Beverly Hills, Calif.—Eight panelists affiliated with shows on El Rey, Starz, TV One and WGN America tore into the multifaceted issues of TV diversity during a vibrant, insight-packed panel at TCA summer press tour.
El Rey founder and chairman Robert Rodriguez delivered a brief introduction to the session. “Cable has made great strides,” he said. “There’s never been a more important time to build cultural understanding of people and working together.” Panelists spent ample time talking about the positives—more shows with diverse casts on air, multiplying outlets, more people of color involved behind the scenes—but also brought to light the ongoing struggle to reflect America in full.
“The way the system is set up, in order to get a job or be able to vote on award, it’s all just old practices that don’t suit us at all,” said Victoria Mahoney, a director with credits on feature films as well as TV series like Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse and OWN’s Queen Sugar.
“The old guard’s got to let go of their grip a little bit because that’s not the way the world looks,” said Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who stars on WGN America’s Underground. “Storytellers have a right to express what’s inside of them … and consumers and viewers have a right to see themselves.”
Mahoney noted that she is among the 4% of overall directors who are women of color, according to recent guild surveys. “I’ve never been in the bottom 4% of anything in my life,” she quipped. “In order to get out of that 4%, I need co-conspirators.” Turning serious, she said she came to the attention of Survivor’s Remorse showrunner Mike O’Malley after he resorted to asking his Twitter followers if they knew any qualified women of color who could direct. “He couldn’t find anyone at the agencies. There was no one on the lists even when he went and looked. So he put out an SOS and he brought in me and a bunch of other directors and writers who are completely outside the system.”
Today’s consumer landscape does offer some new opportunities. “I thank God for social media because it has forced show business to pay attention to so many people out there,” said Tichina Arnold, who stars on Survivor’s Remorse. Mahoney said she befriended Queen Sugar creator-producer Ava DuVernay on Twitter, which led to her coming aboard to direct episodes.
D’Angela Proctor, svp of original programming and production for TV One, said the executive suite is another area with a lot of room for improvement. “We have to be at the table at every single level” in order for truly inclusive programming to permeate the TV business.
Coming out of Spelman College, she said, “I had no idea that film and TV were even accessible to me.” She found herself fascinated by the visual storytelling in arthouse films The Cook, The Thief, the Wife and Her Lover and She’s Gotta Have It, but opted for law school and then the music business because she had sensed a lack of opportunity. “It wasn’t that I lacked talent. I just lacked the ability to see myself doing what I am doing,” she said. “Diversity has to bridge the gap between hope and talent and talent and opportunity.”
Anthony Hemingway, director and exec producer of Underground and also an Emmy nominee for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, said “I’d be lying if I said it has gotten any easier, because it hasn’t. Things are shifting. We’re just continuing to persevere. We’re learning and understanding what it takes for us to do things together.”
Agreed Russ Parr, a producer and writer of TV One’s Ringside, “It’s not a level playing field. But we’re delivering great content.”