Television is making some strides toward looking like its viewership, but a panel of industry professionals told television writers Monday that it’s still a lot easier to get into the game if you’re a white guy.
“It’s frustrating for me as an actor sometimes,” Tichina Arnold from the Starz show Survivor’s Remorse (above) told the Television Critics Association. “I don’t like to be angry black woman, but I get frustrated. A lot of black female actresses and performers and directors have two battles we’re fighting, not just being black, but being a woman. And I think the bar is set very low for others.”
“It’s a constant fight,” said Anthony Hemingway, a director on the WGN America series Underground.
The panel also included Carlos Coto, showrunner of From Dusk to Dawn on El Rey; Theresa Vargas Wyatt, head of outreach at El Rey; Victoria Mahoney, a director on Survivor’s Remorse; Jurnee Smollett-Bell from Underground; D’Angela Proctor, senior vice president of programming and promotion for TV One; and Russ Parr, director/writer of the movie Ringside on TV One.
“I’m in a position where I’m called a 4 percent hire,” said Mahoney. “A woman of color. Often today – not 30 years ago, not a hundred years ago, right now – when people decide to hire of color, they usually hire male. When they decide to hire women, they hire white. So I’m fighting in this pool where I always joke I’ve never been in the bottom 4 percent of anything in my life.
“Mike O’Malley hired me for Survivor’s Remorse because he went on Twitter and he asked people, ‘Where are women of color?’ because he couldn’t find anyone from the agencies. There was no one on the list. So he put out an SOS, and he brought in me, he brought in a bunch of other directors, and he brought in writers who are completely outside the system.
“I’ve been directing TV for five years, multi-cam, all kinds of [TV], and maybe a week ago someone was talking to my manager about whether or not I’m experienced.”
There was agreement among some panelists that more opportunities are available now, largely because the TV universe has expanded.
“We are definitely coming into a time where there are more opportunities,” said Hemingway. “Thanks to the TV Ones, the WGN Americas, Starz.
“But I’d be lying if I said it’s gotten easier, because it really hasn’t. It’s just giving us more areas to be able to go. When you get a no, you have a hundred other places that are potential yeses.”
“The people on this panel today are a testament to the fact that the future is bright,” said moderator Robert Rodriguez, chairman and founder of El Rey. “But we still have a lot of work to do. As an industry, we need to make a significant change in how we develop the content.”
“It wasn’t always popular to humanize African Americans,” said Parr. “It wasn’t profitable. Now with TV One, we’re able to tell stories that weren’t accepted years ago, like maybe two years ago. The big thing is to understand that we have stories too, and our stories are just as fun. We love, too. We get angry, too. And it doesn’t have to be about beating you over the head with racial topics. These are everyday people that have everyday relationships.”
Smollett-Bell (above) said the two shows that most affected her as a child were The Mary Tyler Moore Show, because Mary Richards was a strong yet vulnerable single woman, and the movie The Color Purple.
“In The Color Purple, they had all these different dynamics,” she said. “You had sisterhood and that longing for your sister to come back home. You had the relationship where she was in love and attracted to another woman. You had the relationship where she was oppressed in her own home by a man. I’ve always been impacted by stories like that where these characters are not one-dimensional.
“I could make a lot of money, and I could have a résumé that’s 50 pages long, if I would take every role that’s offered to me where I’m playing the girlfriend. But that’s not very stimulating for me as an actor. In Underground, it’s not about how you look. It’s about what you’re emoting and what you’re experiencing.”
“With my career, every job I get is one more glass ceiling breaking,” said Arnold. “In the ’80s, I was able to be on a soap opera, A little dark-skinned black girl with crooked teeth. That was unheard of.”
“I want to make a Latino show without the word ‘cartel’ in it,” said Coto. “That would be awesome.”
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