Conversations on Race and Entertainment Media

In 2015, I invited Robyn Lattaker Johnson (playlist available at youtube.com/playlist?list=
PLBHwvyKsapPJryYZl8D0ua99rzoegnZl4
), an unscripted executive for BET and SyFy. An industry veteran with over 20 years in the business, we talked about the role of industry, and the responsibility of the consumer, with respect to race, gender, and the intersection between them.  Furthermore, she addressed how the unique genre of “reality television” contributed to our understanding of, and critical discussions about, race and in entertainment media, especially in developing and supporting well-rounded representations of Black women on television. When I asked her about her mission within the TV industry, Johnson responded that she was here to change the world.

JOHNSON: We replaced a cast member on a show and I made a conscious decision that I was going to put a Black woman on that show, and I just did it… I said to her… “How do you feel about taking off the nails, and the hair, and all the makeup, and the stuff? Because I need you to be gritty and I need people to believe you!” And she said, “I’ll do it.” I was proud to get her to understand that I need authenticity from her. I was proud because I wanted to be able to hire her, but I didn’t want Black Barbie on that show. 

In 2016, Erika Green Swafford (playlist available at youtube.com/playlist?list=
PLBHwvyKsapPJESll7nM63TtPCloE8soWL
), executive producer on How To Get Away With Murder, joined me to talk about the unique opportunities and limitations of writing for network dramas and her approach to diversity in the writers room. As someone who moved from hospitality management into screenwriting, her perspective on diversity and bringing different ideas and individuals to the table was refreshing and valuable to the students.

“Erika Green exemplifies how the title of one’s major does not dictate one’s entire career path as much as the diverse lived experiences may, and this is a valuable lesson to understand… I loved when she said “It informs because I’ve lived so many other lives, and I continue to live so many other lives” and “it informs you as a human being to have all of these experiences” because this reminds everyone the more you have experienced, the more likely it is you will have a better understanding of other people, and you will most likely learn more about yourself as well.”

In 2017, I invited Donny Jackson (playlist available at youtube.com/playlist?list=
PLBHwvyKsapPLe0OJjG26UGb9pYBDRMXLh
), the Executive Producer and show runner for CNN’s, United Shades of America with Kamau Bell. The conversation was well attended and we discussed a wide variety of topics including the intersection of journalism and entertainment, the nature of satire and comedy in intergroup relations and attitude change, the role of media literacy and psychology in media production, and more. As a trained psychologist, the conversation addressed the capacity of media to impact the psychology of viewers and producers.

“Donny Jackson discusses a time while filming when one of the film crew wanted to shoot black kids running behind a wrought iron fence, then Mr. Jackson had to explain to the crew member how that cut would be problematic. I think story was important because it showed how people are still oblivious to racist stereotypes in America. If the video was used then it would have depicted yet another black person behind bars, the small subliminal message that would cause a cringe worthy gut reaction. If you are going into a media related job its crucial to be able to look at a media artifact through all the lens of your perspective audience, to understand where some take offense to something that was portrayed.”

In 2018, the conversation took a marketed digital turn as I interviewed Jonathan Jackson (playlist available at youtube.com/playlist?list=PLBHwvyKsapPKTw4ZkkcGfNdy5Lqywa3ce), one of the co-founders of BLAVITY, a Black millennial website and community. Our conversation emphasized the generational differences in Blackness, including embodying, representing, and marketing to a diverse Black community.

“I also liked how [Jonathan] Jackson emphasized that blackness is not a “lack of,” because I think often when we talk about race, particularly with reference to black Americans, we often think in terms of disadvantage, prejudice, and lack of opportunity, wealth, or education – which are important parts of the equation, unfortunately, but also leave out rich truths about blackness that are often ignored. But Jackson emphasized that black people in the Americas have demonstrated amazing resilience, pride, need for growth, and dignity. I also liked how he emphasized that marginalized communities (in this case, black women) need to hear positive statistics and facts about themselves to feel validated in spite of cultural pressures that tell them they are likely to fail.”

Finally, I invited Dana Gills (playlist available at youtube.com/playlist?list=
PLBHwvyKsapPJ6axYuF-GuXZ0jAT_f1R8A
) in 2019, the Director of Production and the only Black executive at Lionsgate. We talked about the power of film and the role of new media in diversifying mainstream voices. Gills also discussed making her way in advertising and choosing to switch career paths in order to have a greater impact on the content that was being created.

“One of the key themes I noticed was here unwillingness to compromise. Gills spoke about she has made a space for herself in seeking out the narratives of diverse characters and working with the individuals responsible for those stories to develop them in a way that offers nuanced representation of various identities. When asked how she would behave in several different situations, Gills responded that she would not compromise herself despite a potential loss of opportunity. I find this particularly compelling as I believe there are numerous instances in which individuals compromise their values for their work because they are afraid of the cost. While I don’t think every disagreement is worth potentially throwing a job or a career away from, I believe it’s valuable to hear affirmation that sometimes saying “no” is worth it.”

These conversations have been inspiring to students to say the least. The opportunity to hear about the ongoing difficulty regarding diversity and inclusion helps them contextualize the importance of the diversity requirement at Newhouse. I regularly ask my guests to define diversity, and their responses resonate with the students.

“I liked Mr. Wilmore’s look on diversity. Like he said, he actually doesn’t even use the word ‘diversity.’ He believes there’s simply so much involved in that word that it’s almost counterproductive to put one word to the issue. He said that when he sees a problem in the world involving ‘diversity’ he calls it out for what it is. He’ll say ‘why isn’t there a woman directing this?’ or ‘there should be more black people on this show’…”

“[Swafford] explains that diversity is more than people who do not look like her but are also different socially and economically.  A show for her needs to encompass more than a black female character to be diverse… Talking only about the binary of black and white excludes millions of other people and intersectionality. She loves telling stories of black folk but if the show begins to only do that it isn’t a real diverse experience.”

“When asked to define diversity, Gills said it means seeing stories from different points of view. It is not enough for media producers to simply include actors of color; they should be more proactive about how individuals of different backgrounds are filmed and written.”