive declined to send her, then a lower-level writer, on a trip the rest of the staff was taking to visit sets and meet with department heads during preproduction — explicitly because she was the diversity hire. She was eventually able to make the trip, but only after the showrunner fought for it, vouching for Macer’s value as a member of the writing staff.

A lot of shows, after the money runs out, or after the diversity writer is ready to matriculate to executive story editor, they won’t pay for them. That’s where the system is broken.
Monica Macer

Zahir McGhee participated in the Disney/ABC writing fellowship out of graduate school and was placed on “Private Practice,” the “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff. He is glad to have landed where he did, given creator Shonda Rhimes’s established habit of assembling inclusive writers rooms, but describes the fellowship as a “double-edged sword.” Networks cover the salaries of program participants, giving showrunners an incentive to hire them; Tina Fey, for instance, admitted to the New Yorker that she had largely hired Donald Glover to write for “30 Rock” because funding from NBC “made him free.” Once the program ends and the funds dry up, showrunners must decide whether the writer is worth part of the show’s budget.

“Unfortunately, that’s a place where a lot of people get stuck,” McGhee says.

McGhee’s work on “Private Practice” was on par with that of the staff writers, he adds — an assessment backed by Rhimes’s decision to later hire him on “Scandal.” But when it came time to discuss him coming back for another season of “Private Practice,” he was informed he wouldn’t be bumped up to story editor, the next level, because he had technically been a fellow for the majority of the 22 episodes he worked on.

It’s not uncommon for black writers to get stuck at lower levels, according to Macer, who, while running the second season of OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” hired a co-producer who had elsewhere been forced to repeat a staff writer position three times over. At another job, she knew someone whose salary came from the diversity-hire budget for their seasons as a staff writer and story editor but who was let go from the project once they reached the level of executive story editor and “stopped being free.”

The show wound up promoting a white assistant instead — and paying for their salary.

“You’ll pay for a non-POC’s salary, but you won’t pay for someone who is of color, who you’ve trained for two seasons?” Macer asks. “A lot of shows, after the money runs out, or after the diversity writer is ready to matriculate to executive story editor, they won’t pay for them. That’s where the system is broken.”

After working on “24” as part of Fox’s diversity program, Macer was hired as a staff writer on “Lost.” African American and Korean American, she could speak to some of the cultural experiences of Walt, Rose and Michael, three black characters, as well as those of the Korean couple Sun and Jin. She says she managed to avoid feeling tokenized as a writer because of the environment co-creator Damon Lindelof cultivated. (Lindelof previously expressed a need to “do better” when it comes to inclusive hiring. Jefferson, who worked on Lindelof’s recent “Watchmen” adaptation as an executive story editor, describes the HBO series as having employed “one of the most diverse writers rooms I’ve ever been in.”)

Such environments weren’t always the case for Macer. As a mid-level writer on another series, she worked for a showrunner who would “eviscerate” her outlines and bully her to the brink of depression, an experience she discovered was common among lower-ranking women on his staffs. She reacted by adopting a “room personality” at work, speaking and describing herself as a “sassy black girl.”

“When I phrased things that way, he wouldn’t mess with me‚” Macer says. “What they didn’t realize was that I felt the need to adopt a stereotype of a sassy black woman who’s clapping back to protect my psyche because I had been so bullied on the job. After that season, I told my rep, ‘I need to take an entire year off because I’m so tired, creatively.’ ”

Black writers are tasked with writing the black character ... and having input on whether or not there’s racism in the story, as if that’s the only role we could possibly play in the room.
Melody Cooper

People of color operating in white-dominated spaces often bear the brunt of doing the “diversity work.” In addition to their regular staff duties, these writers are asked to educate their colleagues on race and call out stories that could be perceived as insensitive — another implicit duty to be carried out with extreme care, so as not to risk being ostracized as what Macer calls “the race police."

Macer was once tasked with writing for a black character who saved money from a waitressing job to buy herself a home. While working out plot points, the writer returned from a trip to the bathroom to find her co-workers had turned the empowering story line into a stereotypical one, where the character slept with her boss and had a baby out of wedlock. “I’m like, are you all tripping?” Macer recalls thinking.

Some black writers pivoted to the trade from acting after discovering how few thoughtfully written roles existed for them. Ashley Nicole Black, who now writes and acts on HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” grew up wanting to star in a series like “The Practice” and even pursued acting in college until she realized “there weren’t any people who looked like me, plus-sized black women, in that arena.” She took classes at the Second City while attending graduate school, developing her voice as a comedic writer-performer. Her first gig writing for television was on the TBS talk show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”

“The difference I notice in late night [is that] because we talk about politics all the time, they’re more comfortable conversations,” Black says. “In scripted rooms, because they were so segregated for so long, there isn’t that level of comfort. You can have a reasonable fear of backlash if you bring up an issue.”

We’re in a situation where it behooves Hollywood and the studios to say they want to do this, right? But when does that dry up? It’s all cyclical.
Zahir McGhee

Melody Cooper, who shared a video of her brother being accosted in Central Park in May that has figured into ongoing conversations on anti-black racism, dove into writing due to a scarcity of lead roles for black actresses in theater. She has since written for stage, film and television, most recently the second season of the CW anthology series “Two Sentence Horror Stories."

Though Cooper was hired to write the stories focusing on black characters, she made a point of asking for one of them to feature a multiethnic cast.

“Very often, black writers are tasked with writing the black character and the black story line, and having input on whether or not there’s racism in the story, as if that’s the only role we could possibly play in the room,” Cooper says. “We’re not often asked to write about characters who happen to be another race, or a story that doesn’t have to do with a black character. I always say that our experiences as human beings need to be included in the room. … We have perspective on all aspects of life.”

In response to recent studio statements expressing support of black people, the Writers Guild of America West’s Committee of Black Writers drafted an open letter to Hollywood demanding action. The industry has exploited or villainized black experiences since “The Birth of a Nation,” it said, and generations of black workers have endured systemic racism. The committee called for the industry to “revolutionize” its hiring practices and to treat — and compensate — black writers fairly.

Michelle Amor, who co-chairs the committee, says it was imperative for the letter to include historical context so industry leaders “understand what we’re moving forward from.” She wants to see more opportunity for black writers and more chances for those whose projects fail. Having faced pushback from an executive who once wanted one of Amor’s black characters with anxiety to instead be depicted as “strong,” the writer wonders why black women can’t be seen as both.

“We don’t often get the layers we need to tell our stories in contemporary ways — that’s the issue,” she says. “I look at shows like ‘Insecure,’ which referenced everything from mental illness to postpartum depression this last season. It was beautiful to see those real moments we experience. We need 20 more ‘Insecures,’ but different versions of it. Guess what? Hollywood can do that.”

For real, lasting change to occur, writers say, the industry needs to diversify at every level. The University of California at Los Angeles’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report, released in February, analyzed 11 major studios and found that 93 percent of all senior executive positions were held by white people and 80 percent by men. Working conditions must improve for black writers to rise from assistant to showrunner positions — and once they reach that level, Amor adds, those showrunners need space to experiment and grow.

Lena Waithe, who has three creator credits under her belt, says that for all the progress Hollywood has made, “black creators and TV writers, we’re still sitting in the back of the bus.” Even as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, it wasn’t until the third season of “The Chi,” a series she created, that she retained enough creative control to sense her voice in the show.

“My career took off, and they were like, ‘Maybe there’s something to what this lesbian girl is saying,’ ” she says. “The only reason I’m empowered is because I’m Lena Waithe. My mission now is to make sure this black woman or man or person with disabilities, that they are empowered without having won an Emmy.”

It was beautiful to see those real moments we experience. We need 20 more ‘Insecures,’ but different versions of it. Guess what? Hollywood can do that.
Michelle Amor

Waithe considers her BET series “Twenties” a success in part because of the freedom the network’s black executives allowed her. Beyond that level, it’s up to the showrunners to push for change, she says, reiterating that “skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Having a nonwhite leader doesn’t guarantee the diversity of their writers room or crew, which is why she advocates for diversity mandates.

“Everything else is too dependent on the kindness of strangers,” she adds.

According to Prentice Penny, “Insecure” requires at least 50 percent of every department, from the writers room to the camera crew, to consist of people of color and/or women. Others might follow suit, if unofficially. Cord Jefferson says it was “morally correct” for him to hire several female writers for a series he is co-writing about Gawker, his former workplace that was notoriously “a difficult work environment for women.” Zahir McGhee, who was staffing the pilot for his show “Harlem’s Kitchen” when the novel coronavirus hit, says it feels natural to hire as he would with a diversity mandate.

Now it’s a matter of getting everyone else to think the same way — and for the long term.

“We’re in a situation where it behooves Hollywood and the studios to say they want to do this, right? But when does that dry up? It’s all cyclical,” McGhee says. “Everyone is up in arms about the president going on TV, screaming about law and order. But the reality is, there have been more hours of a show called ‘Law and Order’ than there have been dramas created by black people on TV.”

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