Michele Obama, Podcast and Book Author

ENTERTAINMENT – Finding The Art Of Romance With Black Authors

  • RileyRose Author, McKesson

Between the pandemic and police violence, there’s more than enough Black death. What we need more of is Black people finding love. Toni Morrison, Author. Trending on The Grio.

In hard times, the right book can be the best kind of refuge, one that offers a reset rather than retreat. The question is which book?

Anti-racist reading lists focusing on racism and Black struggle can be an essential educational resource, but many of these books only tell part of our story, and frankly, if you’re Black, that story is one with which you’re already far too familiar.

For African American readers right now, it’s important to read something that reminds you of the joy and the beauty of Black life, not just our trauma, and for that, there’s no better resource than the growing body of excellent, Black-authored romance.

Between COVID-19 and police violence, I’ve seen more than enough Black death. What we need more of is Black people finding love. Terry McMillan, Author.

Romance is the literature of hope, romance with Black leads, even more so. Modern love stories are the perfect vehicle for reclaiming your sense of joy, for reminding us that the Black experience can’t be defined solely by its struggle — that Black inheritance is also about survival, hard-won victories, and finding joy every day in each other.

That makes romance the perfect genre for these COVID-plagued, MAGA-ridden times. When so many are running from rather than moving toward justice, reading romance is nothing less than self-care. Romance is nourishment — like good food, it soothes as well as fuels. It can also act as a psychological corrective to the daily violence of the dominant culture, and a way to recharge for the days ahead.

When you choose right, the experience feels like a reward, not work.

Beyond Mainstream Publishing

For those of us who relish reading books with Black folks at the center, however, limiting your options to mainstream publishers is a problem. When it comes to diversity, the deficiencies of the publishing world are well documented, and the romance genre is no different.

According to a recent study, in 2019 just 8.3 percent of romances put out by leading publishers were written by authors of color. The proportion written by African American authors is even smaller, and, despite advances in a few individual companies like Kensington, there’s been little change in recent years.

Zane is the pseudonym of Kristina Laferne Roberts, author of erotic fiction novels. She is best known for her novel Addicted.

That doesn’t mean that Black authors aren’t writing or reaching audiences. While a few, like Beverly Jenkins, Jasmine Guillory, and Alexis Martin, have found audiences with big five publishers, they represent just a fraction of what’s out there for readers craving authentic stories with Black leads.

New distribution channels have enabled self-publishing to thrive, and authors to have far greater creative control over the stories they’re telling. As a result, despite the persistence of systemic barriers to publication, and our frequent collective neglect, many African American authors are thriving in the romance genre.

Self-published books by Black authors are accumulating both readers and accolades. In 2019, the Romance Writers of America honored Kennedy Ryan with the RITA award for best long contemporary romance of the year for “Long Shot,” a book she self-published.

Ryan and M. Malone were the first Black authors to win major awards from RWA, a milestone which was long overdue and came just before the organization imploded in a row over deeply entrenched systemic racism. Just as the line between streaming and network television has dissolved over time, so has the division between indie and traditional publishing. As a result, many readers today no longer recognize the distinction as relevant.

The times are changing. So too are our recommendations for romantic fiction written by Black authors. These are writers I love and the ones who come up most often in conversation with Black readers, bloggers and authors. I chose writers who sometimes or always publish independently to expand our reading horizons a bit. There’s something for newbies and permanent residents of Romancelandia.

Ten Standout Black Authors of Contemporary Romance 

  1. Christina C. Jones (Indie KU). A true queen. No list of Black romance authors is complete without Christina C. Jones, a mistress of romantic comedy, who writes beautifully real books about Black love — both her protagonists and their love interests are African American. When romance author Lucy Eden asked a group of bloggers to recommend the perfect romantic comedy, no less than three picked a single, now legendary, romantic comedy.
  • Dig In: “Equivalent Exchange,” a dual POV, near-perfect workplace romance that’s a heavier favorite of Jones’s many devoted fans. Full of angst, joy and chemistry, this is a story of two damaged people helping each other rebuild.

2. Danielle Allen (Indie KU). If you ask a group of Black romance authors which strictly indie author to try next, apart from Christina C. Jones, one name pops up more often than any other: Danielle Allen, and readers clearly agree.

  • Start with: “Broken Clocks” (KU). A tear-jerker of a second chance romance about two people who are inexorably drawn to each other despite bad timing and circumstances that keep pulling them apart.
  • Dig In: “V is for Villainous”  (KU). A romantic suspense novel about a woman caught up in dangerous dealings on her prestigious college campus.

3. Katrina Jackson (Indie, KU). Katrina Jackson is a legend of erotically charged romance, and one of a tiny elite cadre of writers whom I trust to write a book about a billionaire that isn’t inherently problematic in its glorification of capitalism and consumer excess.

  • Start with: Every New Year,” a sweet, serendipitous second-chance romance featuring an accidental mogul who gives his money away to his workers and reunites with the love of his life.
  • AP Credit: Office Hours,” an ivory tower office romance that epitomizes Jackson’s signature blend of softness and steam.

4. Alyssa Cole (Indie and Avon). Alyssa Cole is a multifaceted, multigenre innovator, known for contemporary romance, historical and sci-fi. If you haven’t read Alyssa Cole, are you even reading romance?

  • Start with: “A Princess in Theory,” about a hard-working African immigrant who finds out she’s actually a princess.
  • Level Up: “Let Us Dream,” a novella about a Black feminist restaurant owner fighting for voting rights in New York and finding love.

5. Tasha L. Harrison (Indie, KU) is a successful editor as well as an author of erotica and romance. Tasha shows that small-town romance doesn’t mean white. Her recent series is set in Upstate South Carolina.

  • Start with: “A Taste of Her Own Medicine,” a  younger man, older woman interracial romance about a Black woman starting over after a divorce.

6. Adriana Herrera (Carina and Indie) made her debut with the “Dreamers” series in 2019, but her list of accolades resemble that of a veteran. Herrera’s signature style combines Afro-Latinx flavor and incisive social critique, but she’s also a master of humor and the super-steamy love scene.

  • Start with: American Dreamer.” The journey starts with Nesto, a hard-driving food truck owner of Dominican descent, and Jude, a sexy sweet librarian raised in a conservative white evangelical religious family. Their path to love is believably rocky, the happy ending well earned.
  • Go Deep: Finding Joy.” This well-reviewed indie romance is set in Ethiopia is a treat for the senses. It’s full of the sights and tastes of that country.

7. Talia Hibbert (Indie and Avon). This brilliant Black British author who writes mainly sweet supportive cinnamon roll male characters. Her books will make you laugh rather loudly and frequently.

  • Start with: “A Girl LIke Her,” a great own voices story about a grumpy, comic book-loving outcast with autism and her cuddly teddy bear of a neighbor.
  • AP Credit: “Work For It,” Talia’s first m/m multicultural romance, is a beautiful and deeply romantic story about two men struggling with intimacy and mental health.

8. Kennedy Ryan (Mostly Indie) writes angsty, socially conscious, deeply romantic books with multicultural casts.

  • Start with: “The Hoops Trilogy.” Book 1, “Long Shot,” a complex and emotional story about a promising young sports professional who gets trapped in a toxic relationship with the wrong man just before she finds the right one. It’s a gorgeous love story that just misses becoming a tragedy.
  • AP: Her latest, “Queen Move,” is an absolute masterpiece, with an Olivia Pope-like lead, also named Olivia, who gets a second chance at love with her childhood love, Ezra.

9. Jodie Slaughter (Indie). A young indie author with a talent for mixing dark suspense and romance, Jodie Slaughter has quickly become a fan and author favorite.

  • Start with: Fan favorite “White Whiskey Bargain,” a multicultural marriage of convenience story that’s a huge hit with readers and Slaughter’s fellow authors alike. Authors Talia Hibbert, Charish Reid, and Adriana Herrera all identify it as a favorite.
  • AP: “Just One More,” a fluffy and fun Valentine’s Day-themed treat.

10. Rebekah Weatherspoon (Indie and Kensington) is the ultimate crossover queen. She’s simultaneously one of the undisputed leaders in multicultural queer romance, most of which she’s published on her own, and the creator of a Black cowboy series for Kensington. She writes totally gripping, funny, and often kinky love stories.

  • Start with: Rafe,” about a buff male nanny with a sweet center who becomes the ultimate partner to a stressed-out doctor mom.
  • Go deep: The FIT trilogy, a set of sweet and sexy romcoms with a kinky BDSM twist or “Harbor,” a novel of romantic suspense about two Black men who love each other finding the perfect woman at the worst time, and in the worst possible way.

A Curvy Chick Production

Romance, Murder Mystery & Drama -Riley Rose Author

Biracial Female Superhero Stories -Riley Rose Author

Michelle Obama Becoming book cover

ENTERTAINMENT – Michelle Obama’s Podcast Premieres on Spotify July 31, 2020

Trending on Variety, by Todd Spangler. Michelle Obama on Spotify.

Michelle Obama will bring her voice to Spotify’s global streaming platform later this month with the launch of “The Michelle Obama Podcast.”

It’s the first project from Higher Ground, the media production company founded by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, for Spotify under their exclusive multiyear pact announced in June 2019. And it’s the latest salvo in Spotify’s gambit to capture the leading position in the podcasting biz.

“The Michelle Obama Podcast” will debut exclusively on Spotify on July 29, 2020, available to free users and premium subscribers worldwide.

The series will feature the former First Lady’s conversations with friends, family and allies, focusing on “the relationships that shape us, from siblings and close friends to partners, parents and mentors to our relationship with ourselves and our health,” according to the companies.

Michelle Obama Podcast

“My hope is that this series can be a place to explore meaningful topics together and sort through so many of the questions we’re all trying to answer in our own lives,” Michelle Obama said in a statement. “Perhaps most of all, I hope this podcast will help listeners open up new conversations — and hard conversations — with the people who matter most to them. That’s how we can build more understanding and empathy for one another.”

Guests on “The Michelle Obama Podcast” will include her mother, Marian Robinson, and older brother Craig Robinson; TV and podcast personality Conan O’Brien; Valerie Jarrett, former adviser to President Obama; journalist Michele Norris; and Dr. Sharon Malone, wife of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“We believe that audiences across the globe will be inspired by these most candid, most human and most personal conversations between First Lady Michelle Obama and her guests,” Dawn Ostroff, Spotify’s chief content and advertising business officer, said in announcing the podcast.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Bestseller on Amazon

To be sure, Spotify isn’t sticking to a progressive-politics lane in its aggressive podcast push. This spring the company announced a blockbuster deal with Joe Rogan, the popular comedian/talk show host who has invited far-right guests on his show. Under the multiyear agreement, “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast will be exclusively housed at Spotify starting later in 2020.

Meanwhile, last month Spotify announced a deal with Kim Kardashian West for an exclusive series investigating a case involving criminal-justice reform.

In addition, Spotify has acquired four podcast companies — Gimlet Media, Anchor, Parcast and Bill Simmons’ The Ringer — in deals totaling nearly $600 million over the past 18 months.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Bestselling Daily Journal on Amazon

On Spotify, “The Michelle Obama Podcast” will have its own dedicated page at this link. It also will be listed on Spotify’s Higher Ground hub for the Obamas’ content (at this link).

During the lead-up to the launch, the former First Lady’s podcast has been code-named “Project Renaissance” by Spotify and Higher Ground.

Spotify has inked deals with Salesforce.com and Procter & Gamble’s Dawn and Tide brands as presenting sponsors of “The Michelle Obama Podcast” Season 1.

Michelle Obama Podcast Premiere Date

The coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on the fast-growing podcast industry: U.S. podcast ad revenue is expected to grow 14.7% in 2020, to around $812 million — down from 48% growth last year, per an IAB sector forecast prepared by PwC. Spotify acknowledged that COVID-19 quarantines depressed podcast listenership in the first quarter of 2020, but also noted that about 19% of monthly active users listened to podcast content in Q1 (up from 16% the previous quarter).

Source: Spotify Global Reach

The Higher Ground Audio division, centered on the Spotify deal, is led by Dan Fierman, a veteran of Epic Magazine, MTV, ESPN’s Grantland and GQ. Other key personnel are EVP Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel and First Look Media alum; VP Mukta Mohan, formerly Crooked Media’s director of development; and editorial assistant Janae Marable.

Higher Ground Productions, which the Obamas formed in 2018, also has a multiyear Netflix pact for scripted and unscripted series, as well as docuseries and feature-length narrative and documentary films.

Watch the teaser for Michelle Obama’s forthcoming podcast:


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Batwoman actor changes

ENTERTAINMENT – Javicia Leslie As New Series Lead After Ruby Rose Exit From Batwoman

Courtesy of Javicia Leslie. Story trending on Variety, by Joe Otterson.

Batwoman” has found its new series lead, with Javicia Leslie set to step into the cape and cowl for the show’s upcoming second season on The CW.

“I am extremely proud to be the first Black actress to play the iconic role of Batwoman on television, and as a bisexual woman, I am honored to join this groundbreaking show which has been such a trailblazer for the LGBTQ+ community,” Leslie said.

Leslie will portray a new character on the show named Ryan Wilder. She is described as likable, messy, a little goofy and untamed. She’s also nothing like Kate Kane (previously played by Ruby Rose), the woman who wore the Batsuit before her. With no one in her life to keep her on track, Ryan spent years as a drug-runner, dodging the GCPD and masking her pain with bad habits. Not wild about this character back story, not every black athlete or fighter has a background in a life of crime – hello stereotype!

Today Ryan lives in her van with her plant. A girl who would steal milk for an alley cat and could also kill you with her bare hands, Ryan is the most dangerous type of fighter: highly skilled and wildly undisciplined. She is an out lesbian, athletic, raw, passionate, fallible, and very much not your stereotypical All-American hero.

Leslie takes over leading the series from Rose, who shocked fans when she announced her departure from the series in May.

On Instagram, Rose praised Leslie’s casting.

“This is amazing!! I am so glad Batwoman will be played by an amazing Black woman. I want to congratulate Javicia Leslie on taking over the bat cape. You are walking into an amazing cast and crew. I can’t wait to watch season 2 you are going to be amazing!!” she wrote.

Ruby Rose as Batwoman

Prior to joining “Batwoman,” Leslie starred on the CBS series “God Friended Me,” which aired for two seasons. That show was also produced by Warner Bros. Television and Berlanti Productions. She also starred in the BET series “The Family Business” and the film “Always a Bridesmaid.”

She is repped by Stewart Talent and Thirdhill Entertainment.

Actors: Javicia Leslie and Ruby Rose

“Batwoman” is produced by Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television. Caroline Dries developed the series and served as executive producer for season one with Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Geoff Johns.

“Batwoman” is based on characters created for DC by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.

The show is scheduled to return in January on Sunday nights on The CW.

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Lin Manuel creator of Hamilton Broadway Play

ENTERTAINMENT – Hamilton Broadway Hit Musical Premiered On Disney Plus

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo star in the original cast of Hamilton. Trending in the news and media headlines as covered by CNET and local statewide media.
Disney Plus

I was happily blown away upon viewing the Broadway hit musical, “Hamilton”, on Friday night, July 3, 2020. It was the premiere viewing on Disney Plus with the original cast to boot! After weeks of feeling trapped inside due to the pandemic Coronavirus, I really needed something to get excited about. As widely reported it has reached a wider audience than ever before. The Broadway smash that focused on the nation’s founding father Alexander Hamilton, originally debuted in 2015.

It celebrated its inaugural year with a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations in 13 categories, winning 11 — including the prestigious Best Musical award and continuously sells out quickly in every city premiere.

Watching the movie version that also features the original Broadway cast that was recorded at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre over three days in June 2016, according to Broadway.com. Such a feat involved two days of filming with a live audience, and one where producers shot close-ups and other angles, according to Pacific San Diego magazine.

Hamilton is based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 best-selling biography “Alexander Hamilton,” it exudes hip-hop inside the world of musical — which carries a rating PG-13 on Disney Plus. It is told from the perspective of Aaron Burr, (was an American politician and lawyer, the third vice president of the United States (1801–1805), and served during President Thomas Jefferson’s first term), which focuses on Hamilton’s immigrant roots, and his role in forming the United States government.

Hamilton on Disney Plus is bringing musical theater to a whole new audience
It’s more than another movie musical — it’s a game changer.


Watching the Broadway stage production, what was clear was the lyrical and musical genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

As the musical follows the life of US founding father Alexander Hamilton, he goes from misunderstood Caribbean immigrant to the first ever Secretary of the Treasury of the United States.

I received the musical’s CD soundtrack from my dear friend, V.B., who gifted it to me for my birthday. I continue to play it everyday as it vibes in my iTunes playlist.

The premiere is exciting. The premiere is musical theater history, at least for me!

There are a lot of people who don’t understand the significance of a show like Hamilton making it onto such a widely distributed and affordable platform.

The comments and the questions continue…

“Didn’t they basically do the same thing with Les Misérables and Cats?”

“Sure, but it’s not as big of a deal as when The Mandalorian hit.”

“It’s just another musical, I don’t see why it’s so hyped.”

CNET’s Panecasio, reveals, “First of all, let us never discuss the film adaptations of Les Misérables and Cats in the same breath again. But, more importantly, there’s a crucial difference here that people outside the theater world may not grasp until they actually see it for themselves. Hamilton’s premiere on Disney Plus doesn’t inherently make it a movie, like the Les Mis adaptation. It certainly isn’t a TV show, like The Mandalorian, though its running time and intermission break might make it feel like two episodes. You see, despite being filmed, it retains its core as a theater production. You will see mics peeking out from wigs. You will see sweat.

You will see painstakingly designed set pieces rotating and moving in a way designed to maximise impact for a packed theatre, not your lounge room. You will see it all close-up, better than the front row.”

And that, for a show like the success of Hamilton, is huge. Despite the adoration for all things theater, it has its flaws. The big one? Accessibility. This is why there’s a reason that the stereotype of a theater-going snob exists. “A culture of exclusivity has surrounded theater for a long time, especially when it comes to the hyped-beyond-comprehension shows like Hamilton. You want to see a show like that with the original cast? I hope you’ve got a couple thousand dollars spare — and you better live in the continental US, otherwise you can triple that price with international flights and accommodation.”

Sure, you could win the ticket lottery if you’re lucky (though chances are slim at best), but for a show that makes a point of saying its protagonist is “young, scrappy and hungry,” the environment certainly doesn’t cater to that clientele.

At the start of a run, waitlists can stretch weeks, even months, before you can get affordable tickets (that don’t have you sitting up in the nosebleeds). CNET points out stories from people who, at the height of Hamilton’s popularity, spent hours refreshing ticket windows on their computers just for a back row seat.

Hamilton creator, Lin Manuel-Miranda 

Unlucky or priced-out fans then turn to the internet for shoddily recorded bootlegs of their favorite shows, notoriously disguised as “slime tutorials” to get around restrictions forbidding unlawful recording and republishing of a show — and that’s a contentious debate in and of itself, because actors and audience members alike know you won’t be getting the show as intended. If by some miracle they do find a viable bootleg, chances are it’s 10% Hamilton and 90% a shaky iPhone recording of the back of someone’s head in 144p. Not really the same, huh?

So now, in a time where we’re all stuck inside and theaters are closed, production companies are forced to find new avenues. Avenues like Disney Plus. And one cannot emphasize the value in that change enough. Art should be accessible. Sure, it’s not so hard to see Hamilton anymore, but what about the next big show? What about the next “blow us all away” hit to land on Broadway?

Performers preach that theater is for everyone, but when tickets are priced so high that they exclude a significant portion of the population, it just isn’t. A Disney Plus subscription though? Infinitely more achievable.

Hamilton’s premiere on such an accessible platform marks a potential for genuine change and improvement in the future. I know that nothing will ever replace the feeling of being in a real-life theater, sharing a room with strangers experiencing the same extraordinary thrills. But if this is the best, most inclusive way to introduce more people to theater, and nothing’s better than that! It’s not just another movie musical being added to the platform. It’s a catalyst and a step forward to making theater, truly, for everyone.

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George Floyd art tribute

ENTERTAINMENT – The Voice Of Black Hollywood

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock (10679851av).All Black Lives Matter March in Hollywood.Black Lives Matter protests, Los Angeles, USA – 14 Jun 2020

  • Trending on Variety

Former “Glee” star Amber Riley remembers the time early in her career when a producer told her that she and other actors of color were “a little more disposable, because that’s the way the world is.” As her professional trajectory continued, she witnessed her fair share of bad behavior, and knew who would — or would not — be held accountable.

“Being told that the white girls are not fireable is being told that you’re disposable,” she tells Variety. Riley internalized that message to the point that she was “distraught” going into auditions in her post-”Glee” career, dealing with anxiety and a loss of confidence.

“I just felt like, there’s a million Black actors that want this — what is special about me? … That’s what that feels like [when] nobody cares,” says Riley. “They don’t care that you’re being abused on set, whether that’s verbally or otherwise. They don’t care.”

Annie Jen for Variety

Riley recalls all this in the wake of “Glee” actor Samantha Ware revealing that the show’s star, Lea Michele, allegedly threatened in 2015 to “s— in [her] wig.” Riley’s support of Ware on social media led to Black actors with similar experiences reaching out, and prompted her to create #unMUTEny, a movement to “end Black silence in the entertainment industry, hold power structures accountable for suppressing Black experiences and confront microaggressions with courage.”

“We need to address behaviors that are allowed on sets,” says Riley. “We need to address why the Black experience is diminished when it comes to telling you what happened, why we’re not believed, why we feel afraid for our jobs, why we feel disposable.”

Riley is not the only one in Hollywood and elsewhere speaking up about the need to lift Black voices. The death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police in late May has been a catalyst on an international scale, prompting hundreds of thousands to march in the name of Black Lives Matter and to call for reform of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. This has permeated other industries, including Hollywood, whose controversy-shy mega-corporations took the unusual step of issuing public statements decrying racism as thousands of Black artists shared their experiences with workplace discrimination.

What many in the entertainment industry are ready to say aloud is this: The institution itself is imbued with white supremacy and a patriarchal structure designed to proffer advantages unequally. Now the question is whether Hollywood, a town built on the very premise of exclusivity and gatekeeping, can make good on its commitment to inclusion — and amplify the voices of Black talent and other creatives of color the way it has purported to.

The tenor of the current conversation around racism and police brutality has undergone a tectonic shift, even though unarmed Black men have been dying at the hands of police officers for years.

The 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, for instance, sparked waves of outrage but no internal soul-searching in, say, the headquarters of NASCAR or Aunt Jemima parent company Quaker Oats.

Some surmise that the coronavirus pandemic left the millions confined to their homes little choice but to pay attention; others attribute the acceleration of the Black Lives Matter movement to the increasing power of social media.

The entertainment industry’s recent reckoning with gender parity, sexual misconduct and #OscarsSoWhite has perhaps positioned it to be more inclined to engage in some self-interrogation.

“Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, all those deaths coming in quick succession — I think it’s opened up an entirely different conversation that particularly in Hollywood, coming in the wake of #MeToo, I think everyone is realizing that the business has been built on some systemic wrongs that need to be righted,” Netflix vice president of original content Channing Dungey tells Variety.

The death of George Floyd has ignited calls for reform not only of the criminal justice system but of industries including Hollywood.
Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutters

Regardless of the cause, this moment appears to be an inflection point in the way we think about institutional racism. But no part of the issue is news to the Black community.

“This is no more urgent today than it was four months ago to people who’ve been paying attention,” says The Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard. “And it’s great that there are some people who are now saying, ‘Oh, maybe we should be doing things differently,’ but the need for that change has existed certainly for as long as I’ve been in the business, and I would argue that it’s been necessary since the first Hollywood blockbuster was ‘The Birth of a Nation.’”

The industry has long evolved past films like “The Birth of a Nation” and Disney’s “Song of the South,” and more women and people of color have come to occupy positions of power, both in front of and behind the camera. But that has not been enough to cancel out generations of hurt and exclusion.

Black writers still “can’t get a shot to write their stories,” says director Matthew A. Cherry, who won an Oscar this year for his animated short film, “Hair Love.”

“If you look at a big majority of studio films that have come out, be they biopics or stories with primarily Black characters, a lot of times you have white screenwriters who are able to tell those stories,” he says. “This is tricky, because a lot of times they’ll say, ‘OK, we want a big-name writer on it,’ or ‘We need to rely on the credits of said writer.’ It’s just like a lose-lose situation because you can’t get credits if you don’t get opportunities. And the people that’ve been getting opportunities for the last 30, 40, 50 years haven’t been us.”

Most studios and networks boast a slate of well-intentioned inclusion initiatives to showcase acting, directing and writing talent from communities of color. But structural shortfalls, perhaps more damaging in their subtlety, persist. Take TV diversity programs, which are often great stepping stones for writers and directors of color to get their first job on a series.

“But what ends up happening is that a lot of them get stuck there, right?” says Dungey. “Because once they’re no longer the diversity hire that’s paid for through the program, they still are facing that same barrier to entry. They don’t have the same relationship. It makes me so frustrated when we’re putting together a director list for a season of television, and then they come back and they say, ‘We have one woman, one person of color — that’s good.’ And then you know, the other eight are white men. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute; you’re telling me that there’s no one else you can find that makes this?’”

The salary for a writers program hire typically comes from the studio or network running the program, not the showrunner’s budget. “A Black Lady Sketch Show” staff writer Ashley Nicole Black, who has not participated in such a program but has heard from many who have, contends that such structures incentivize showrunners to not promote those diversity hires but instead replace them with a new “free” writer of color.

That’s not to say the programs have not seen writers who have gone on to big success. Mindy Kaling, Donald Glover and Alan Yang are all alumni of NBC’s Diverse Staff Writer Initiative, for instance. NBC’s program funds the salary of a staff writer for three years; if a showrunner wants to promote that writer to story editor, then he or she need only pay the difference.

But the latest Writers Guild of America inclusion report makes obvious the glaring continued racial disparity in writers’ room ranks. In the 2019-20 season, 51% of staff writers were white, and the rest were people of color. That parity did not translate to the upper echelons: More than 80% of executive producers and showrunners were white, while fewer than 20% were people of color.

“The system is racist,” says Black. “So the system is going to tend toward elevating white people and not elevating people of color. And the only way to fix the system is to attend to every single part of the system. So if you’re just getting people in the door and you’re not attending to how long they stay there, how quickly they’re promoted and elevated — the system, once they’re in the door, is going to tend toward kicking them back out the door.”

Black’s experience on the HBO comedy series has been unique — she is part of a writers’ room populated only with Black women — and a testament to the necessity of healthy representation. When she started on “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” she was “pitching hot fire,” unencumbered by having to explain cultural references to a mostly white audience in order to set up a joke.

“In a room full of all Black women I didn’t have to do that first task,” says Black. “I was just doing the comedy. And it made work so much easier. And I was like, this is how white men are working all the time. It’s like I was doing comedy with a boulder on my back and someone just took it off, and now I’m running up the hill.”

Some go so far as to indicate that the industry’s approach to diversity and inclusion is an act of misdirection, when the focus should be on the conditions that have allowed the main benefactors of the status quo — white men — to remain in positions of control.

“When people who have benefited their whole lives from white supremacy and patriarchy are asked to create a program or hire a woman or two or change the way they think about who’s qualified, they’re all pretty game to do it,” says “Transparent” creator Joey Soloway (who recently changed their name from Jill). But instead of being rewarded with an episode to direct or being given “a pat on the head,” they say, the issue is “asking white people and especially white men to really interrogate what they’re willing to give up to be anti-racist.”

The dialogue now happening in the industry is about more than inclusion and creating spaces, Soloway says. “It’s about, I think, white people and men being willing to say, ‘Wow, the help I’ve had from living in patriarchy, the help I’ve had from living in white supremacy, has really done a number on everybody else.’’

Actor Kendrick Sampson recently recruited more than 300 Black creatives — including Tessa Thompson, Sterling K. Brown, Common, Viola Davis, Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae, Octavia Spencer and Kerry Washington — to sign a letter denouncing Hollywood for “encouraging the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness.”

Amber Riley speaks at a BLD PWR and Black Lives Matter gathering in Los Angeles on May 30. Shalae Madison

“The lack of a true commitment to inclusion and institutional support has only reinforced Hollywood’s legacy of white supremacy,” wrote Sampson. “This is not only in storytelling. It is cultural and systemic in Hollywood. Our agencies, which often serve as industry gatekeepers, don’t recruit, retain or support Black agents. Our unions don’t consider or defend our specific, intersectional struggles. Unions are even worse for our below-the-line crew, especially for Black women.

Hollywood studios and production companies that exploit and profit from our stories rarely have any senior-level Black executives with greenlighting power.”

Internally, studios and networks have made attempts to break down barriers to entry for Black people and other people of color through executive incubators and pipeline programs. But those efforts are not as fast-moving as many would like. Look no further than a snapshot of any major entertainment company’s board of directors or executive team to see mostly white men looking back.

Tara Duncan, the incoming president of Disney-owned cabler Freeform and one of the few Black network heads in the industry, is a founding member of Time’s Up-backed Who’s in the Room, an executive mentorship program that aims to improve diversity among executives and producers.

Eighty percent of its 23 mentees, all of whom started as senior assistants to decision-making executives, have since been promoted or moved into new positions since completing their first year in the program.

“I’ve had to navigate issues of being called aggressive and angry,” says Duncan of her experience in the industry, adding that she has been challenged to defend the value of projects from creators of color about which she has been passionate. “There’s this sort of instinct that if it’s featuring a predominantly Black cast or it’s from a Black creator, then that’s only going to appeal to a niche audience. So yeah, these are issues that I have faced continuously in my career. For me, that mentorship made all the difference, which is why it was very important to me that I also would become a mentor.”

Cherry similarly feels a responsibility to keep the door open for other Black creators, in the vein of Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele and Michael B. Jordan’s efforts to promote Black talent. Yet speaking out comes despite a very real fear of professional repercussions, which is why Cherry tweeted his support for John Boyega after the “Star Wars” actor took the megaphone at a Black Lives Matter protest in London on June 3 to address the crowd.

Counterclockwise from bottom left: Ashley Nicole Black, Robin Thede, Lauren Ashley Smith, Holly Walker, Akilah Green, Rae Sanni and Brittani Nichols are members of the “Black Lady Sketch Show” writers’ room, which is composed solely of Black women.
Courtesy of HBO

“Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that,” Boyega said at the protest. Hollywood heavy-hitters including Peele, Olivia Wilde, J.J. Abrams, Mark Hamill and Rian Johnson also publicly affirmed their support for the young star.

“I think people are realizing that we have an opportunity to actually have their back and say, ‘We support you; we’re gonna hire you regardless, you know what I mean? We do have your back,’” Cherry says, pointing to celebrities such as Gabrielle Union — who filed a harassment complaint against NBCUniversal, Fremantle Media and Simon Cowell’s Syco amid concerns about racism and on-set misconduct — and Mo’Nique, who last year filed suit against Netflix, alleging pay inequity and gender and racial bias.

For her part, “Glee” star Riley is no longer worried about speaking up. Late 2019 saw her falling into a deep depression that hobbled her so much that she couldn’t sing or work; she lost 25 pounds and ended up in the hospital.

Riley has since learned how to manage what turned out to be anxiety, and does not care if she is blackballed, so long as she can improve the entertainment landscape for the next generation.

“I’ve made my money,” says Riley. “I can continue to make money in the background. I can be a part of a production team, and you don’t even know my ass is there, and be making more than being in front of the camera. There’s not going to be anyone that’s going to be able to stop me.”

The momentum is building around calls to action. Leonard and Black were among the 1,000 Black artists, including Union, DuVernay and David Oyelowo, who formed the Black Artists for Freedom collective; in an open letter they urged cultural institutions to cut ties with law enforcement and “put their money where their mouths are.”

The ball is now back in the court of Hollywood’s power players— studios, networks, agencies, production companies — to move the story forward.

“I would love to see a major studio or streaming platform make the public commitment that, at a minimum, their spend on production will reflect demographic realities of the population of the U.S. for minority groups,” says Leonard. “If we as a business are going to spend a billion dollars on content, 13% of that is going to go to the African American community for stories by and about people in that community, 50% of it will go to women, etc. If they want to really go big, they would commit to a floor of the way the world actually is.”

That may sound radical, he says, but the notion becomes less so when considering that white men make up only about 30% of the U.S. population but create the bulk of Hollywood’s output.

Actor John Boyega speaks at a Justice for Black Lives protest in London on June 3; Hollywood heavy-hitters such as Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams later publicly expressed their support of his action.
NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

WarnerMedia chief enterprise inclusion officer Christy Haubegger, who recently joined the HBO and Warner Bros. parent company after spending 14 years working to improve representation at CAA, says the next step is to do more than “random acts of diversity.”

“I’m a big fan of databases,” she says. “I like taking excuses away. Nobody can say, ‘I couldn’t find them.’ And so we’re building a centralized set of tools for our executives, and for our partners, like our production company partners, to be able to access, to facilitate, looking at more diverse opportunities. Everyone’s trying to hire more female episodic directors, and everybody’s got kind of a list. I’m like, ‘No, no, we’re gonna make one big list for you.’ I’m a believer in systems, and I think systems are the only way to get sustainable change.”

As part of the move in recent years toward increased accountability, companies such as WarnerMedia and Netflix have publicly released granular internal demographic breakdowns, offering transparency on how many people of color are on staff and in the upper ranks. Whether other entertainment giants will follow suit remains to be seen.

While the conversation appears to be moving in a constructive direction, executives and creators are cautiously optimistic about the changes to come.

“When I have brought this up, I have been pleasantly surprised at the willingness to listen and think there is still, quite frankly, some fear,” Freeform’s Duncan says. “I think we’re all grappling with where to start. And how do we do something that feels effective and something that’s truly going to make a difference? I will say I definitely think there is a real desire. But I think, again, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just about doing the right thing. This is also good business.”

Ultimately, Riley believes it comes down to ensuring that Black voices are properly valued, which she considers the industry’s biggest blind spot. She advises Black creatives and their allies not to lose sight of the end goal.

“I need people to understand the long game,” says Riley. “I need everyone to be disciplined, after the motions and all of the commotion and all of the passion and the performance has died down. And I need them to be consistent with their message, with their feelings, because we all know when we stop seeing results, it’s gonna take self-discipline to make sure that it gets done.”

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