I'm totally into inclusion and all for diversity, but......
I remember being a younger writer and being so angry, frustrated, and upset that Hollywood wasn't banging down my door with job offers. I went to a lot networking events full of other angry, frustrated, upset young writers. Those networking events usually turned into drinks, dinners, and coffees where we all sat around and talked about how angry, frustrated, and upset we were.
Then I got super bored with that.
It's not that the negative feels weren't valid, but they weren't getting me anywhere. I've always been more motivated by positivity, momentum, and joyful expression than I have by angst, and so I applied that logic to my career.
I stopped complaining about what I didn't have, decided what I wanted, and set out to make it. And thus Black Girl in a Big Dress was born.
Because of BGBD and some of the other material I make, which often discusses representation, race, and identity, I often get asked about the state of diversity in Hollywood. And those questions tend to lean on the negative. "Aren't you angry" people ask, "that movies and TV still don't reflect true diversity?" "Doesn't it frustrate you that women aren't fairly represented behind the camera?" "Aren't you still upset about that time you were fired from your lucrative job because your boss had a crush on you?" (That is a true story, btw. I know that's why I was fired because he told me that's why he was firing me. This was years and years ago when I was very young and his decision has literally cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost work.)
And then friends send me link after link of articles that decry how awful the industry is and how hard it is for everyone and it's not that these pieces aren't true; and I'm totally into diversity and inclusion, but.....
It's just that I'm so much more excited by possibility and momentum and building than I am by tearing down.
And then, last week, I got to put my ideals to the test.
I'm working on a period piece set in the 1800s in England. I wanted to include some mixed race actors in my casting. My boss told me "no" because he wanted everyone to "look English."
I got this message over email during the evening, so I had allllllll night to be angry, frustrated, and upset. And I was. So angry. So frustrated. So upset.
But ultimately, I had to solve the problem.
I'm sharing how I did this because I know a lot of people are genuinely angry, frustrated, and upset and may also feel powerless to change things. I've always learned well when I can read about specific examples, often with specific scripts used, so that's what I'm offering here. Here's how I helped a middle-aged straight white male producer see things from my point of view and also keep an amazing working relationship in place.
I Made My List
After I got the email, I immediately flew into a rage and rattled off to any friend who would listen all the reasons why people of colour totally "look English." I pulled up pages like medievalPOC, I found reviews of The Black Tudors, I started into the eyes of Sarah Forbes Benetta, I watched Belle. And I took to Twitter where folks gave me tons of great resources!!
Then I Got Some Sleep
I knew if I reached out to, let's call him Chris (absolutely not his real name) in that moment that I would have fired off a crappy email that everyone would have regretted the next day.
I Made it Personal
The next morning, after I meditated (part of my normal morning routine) but before I did any other work, I called him. Didn't email and ask if we could talk. Didn't send a cryptic text. I went old school, let my Gen X show and I picked up the phone. He answered quickly and I said, in a happy-mooded voice buoyed by much coffee, "Hey Chris! Do you have 5 minutes to talk about casting?"
I said "5 minutes" on purpose because I wanted him to know that I did not need to go on and on about this. I wanted him to know that I respected his time and that I genuinely only wanted a few minutes. And I didn't say "can we talk?" and leave it hanging there because I wanted him to be able to start to frame up what I wanted to talk about.
He said of course.
I said: "Just so you know, this is really important to me on a personal level. Like on a scale of 1-10, this is a 10. So that's where I'm coming from."
I didn't want to start off by making this conversation about something too big. I didn't want him to feel like this was about The State of The Industry, or Solving Racism in America, or How to Balance Trump's New World Order. I wanted him to know that this was about me and what I wanted for my art.
I Focused on Solutions Immediately
After I told him that this was personal to me, I added: "So I'm really looking forward to finding a solution that works for both of us."
Look, Chris is a big deal producer. He's made very big, successful movies and franchises. He knows how to work inside the commercial environment that is Hollywood. And I respect that. Because of his experience, I know he bring quite a lot to the table and that it would be a weird career choice for me to deny myself that learning and die on this hill instead.
I Confirmed His POV
Before I launched into my dissertation, 1,000,001 Reasons Why Period Dramas Can and Should be More Diverse, I wanted to make sure that I actually understood his concern. So I said: "Just to confirm, is your concern that it'll be confusing if there are people in this world who aren't white?"
And he said yes. He went on to add that we are already asking our audience to suspend a lot of disbelief (I can't talk too much about it, but this isn't a straight adaptation, it's in the vein of P&P and Zombies), so shouldn't we make everything else as "normal" as possible so as not to be too distracting. He added that whenever you see anything from Emma to Downton Abbey, the characters are always white, so, he would assume that's what an audience would expect.
I agreed with the facts of his statements, saying: "Yes, I hear what you're saying. We're asking the audience to do a lot and it seems like it might be easier if except for these elements, if it looks like a typical period drama, right?"
He agreed that I had the gist of his concerns down. He also worried that it would look "gimmicky" and not organic.
I Opened With My Personal Experience
I told him that I spend a lot of time in period drama groups online and that I read a lot of comments whenever some new adaptation comes out and that I've had the privilege of engaging with so many people about period shows thanks to BGBD. Because of all those conversations, I've learned that a) yes, some people will gripe when Dev Patel gets cast in David Copperfield but that b) most people won't care c) there are a LOT of fans who will be excited regardless of who's in the piece, that d) the of colour audience, which is large, will be thrilled and e) this is a show aimed at junior high kids and that younger folks are much less worried about everyone needing to be white in everything.
I also threw in a little bit of history--you know, when you conquer half the world, you're gonna get some brown folks showin' up in your ports and mixing with your peeps.
I Stopped Talking
While I was in the rage phase over night before this phone call, I made it clear to myself that I would leave the project if I didn't get to cast it as I wanted. I was prepared to use this argument, but I didn't need to. After I talked about the things above, he gave me what I wanted: freedom.
I Told Him I'd Keep Him in the Loop
I reiterated that I understood his concerns, but that I felt confident we'd find some great actors who could bring these characters, not just the skin colours, to life. And I also said that I'd be happy to share my casting picks with him so that if he really wasn't buying someone, we could have that conversation.
I Had Already Done Great Work
One of the reasons Chris told me I could do what I wanted, is that we'd already spent a month working together and he loved my work. He gushed over my scripts and said it was more important to him to keep me on the project than it was to irritate me over this issue.
I worked my butt off over those scripts and got them to him ahead of schedule; and was super glad that my hard work help build the trust then that I needed now.
Managing Expectations, or: I worked in corporate production management for 16 years, I know how important it is to end a project-based story by explaining what the upshot is
So what does this mean? Will everyone in this thing be black? Probably not. The truth is, I don't know exactly what my cast will look like because I haven't cast it yet. And in addition to skill and look, there's a bunch of boring details that may affect final decisions like: Are these actors avail on the date we have to shoot; and will they work for the money we're offering?
But I'm glad to have the freedom and space to work as I see fit and I look forward to helping bring diversity to this genre.
I'm also really happy that I had a great conversation with my boss, kept our working relationship in tact, and hopefully expanded his view a bit. He and I also talked more about what it's like on his end with investors and marketing and studio and stuff like that, so I was grateful for the exposure to more of the machine. There's a lot of layers and so much goes into backed projects that it's amazing to me that anything ever gets done at all.
Was This Helpful?
I know many BGBD fans are also creators and working creatives, many of whom are pushing for diversity and inclusion. I hope that this post helps show at least one way to go about having this conversation. Let me know what you thought! And let me know how you're handling this issue on projects you're brought in on.
Oh, Please Watch
When the project comes out, I'll let you know. Please give it a watch to help show that a little non-traditional casting doesn't hurt traditional enjoyment of content.