Way before Twitter timelines and WhatsApp chats, we had our weekly conversations at the lunchroom table. With our processed vegetables or mac n’ cheese below us, we pushed aside our meals to recap the previous night’s Martin episode, discussed where we could get our hair braided like Moesha, or dreamed of going to an all-black college like we saw on A Different World when we became old enough to understand it. There was always something or someone that related to people of color on television -- created by people of color. Although a Shaq-sized list of shows returned and premiered in the fall for our viewing pleasure starring black and brown faces, the color spectrum behind the lens lacks a few neutral hues.
“When I was very active in Hollywood I would get resentment due to the fact that I was very insistent and adamant about hiring writers and directors and producers from the under-served population,” said Colin “Topper” Carew, a previous executive producer on Martin who is now a visiting researcher/scholar at MIT Media Lab. “While there is an incredible amount of emphasis and a moment to rejoice that there are more black leads finding their way into prime-time television, we need to ask a deeper question; How many of these shows are being run by black executives and black writers who are deeply aware and culturally sensitive to our experience, as opposed to people who just put words in the mouths of black actors?”
The focus on race in Hollywood has forever remained a round table discussion since Tinseltown’s inception although the fight for diversity on the screen and in the boardroom is being conquered in baby steps year after year. Show runners, actors, and actresses of color are steadily commanding lead positions. At last year’s Emmy Awards, Viola Davis – who became the first woman of color to win the Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series honor – summed it up eloquently in her acceptance speech: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Now, it seems as if actors/actresses like Ms. Davis finally dominate those roles faster than the spread of diversity behind-the-scenes.
Part of the success of shows like Being Mary Jane, Black-ish, or the entirety of Shondaland (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder), is the fact that there are diverse playmakers in the boardroom creating these programs. This is slowly changing in the world of television with The Carmichael Show executive produced by comedian Jerrod Carmichael, Jane The Virgin, executive produced by TV juggernaut Jorge Granier, and Dr. Ken led by comedian Ken Jeong. But the push for more show runners or executive producers of color remains an uphill battle.
In September 2015, actor Matt Damon received backlash for his controversial statement, “When we’re talking about diversity you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” Damon’s comments were met with opposition from industry professionals, including Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, who also points to the importance of having minorities in the boardroom and not just on the screen.
“Yes you can have diverse faces in front of the camera, but if the stories are all about the white lead and the black character is just there as a side kick or a helper, at some point where does that leave the audience who’s looking for stories that they can call their own?” Hunt said. “White males making those decisions are probably not going to be as sensitive to those issues as say a black woman, like a Shonda Rhimes for example.” As a show runner, Rhimes has the ability to control the narrative or genetic makeup of a cast. The fact that she creates relatable story lines for black actors or other minority lead characters also plays to the success of her Shondaland roster, Hunt said.
With creator Kenya Barris at the forefront, Black-ish is a show that takes on the obligation of depicting various experiences of the African-American family. The program also arrived at a time where viewers don’t necessarily have to rely on just one show to tell their race’s story. “In the old days when there were three or four networks, they had one black show on TV, like The Cosby Show. Those shows carried the burden of representing the entire race,” Hunt said. “Everything that was seen on television, in fiction that dealt with black people were seen on those shows. There was a lot of pressure from those shows to have to deal with ‘positive images’ and reflecting the narratives that are important to the black community.”
Given networks like BET, Centric, Bounce, and TV One, black viewers can catch a host of shows that speak to who they are. Now with BET’s acquisition of Black&Sexy TV -- a YouTube channel geared towards serious or entertaining series featuring young actors of color -- viewers have a greater lineup of content on our small screens created by people behind the camera who share a similar lineage.
“Thank God for BET and TV One which sees that as an ongoing part of their mandate. Hollywood doesn’t have the same mission or mandate when it comes to behind the camera equity,” Carew said. “All you need to do is go to the Writer’s Guild and look at their stats, and look at the Director’s Guild stats. You’ll see that there is a substantial gap between the number of white directors working in prime-time and the number of white writers working in prime-time and our numbers are very low. “
Adding a more diverse crop of people to the decision-making process is steadily evolving and is one that we’ve witnessed with the presence of young creators like Awkward Black Girl’s Issa Rae, and Black&Sexy TV pioneers Numa Perrier and Dennis Dortch.
“A lot of folks are taking their content and they are either going to a larger market or they may pull it back and say I need to stay in creative control of my brand so it’s fine to be on the Internet for a little while longer until I get what I want,” said Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd, a casting director for Being Mary Jane whose experience in Hollywood stems back to the ‘90s. “Until I get it to look like how I want it to look and don’t let ego become so involved in it that I lose everything in the process. It’s really great and I applaud all of them. I’m excited and the more we have of that the better off we will be.”
Consumers are slowly exiting a gap where quality programming on prime-time TV failed to consistently feature a diverse cast for its 8 p.m. and onward slots. Executives and show runners have filled those white spaces with actors who reflect the genetic makeup of America. Networks now boast programming that highlights a culture’s experience like Black-ish, and Fresh Off The Boat – and place veteran actors in lead roles like Morris Chestnut’s suave yet stern title character on Rosewood, Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard’s captivating on-screen relationship for Empire, Meagan Good’s launch into the future as Detective Lara on Minority Report, Halle Berry’s trailblazing role as an astronaut on Extant, Wesley Snipes’ boss-like character on The Player, and Jada Pinkett Smith’s villainous and bada** role in Gotham.
There was a point in time when viewers could watch those aforementioned actors, and even more on television, day after day. But the “UPN Moment” according to Darnell Hunt, came and went. He noted that during UPN’s golden age, or what he referred to as “the renaissance of black sitcoms,” black people largely supported half-hour installments like The Steve Harvey Show, The Jamie Foxx Show, The Parkers, One on One, and Girlfriends. But once UPN merged with The CW, we saw an erasure of these shows on basic television. “There was a huge gap and we didn’t have these types of black shows anymore,” Hunt said.
UPN could be seen as a holy grail for viewers who didn’t have access to premium cable channels like BET. On any given day you could catch a glimpse of what your circle of friends would look like if you watched Malcolm & Eddie, In The House, to Moesha in the late 1990s all the way up to the mid-2000s with a family dynamic that probably mimicked your upbringing like The Hughleys, Half N Half, and Everybody Hates Chris.
One of the reasons behind the diversity gap after the ending of a number of these shows was executives’ mentality that people of color were no longer part of the mainstream target, Hunt mentioned. “For generations we’ve made the argument, the moral argument, that Hollywood reflects the image of the nation back to itself,” he said. “Hollywood had a moral obligation to reflect the diversity of society. We got nowhere with that argument. The industry should reflect the diversity of society because it’s not just entertainment. It also affects the way we look at other groups, the way we think about ourselves, images, and stereotypes.”
Byrd, who has worked on casting for Moesha, Fruitvale Station, Notorious, Sparkle and more, can be seen as a change agent for showcasing minorities on the screen, but she also understands the business and power of minority viewership.
“Because of what happened with Empire, Being Mary Jane and the viewership, it came out of no where in their minds,” Byrd said. “We were thirsty to see ourselves and we are. It’s important for us to see ourselves and how our Facebook pages and Twitter, Black Twitter, goes bananas over a project or support something when they see people of color in a project and how excited we get, and how much money we will spend, how many times we will tweet about it and tell people to go see it.” In turn, advertisers and other entities will seek to make a profit off of these widely popular shows.
But Byrd’s statement on the need “to see ourselves” on TV rings true with her involvement with Being Mary Jane, primarily in the case of African-American women. A character – portrayed by Gabrielle Union, who brought MJ to life through Mara Brock-Akil’s wonderful creation – and the fact that black women could finally relate to a person that looked like them and experienced the same obstacles in their work and personal relationships solidified the show’s stature.
Whether MJ is riddled with self-empowering Post-it notes, fighting for more control over her job at a top-tier news station, pondering when someone will put a ring on it, or learning how to find time to meet her family’s demanding needs, this dynamic character seemed to touch at least one part of viewers’ lives. In an interview with The New York Times, Union, 42, spoke on the long overdue arrival of a character like MJ. Noting that she’s seen characters like her title role arrive to the drawing board, those fictional beings never made it to the small screen because they were “watered down” or created with a cookie-cutter image in order to appeal to a broader spectrum of viewers.
On the creation and importance of the program, Byrd said, “So many African American women are in business and thriving but don’t have balance, necessarily. It started out as a whisper then a murmur then an outcry for us to have balance in our lives and how personally a lot of us didn’t have balance in our lives.” Byrd mentioned that Mara heard that aforementioned outcry, and the more the conversation kept happening around her, the more she pushed to create this character. “It’s really nice to see that fullness.”
Minority Report’s Meagan Good tipped her hat to another black actress, Halle Berry, for allowing more women of color to command lead roles, but primarily in sci-fi shows. Good, 34, fulfills the character of an intelligent and assertive detective in the year 2065. Berry’s primary role in Extant also deals with the unknown and features a person of color in a role as an astronaut, which we don’t get to see too often.
“I’m praying that me doing this role will definitely allow more women of color and just minorities in general to have these opportunities because this is the world that we live in,” Good said. “The world that we live in is not one nationality. It’s filled with all kinds of different people from different walks of life and different complexions, body shapes, features, hair. I think that should be represented in every single thing that we watch because that’s the world that we live in.”
Even though that diversity debacle is still going on today, networks can no longer deny the dire need for featuring actors of color in recurring lead roles. According to Hunt, minorities and the mainstream are steadily becoming synonymous. “That’s why I think you’re seeing a lot of networks creating shows that used to be geared only towards whites, now making more ensemble shows where you have a black lead or a Latino major character or an Asian major character,” Hunt mentioned. “A diverse show that appeals to a cross section of America – which is what America is now – a cross section of diverse people. I think that’s why you’re seeing the Morris Chestnuts get these shows on the major networks now which you never would’ve seen 10 or 15 years ago.“
Chestnut, who has made a plethora of appearances on TV from Out All Night to Nurse Jackie, has found himself within this wave of black and brown faces on prime-time with his title role on Rosewood. The FOX show, which aired before the network’s mega hit Empire, showcases Chestnut alongside a diverse cast including Jaina Lee Ortiz, Gabrielle Dennis and famed actress Lorraine Toussaint. As Dr. Beaumont Rosewood, Chestnut steps into the shoes of a pathologist who cracks the case each and every time without breaking a sweat. When asked if he thinks more dynamic and complex roles will be readily available to minorities, he said those doors are already opened thanks to the triumph of addictive shows like Empire, How To Get Away With Murder, and Black-ish.
“All the success of those shows and people watching those shows have led the networks to be open to these types of opportunities for people of color,” Chestnut said. “I think TV and the industry overall really responds to the people, the audience. Whatever the audience is supporting they’re going to continue to do.”
In some executives’ eyes, diversity adorns a “for sale” sign, and now they’re looking to cash in. The focal point for these major networks are “black eyeballs,” Carew said, which can be seen mainly from the Nielsen ratings of Empire. With its second season opening at 22.5 million viewers, African-Americans make up 61 percent of the show’s viewership. He also points to the economic advantage of featuring diverse characters on TV.
“We simply need to look back at The Cosby Show when it launched on NBC when it was the network at the bottom of the rung in terms of Nielsen ratings,” Carew said. “We see what The Cosby Show did to move NBC from the number four or five network to the number one network. If you remember, Seinfeld was launched on the back of The Cosby Show and A Different World, and it rose to become a very successful show.” Carew also highlighted the commercial achievement of Empire, stating that the program became a “cornerstone” for FOX, serving as the nucleus for their overall prime-time lineup.
The Wednesday evening show focuses on a family that’s up to their decked-in-designer necks in legal ails, murder cover-ups, and a never-ending sibling rivalry. Their witty one-liners and their meme-worthy facial expressions leaves something new each week for viewers to discuss with total strangers on social media or in their group chats.
A screening of the premiere episode for season two was held at the legendary Carnegie Hall in September. A line that nearly took up three-fourth’s of the length of 7th Avenue and 56th Street surprisingly moved with a quickened pace that matched the attendees’ excitement. Even if you’ve already stepped foot inside the remarkable building, Empire’s presence made it feel like opening night. The cast and creators were spotted before they could even take their seats, unabashedly waving their hands and posing for pictures. People from every race and ethnicity filled the sold-out auditorium to be one of the firsts to see what was coming this season. An all-cast discussion later followed where executive producer Danny Strong said, it’s “historic to have an all black soap opera on a network.” Historic is the best word to describe the hour-long program, given its impact on not only our “black eyeballs,” but the television economy as well.
Lee Daniels’ co-creation has gone on to land a number one soundtrack on the music charts, a clothing line inspired by the drama sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, and nearly half a million dollars to purchase a commercial spot during the hour-long program, Ad Age reports. “It’s a show that has built into it all kinds of advantages which is the biggest show that’s debuted in 20 years on TV,” Hunt said. “In that sense, it’s created this road map for, ‘Hmm, diversity clearly sells so how can we exploit this?’ Other people now are trying to copy the success of Empire.”
The resurgence of black actors and actresses on prime-time is an important headline to celebrate, especially given the economic turnout of most diverse shows, but maybe the push for diversity in the boardroom will be the next focal point to sustain “black eyeballs.” In the gripping words of Byrd, “We either build networks or save them.”