It’s 2015, and yes, we are still celebrating diversity in Hollywood. Andy Samberg, who hosted this year’s Emmy’s, joked, “The big story this year, of course, is diversity. This is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history, so congratulations, Hollywood, you did it! Yeah, racism is over! Don’t fact check that.”
We all know that, like many places within this country, Hollywood has a glaringly obvious diversity problem.
Viola Davis took home the award for Best Actress in a Drama for her role as defense attorney Annalise Keating on ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.” This marks the first time in the Emmys’ 67-year history that a black woman, or any woman of color for that matter, has won.
Before this year, there had only been two black actresses nominated for a lead drama role: Debbie Allen in 1982 for “Fame” and Kerry Washington in 2013 and 2014 for “Scandal.”
“‘I see a line and over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s, and let me tell you something; the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said as she accepted the award on Sunday night. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Davis’ graceful and powerful acceptance speech touched upon many of the issues that have plagued Hollywood since its beginning. There are very few roles for people of color. The roles that are there are historically stereotypical.
“Here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black,” Davis said.
What was truly remarkable about Davis’ acceptance speech on Sunday was that by name-checking producer Ben Sherwood, TV executive Paul Lee, and TV writers/producers Peter Nowalk and Shonda Rhimes, she highlighted the fact that the lack of diversity in Hollywood is an industry-wide problem. Often, we only think of actors and actresses when considering this issue. But the issue of diversity runs much deeper than the actors and actresses who play the characters we come to love or hate.
According to a report published by the Writer’s Guild of America, the number of both female and minority writers have declined this year. Only 13.7 percent of TV writers are minorities.
When Effie Brown, a successful black female producer, voiced her concerns earlier this month to Matt Damon on his show “Project Greenlight” about how the only black female character, who also happens to be a prostitute, would be handled if the crew wasn’t diverse, Damon said, “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” What was understood was that Damon felt diversity only mattered in front of, not behind, the camera. Damon quickly published what many feel was a tone-deaf apology.
His very reasoning shows how some, maybe many, in Hollywood still aren’t willing to have a real conversation about how diversifying all aspects of the industry could be a major step towards ending this issue.
One can also question Damon’s reasoning, considering the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently launched an investigation against the Directors Guild of America for what they believe are sexist practices. Female-identified directors are notoriously underrepresented as shown in a recent study by the University of Southern California.
“What we’ve seen is a very disturbing and compelling picture of long-running systemic discrimination in the film and television industries,” said Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBT, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California.
Recently in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Damon Lindelof, a writer for “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” pointed to the fact that there aren’t enough black agents within some of Hollywood’s leading agencies like CAA, WME, and UTA. Damon alluded to the idea that it is the agents who will send diverse writers out to work and secure jobs.
With all of this blaming and misdirection happening behind the scenes in Hollywood, is it any wonder we are still fighting these issues? Essentially, passing the buck doesn’t solve anything.
But Davis, along with many others, hopes that at some point this issue will become a non-issue, so that we can move past talking about “The First Black Actress” type of moments. That diversity in Hollywood will become the norm, not something we celebrate as the exception to the rule. When we can watch a show or movie that is willing to reflect the multicultural world we live in.
“Not just stop saying it, but also stop writing it. One of the things that I admire about Shondaland is Annalise Keating was not written specifically for a black woman. I made her black because I’m black,” Davis recently said in an interview.
“But what needs to happen in the writing is when you put pen to paper, you’ve got to let your imagination fly,” she continued. “When you go to acting school and study Chekhov and Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and August Wilson, you just think that the sky is the limit in terms of how you can portray a human being. It’s only until you get out there in your profession that people say you can only be a judge, you’re not cute enough to be a leading lady, you can only be a doctor, you can only be authoritative, you can only be what we define as black. I don’t know what that means.”
For this to happen there needs to be a change both in front of and behind the camera. There certainly needs to be a redefinition of how business is conducted within Hollywood. And the conversations should focus on diversifying all of Hollywood.
“The more I direct, the more I recognize that directing is kind of litigating for the way I see the world,” Jill Soloway, creator of “Transparent,” told reporters backstage at the Emmy’s. “Straight white men have had their hands on protagonism and the camera for far too long…. We need more queer people, more trans people, more people of color, more women behind the camera.”
One can only hope that this sentiment will soon ring true throughout Hollywood.
Johnson is a member of the Class of 2019.