One of the most talked about scenes in FX’s “Atlanta” happens at the beginning of the first episode.
The series’ protagonist, Earn Marks, played by creator Donald Glover, lies in bed with his on-again, off-again girlfriend and daughter’s mother Van (Zazie Beetz). Their playful banter about morning breath quickly becomes tense when Earn is slow to say, “I love you,” back.
Annoyed, Van slips out of bed and into the bathroom, where she removes the silk scarf around her head and loosens her twists. It’s an intimate ritual most black women perform daily, but it’s rarely included on screen.
“It’s such a tiny detail that, in the wrong hands, would not have played out so well,” said Yona Harvey, assistant professor in Pitt’s English department. “But that’s the beauty of having diversified teams who are working on these stories and invested in telling them accurately and creatively.”
Harvey also has a hand in writing Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther companion “World of Wakanda” comic book series with prominent writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay. That series has been hailed as breaking the mold in what’s essentially been a culture dominated by white writers and characters.
In the television industry, “Atlanta” joins a handful of other new series created by and starring black voices, like HBO’s “Insecure,” OWN’s “Queen Sugar” and Marvel’s “Luke Cage” — which attracted such high traffic that it temporarily shut down Netflix for nearly two hours the day it premiered. These shows are notable in that they all are written by, star and are directed by people of color.
“The thing that I’m most proud of with this show is that we got away with being honest,” Glover said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “The things that people are most attracted to online are the things that are the realest, the most honest. We tried to do that on the show because I feel like that’s a part of being black that people don’t see. I’m trying to make people feel black.”
For many viewers, this wave of diverse television is a welcome sight after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy earlier this year. April Reign, editor-at-large of NU Tribe Magazine, created the hashtag in 2015, when no people of color were nominated in any of the four major Academy acting awards.
The hashtag gained momentum in early 2016 when, once again, the Academy announced all-white nominees in its major categories. Actors, including Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, publicly boycotted the Oscars ceremony, and others like “Queen Sugar” creator and director Ava DuVernay and director Spike Lee spoke openly about a lack of opportunities for people of color in Hollywood, both behind and on the screens.
The uproar had an effect.
The LA Times reported that the Academy nominees were 91 percent white and 76 percent male, which, along with the calls for more diversity, prompted Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to announce diversity initiatives meant to introduce more minority and female Academy members.
Additionally, comments from those behind the scenes indicate this new wave of TV shows may be a conscious effort by networks to diversify their programming. Kelly Edwards, vice president of HBO talent development and programming, told The Huffington Post last February the network was on the lookout for “new voices with an authentic and original point of view.”
That search delivered voices like Issa Rae, creator and star of HBO’s new series, “Insecure,” which premiered Sunday, Oct. 9. “Insecure” revolves around an average black woman grappling with the anxiety of approaching her 30s — an area unexplored in media. The show’s very nature, Rae said in an interview with NPR, is groundbreaking.
“Isn’t it sad that it’s revolutionary?” Rae said. “It’s so basic … but [black people] don’t get to do that. We don’t get to just have a show about regular black people being basic.”
Eugene Garcia-Cross, 2003 Pitt grad and production assistant on ABC’s upcoming sitcom “Downward Dog,” has witnessed the push for diversity firsthand. He moved to Los Angeles last fall and finished the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s Television Writers Program this April. The program is one of many diversity programs used by networks to find diverse talent to place on their shows. As an example, Garcia-Cross pointed out his friend Jorge Ramirez-Martinez, who recently joined NBC’s new show “The Blacklist: Redemption” as a staff writer.
“#OscarsSoWhite was important, because there wasn’t a lot of diversity — there’s still work to be done — in front of the camera and behind it,” Garcia-Cross said, addressing the fact that recent Writers Guild of America, West reports still find that minorities make up only 13 percent of television writers rooms.
“I have a lot of friends that are Latino actors and constantly getting cast as ‘Cholo #3’ or drug dealers, so it’s nice to see the diversity not in terms of people being cast but also the quality of the roles,” Garcia-Cross said.
According to Carl Kurlander, Pitt senior lecturer and Hollywood expatriate (“St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Saved by the Bell: The New Class”), Hollywood executives haven’t been ignoring non-white audiences out of malice.
They’re simply following the dollar signs.
“[Shows like] ‘Empire’ hit and people realize, ‘Oh, there’s something here,’” Kurlander said.
He also said the increasing number of networks and streaming services has led to more competition. Thus, executives are afraid to spend money on independent and “niche” films and television shows out of fear they won’t recoup their money. The success of Netflix’s most watched series, “Orange is the New Black,” and FOX’s ratings giant,“Empire,” have made studios more confident to diversify their programming.
In the past, diversity in casting has opened doors for more diversity throughout the industry — though it usually comes in bursts.
The ’70s flourished with black sitcoms including “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and “What’s Happening!!,” which paved the way for later shows like “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World” and “In Living Color.” Viewers from the ’90s may also remember the numerous options available to them, like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Living Single” and “Moesha.” This dried up in the early 2000s, restarting only in 2012 when ABC’s “Scandal” broke barriers by casting Kerry Washington as the first black female lead on a drama in nearly 40 years.
Film seems to be following suit, with highly anticipated releases like “Hidden Figures” — starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer — and “Fences” — starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and filmed in Pittsburgh — already generating Oscar buzz.
This progress has made industry professionals like “Downward Dog’s” Garcia-Cross more hopeful about the direction Hollywood is headed.
“[Progress] moves slowly, sometimes at a glacial place. And there’s still so much to be done,” Garcia-Cross said. “But I’m optimistic and so excited this is actually happening.”