But the Hollywood diversity conversation is still rooted in statistics and personal testimony: For all the publicity, we’re a long way from actually talking about solutions or reforms that might move the industry beyond its demographic stagnation. And the announcement that the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, a Canadian cable channel, is planning to expand into the United States with a similar network that will have a mandate to “develop and air TV programs written, produced, and directed by Native Americans, among others,” suggests just how complicated the conversation about those solutions might look like and what the goals for a diversity movement might be.
Is the goal for women and people of color to create and star in more programming and movies in the aggregate, even if their contributions are concentrated in niche networks or small independent pictures? Or is it for women and people of color to achieve proportional representation in mainstream studio movies and established television networks? Is it for people to watch shows and movies about people whose experiences reflect their own? Or is it for all audiences to see characters of color and female characters as admirable and relatable?
If the hope is that the All Nations Network, as the American spinoff channel will be called, will influence mainstream programming simply by doing good work, the experiences of networks aimed at black audiences might be a cautionary tale. One of the ironies of TV’s supposed diversity revolution, in which majority-black dramas like “Empire,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” have buoyed networks like ABC and Fox and helped make space for family comedies about African Americans and Asian Americans on ABC, is that people of color hadn’t vanished from all networks — just some of the most visible ones. Networks like BET, TV One and to a certain extent TBS kept great majority African American shows like “Living Single” in syndication and commissioned new scripted, reality and talk shows starring black actors and subjects from African American creators.
But however many people tuned into Tyler Perry’s broad comedies, or however good Gabrielle Union is on “Being Mary Jane,” shows on those networks tend to be treated as aberrations, exceptions, or in some other way outside the mainstream conversation about what’s successful and important on television. It took Shonda Rhimes, a showrunner who was already part of the broadcast network system through her relationship with ABC, to remind television executives that diversity isn’t a niche business strategy, one best left to specialized networks aimed at specific racial communities.
In other words, it’s probably best to have modest expectations for the sort of influence a new television network aimed at Native American viewers will have on the representation and employment of Native Americans elsewhere in the broadcast ecosystem. But even if it doesn’t influence other networks or attract a mainstream audience, a network with a specific mandate to tell stories about Native American characters, cast Native American actors and commission shows from Native American creators could accomplish something valuable.
If you’re going to create not just a single show where the characters are majority Native American, but an entire programming slate of those shows, you’ll need to hire lots and lots of Native American actors. And that means giving those actors not just IMDb credits and paychecks, but a wider range of characters to play.
I love Jonathan Joss’s work as Ken Hotate on “Parks and Recreation,” but even that affection never blinded me to the idea that Hotate was basically playing the same joke over and over again, that of a savvy advocate for the Wamapoke who was willing to manipulate Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) anxieties about being perceived as racist to cut good deals for the people he represents. If an actor like Joss got to move from the margins of a comedy or drama to the center, by necessity he’d get more to do, whether he was playing the sort of anti-hero role that’s normally reserved for middle-aged white male actors, or the sort of lovable family man who shows up so frequently on comedies.
Whether or not the shows these Native American actors star in turn out to be huge hits — and let’s be honest, on a fledgling and niche network, they would be unlikely to draw massive numbers of viewers to wholly unfamiliar locations on the dial — they would leave these actors with a wider range of clips to include in their reels, and demonstrable proof that they could do the sort of work they might not have gotten a chance to compete for in another context.
The same thing is true for Native American writers, directors and showrunners: It’s one thing to know you can do the work, and another to actually have a finished project that shows other people you can translate a story you’re passionate about into a compelling script as a writer, that you can direct in a show’s house style, or that you can wrangle a writers’ room, a crew of directors, a cast of actors and all your support staff as a showrunner. More shows mean more opportunities for everyone to build and broaden his or her credentials, and fewer excuses for mainstream shows or studios to suggest that they can’t find qualified people to cast in shows, hire to write or direct them, or choose as showrunners.
That doesn’t mean that entertainment executives won’t go on their merry way, ignoring Native American candidates and other candidates of color for jobs behind and in front of the camera. But anything that makes it harder and more embarrassing for them to continue pretending that diversity is hard seems like a decent place to start.