“Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels is not here for your excuses and he doesn’t care if he makes you uncomfortable.
Daniels was part of a roundtable discussion with showrunners of some of the hottest dramas on television, organized by the Hollywood Reporter in advance of the Emmys. Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”), Damon Lindelof (“The Leftovers”), Alex Gansa (“Homeland”), Sarah Treem (“The Affair”) and Michelle King (“The Good Wife”) all gathered to talk about the success of their shows.
Given the recent success of shows like “Empire” and “Black-ish,” awards editor Stacey Wilson asked, “How much pressure do you all feel now to populate your rooms with diverse writers?”
THR first uploaded the “Close Up” episode at the end of August, but the clip of Daniels schooling his cohorts on diversity began freshly making the rounds this week. It was likely spurred both by the upswing in interest in “Empire,” which returns tonight, and diversity in Hollywood generally, thanks to Viola Davis’s acceptance speech after winning the Emmy for outstanding actress in a drama series.
“Nothing is more beautiful right now than to go into the writers room of ‘Empire,’ Daniels said. “I don’t know what gives me more pleasure, watching my story unfold, or going in and watching a roomful of black people talking for me and saying words and writing words that black people — I hate white people writing for black people, it’s so offensive — so it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Treem began to talk about how it was important to maintain gender balance in the writers’ room of “The Affair,” and that it had been a deliberate decision when picking staff.
“Are there African American writers on your show?” Daniels asked.
“There’s one writer of color, but he’s not African American,” Treem responded.
Daniels went around the table asking the same question of all his fellow showrunners.
“There are not,” Gansa said.
“Yeah,” King answered.
“How many?” Daniels asked.
“Last season we were two, but one of them went off to create her own pilots.”
And then Daniels got to Willimon, who answered his question with a question. “How many women do you have?” Willimon asked. Daniels told him four. Willimon asked, “How many Asian writers do you have?”
Willimon finally admitted there were no black writers on the “House of Cards” staff. “I mean, I just, it’s a weird question,” he said. He went on to explain that there were many ways for diversity to manifest, and at one point, the camera cut back to Daniels, chin in hand, staring at the ceiling.
“It’s repulsive, is what it is,” Daniels said. “It’s inexcusable is what it is. I’m really, really happy that if anything — forget the success of ‘Empire.’ That’s great that we have that. What is important is that people of color know that they are wanted. ‘Cause y’all done told me that we ain’t wanted.” Daniels pointed his finger around the table. “So it’s a beautiful thing.”