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February 13, 2018

Black Showrunners Talk Diversity and Progress at the Paley Center

There was a time, not that long ago, when each of the six Black showrunners at tonight’s “They Run the Show” panel at the Paley Center were the only African Americans in the writers’ rooms they started out in. “I was the diversity,” laughed Power showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh about her days breaking into the business.

“After I left Girlfriends, I didn’t work with another black individual for eight years,” said Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny. “Eight years!?” marveled several of his fellow panelists.

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“All of us, at one point, were the only black person in the room,” said Claws showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois. “But now it’s like this stage – like this room,” she said, looking out at the theater’s SRO and nearly all-Black audience.

And with more diversity in the writing and producing ranks has come more diversity in the portrayal of African Americans. Diversity, they all agreed, is not just about color or gender, but about a wider range of ideas and characters. “Diversity speaks to the human character, not just to their color,” said Star showrunner Karin Gist.

“There [are] so many people you can be on TV now,” Agboh agreed. “You don’t have to be Clair Huxtable” – the idealized wife on The Cosby Show.

“We don’t have to be one thing anymore,” Penny agreed. “We have three-dimensional characters, not just caricatures anymore.”

The freewheeling discussion, moderated by Entertainment Tonight’s Nischelle Turner, was peppered with witty and insightful observations about the business – from the balancing act of running a show and having a life, to dealing with critics who don’t get their work.

“The alt-right is saying I’m causing ‘white genocide,’” said Dear White People creator Justin Simien. “To be fair, it’s true,” he joked, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Janine Sherman Barrois, Justin Simien, and Karin Gist

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Simien observed that access to audiences on platforms like YouTube has opened the doors to a more diverse range of stories and story-tellers and that this has led to more African Americans moving into and up the ranks of the network and studio system. “Technology has allowed a lot of black folk to subvert the usual gate-keepers,” he said. “We had the nerve to walk into the building and not leave.”

Earlier in the discussion, Simien joked that Black showrunners “are in vogue at the moment.” But kidding aside, there are strong indications that this is not just a passing thing – that a critical mass of Black creativity has been unleashed that will keep the pipeline open for the many aspiring creators waiting in the wings, and in tonight’s audience.

“We can be unapologetic now in the hiring of Black directors, writers, and editors,” Barrois said. “I’m not hiring all-White writers. You can call people on the carpet.”

Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker seemed to sum it up for everyone on the panel. “We’ve made a lot of progress, not just in the last 20 years, but in the last five years.”

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