Black women in Hollywood have been working behind-the-scenes in TV writing rooms and on sets for decades. Now, more and more, they’re creating their own hit shows.
Take 2022’s TV lineup as an example. For her breakout hit sitcom “Abbott Elementary,” Quinta Brunson made comedy Emmys history; playwright-turned-showrunner Katori Hall delivered another season of Starz’ “P Valley;” Issa Rae is launching a new HBO Max series seven months after “Insecure” ended — and that’s just a sampling.
In 2011, just 4 percent of scripted broadcast television shows were created by a racial minority; and for cable and digital shows, it was 7 and 6 percent respectively, according to a “Hollywood Diversity” report the University of California at Los Angeles released in 2021. By the end of 2020, racial minorities created 10, 21 and 15 percent of all broadcast, cable and digital shows, respectively. There is no breakout data available for specifically Black women show creators.
“Black women have always been behind the scenes and television, particularly (people) like Debbie Allen, Susan Fales Hill, Yvette Lee Bowser, Felicia Henderson,” Lena Waithe, creator of “Twenties” on BET and “The Chi” on Showtime, said in an interview with TODAY. “I think that it’ll only continue to grow because everybody, from what I can see, is mentoring, reaching back.”
Waithe said Black women showrunners — creators who run the day-to-day activity of their TV shows — have their work cut out for them in an industry that has historically been gatekept.
“Everybody, from what I can see, is mentoring, reaching back.”
For example, it’s common for white writers to advance in their career faster than any other group, according to a 2022 report issued by Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity, a group of industry professionals working towards equity in the field. The report surveyed 876 people, from staff writers to showrunners, and found that 81 percent of upper-level white writers with no prior management experience are contracted to show run their projects, compared to 67 percent of writers who are racial minorities that do have management experience.
The report also found that, for white writers, the assistant route is more of a sure path to ascension in the industry: 68 percent of white men and 56 percent of white women respondents got their first TV writing job after being hired as assistants, compared to 26 percent of non-white men and 20 percent of non-white women.
To combat these disparities, Black creators are building their own talent pipeline. Waithe and fellow showrunners Nkechi Okoro Carroll and Erika L. Johnson started a Black female television writers group in 2016 called Black Women Who Brunch.
“I remember the three of us were sitting down at dinner and we were just very frustrated that people who worked with us considered us unicorns,” Carroll said in an interview with TODAY. “They were like, ‘There’s no one else like you out there.’ But we knew there were others like us out there. So grateful for the compliment, but I was like that’s not true. There’s lots of dope Black female voices out there.”
Their networking group started from there and first met in Carroll’s living room. Carroll said 12 people came to the first meeting, where she first met fellow showrunner Tracy Oliver (“Harlem”) and others. Now, the group has almost 200 members. Carroll said the group helps with networking, and placing people in open roles when hiring managers said they “couldn’t find” a qualified Black woman for the position.
“If people come to us and say, OK, fine, who are the Black female genre writers, we can roll off names without thinking twice. What are you looking for, a comedy writer, soap opera? We will find her for you,” Carroll said.
Carroll credits this “sisterhood” as the launching pad that allowed herself and her peers to “flourish and grow together,” but says there’s more work to be done.
TODAY interviewed Carroll and Waithe, plus Robin Thede, Leigh Davenport, Janine Sherman Barrois and Tracy Oliver, in separate Zoom interviews regarding how their sisterhood has become the most reliable option when looking to advance their careers and what aspects of their equity work Hollywood can start doing on its own.
Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
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