The PEN Pod: On Systemic Racism in Hollywood with the Writers Guild of America West
On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we bring you a roundtable conversation with Michelle Amor, Hilliard Guess, and Bianca Sams—the leaders of the Committee of Black Writers at the Writers Guild of America West. Earlier this summer, they penned an open letter to the entertainment industry, in which they wrote, “We are grieving. We are angry and we are unapologetically, demanding, systemic change.” The letter lays out a pointed critique of the entertainment industry and a demand for revolutionary change. We talked about how the pipeline for Black talent in Hollywood is broken, how to ensure that writers of color are being paid to tell their own stories, and how major Hollywood players need to do more than just pay lip service to serve racial justice.
For those outside of the business, what is the Guild’s role in Hollywood, and particularly, the role of the Committee of Black Writers?
MICHELLE AMOR: The Writers Guild of America West is a labor union, and it’s composed of thousands of writers who write your favorite television show, your favorite movie, your favorite documentary or animation. Whatever you would turn on a device and watch, somebody wrote that. As a labor union, our job is to protect the writer and make sure that the writer has the best negotiation when it comes to contracts with studios and production companies so that we’re paid. They also provide our pension and health plan, which is something that you need as a working person, especially since we don’t have universal healthcare in America.
As far as the committee goes, there’s an equity and inclusion department at the Guild that oversees several committees, including the Committee of Black Writers. There’s also a Latinx writers committee, the Asian American writers, Native American writers—which I think recently changed their name to Indigenous writers. So, the Committee of Black Writers is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a committee of Black writers from the Writers Guild, and we all come together and work toward improving conditions for Black writers.
Our mission? It’s really simple. Our mission is to empower, increase visibility, and create career and networking opportunities for Black writers. And these committees are necessary because there’s been such discrimination in our industry that it has impacted us to the point where we need additional support and things around helping us to get the money and get the opportunities that are out in the industry.
“Hollywood is a boys’ club. And it’s always been a boys’ club, and it’s a very white boys’ club centered around systemic racism. It’s pretty simple. And Hollywood’s based on relationships—if all of your relationships are with other white, cis, straight men, then more than likely that’s who will be in your rooms, that’s who will be in your companies, that’s who your friends are. And quite frankly, in the end, that’s who you hire.”
The letter calls out the historic whiteness of decision-making and Hollywood and hiring practices in particular that are exclusionary. What has that historically looked like in Hollywood? And how does that need to change?
HILLIARD GUESS: Well, Hollywood is a boys’ club. And it’s always been a boys’ club, and it’s a very white boys’ club centered around systemic racism. It’s pretty simple. And Hollywood’s based on relationships—if all of your relationships are with other white, cis, straight men, then more than likely that’s who will be in your rooms, that’s who will be in your companies, that’s who your friends are. And quite frankly, in the end, that’s who you hire. Which is why we see 80-something percent of Hollywood is still full of white men. I think it has to change. There’s many ways that it could change.
I think my favorite way that it could change is something that I know Michelle has been pushing for six—going on seven—years now at the Writers Guild, which is for us to push a Rooney rule, which the NFL has. It would give us all the opportunity to be interviewed. Not only just as writers—right now we’re talking about writers—but we’ll see this in all different departments, from makeup, to hair, to the camera department, your executives, the agents. It would call for the entire community to have to open up this rule. Just imagine what the rooms would look like if that opened up. As soon as you have more friends of color, your rooms will be full of people of color, too. You hire who you know; it’s the truth. It just is what it is—it’s who you’re comfortable with, you know what I mean?
“I’m big on writing stories, and no one should be telling our story but us. Period. We have seen this all the time, from showrunners to well-known writers and directors that are mostly telling Black stories. And we need that to stop. There are several things that we’re saying: We can tell our own stories, pay us to tell our own stories, and give us the same opportunities that everyone else gets.”
What is interesting about the entertainment industry, for someone who is outside of it, is that it’s so visible. We saw a number of really major players like Hulu, HBO, FX, Netflix showing solidarity statements saying that they’re in line with the greater movement against anti-Black racism and anti-Black violence. How authentic do you think their statements are?
BIANCA SAMS: Well, I can speak to how authentic they feel that they are. I think it was important to say words out loud. But as Michelle, Hilliard, and I wrote in the letter, I think at a certain point, you have to move past words into actions. It can’t just be virtue signaling, it can’t be “I’m going to make small, teeny, tiny, weird tweaks” and pretend that it will actually change the culture or change the system of oppression. As we all know, that never really works.
Insofar as since we’ve sent this letter and since it was published, we have not received, however, a flood of people who have come to ask what we need or want to do. We haven’t seen any major corporations or companies come to us. We have plenty of individual showrunners looking for staffing for their projects. It’s not, right now, turning into larger change, which I think is necessary.
Something that Hilliard, Michelle, and I talk about—particularly Michelle pushes a lot—is that there are a lot of people who are trying to make decisions and choices behind the scenes, but not asking Black writers what they actually need. They’re deciding for themselves what they think they want to do, but it might not be what we actually need. So we’re hoping that that will change, and they will come and really be looking for solutions. Because we’ve been doing the work, particularly Michelle and Hilliard, for years. So we kind of already have a good idea. So it’d be great if they reached out.
It seems like you have clear, crystallized demands here. What are they, in addition to the ones that Hilliard and Bianca had referenced, and how do you think that we can put more pressure on some of these big companies to walk the walk and actually make some of this concrete change?
AMOR: I feel like we started with a very powerful statement that brought in not only the historical context, but also we were very specific about what we think can be done. We talked about forward-looking project development and staffing practices, including attracting, developing, mentoring, hiring, and retaining the next generations of diverse writers, directors, producers, executives, and all levels.
But at the end of the day, we are not the powers that be. And so, one of the things we don’t want to do is to do their job. This is their job. They have the resources, they have all of the money, the access to people—they can call in the top experts, and they can actually sit down and say, “Hey, how do we fix this?” There are tons of Ph.D.’s in this world that specialize in this area, and quite a few of them are Black and other people of color. So if they really wanted to make these changes like they’re saying—or at least implying—then they can do it themselves. And I agree with Bianca that it’s about sitting down at the table.
We have a big committee meeting coming up in August, and one of the things we will be discussing is that table. I’m saying it here for the first time, and Bianca and Hilliard are going to be like, “What?” I think we just need to form the table ourselves and invite them. Because ultimately if we wait on them to call us to the table, we might be waiting.
But how about we set the table and then we tell them, “Hey, you made the statement. We’re going to pull the table together and you come to our table, and we set the date and the time, and you tell us what you are going to do.” I’m calling it “Show Us The Money and Your Plans for Dismantling Systemic Racism in Your Company.” So I’m announcing it here, today, and I guess, shots fired.
SAMS: Aka, show the reciepts!
AMOR: I feel like with our committee, we’re in a position where we’re saying, “Listen, at the end of the day, no one works in this town until the writers tell the stories that we tell.” We have to sit our butts in seats. I also teach, so I’m big on writing stories, and no one should be telling our story but us. Period. We have seen this all the time, from showrunners to well-known writers and directors that are mostly telling Black stories. And we need that to stop. There are several things that we’re saying: We can tell our own stories, pay us to tell our own stories, and give us the same opportunities that everyone else gets.
Sometimes, we’re not perfect. Everyone’s not going to win an Oscar, but we have the right to do what everyone else does. We can try some things. Hey, some things will work, some things won’t, but when we’re looking at quantity? Here’s some more numbers: In 2019, over 700 movies were made. It is a well-known fact that Black people buy about 22 percent of movie tickets. How come 100 of those movies weren’t African American? When you look at the television, over 500 new television shows were created in 2019. Black people watch more television than anybody else in America. We watch 50 hours of TV a week, 10 times more than the entire population. Out of 500 new shows, how come over 100 of them are not African American created, developed, or centered around blackness?
Ultimately, Hollywood is also failing on a business side. You have the audience—why not create more content so that then you can maintain and keep this audience that’s already consuming such large amounts? It just makes dollars and cents. What’s interesting is you could look at non-scripted shows, like on the HGTVs or Food Network, and they seem more diverse than scripted shows, and that’s the thing that’s frustrating. It’s also why we started our letter saying we are Black Americans. And that’s to be very clear—we know who we are, we have every single right as every other person that is a citizen in this nation. And right now, we’re not playing second fiddle; we’re no longer accepting your scraps. No. Everything we have, we have earned it, and if we didn’t, our ancestors did. Enough.
“We vote with our money, we vote with our time, and we vote with our energy and our voices. So I’m really hoping that normal people are demanding better. I would love to see it.”
What are the things that we can do on the outside? What are the consumer choices we can make or pressure points where we can say to some of these companies that we won’t stand for you locking out Black voices anymore?
GUESS: It’s already happening, you know? A lot of people don’t know it, but most of Twitter is run by Black people. We’re the ones who make decisions, we’re the ones who set these huge hashtags and things that go crazy. For example, we just saw what happened with—I don’t mean to call her out—but Halle Berry was going to play this trans person who was a woman going to male in this possible new project. And all of Twitter went in, and a lot of that was Black Twitter going, “No girl, don’t do it.” So, in essence, we are already doing that. We’re already telling Hollywood what we want, what to do, and what not to do. And so, I think that those things are happening.
I think Bianca surely has more stats that’ll help you in that area. It’s not my specialty. I’m more of a “you need to do stuff type of guy.” I just tell you how it is. She gives you facts. So if you don’t mind, I’ll let her answer that question for you. I’m putting you on the spot, girl.
SAMS: Oh wow. Okay, thank you Hilliard. There are so many different things that we are facing as Black writers and also in the industry. And I think Hilliard is right. As fans and as people who consume, you have a voting power with your money. You can make demands. They listen. If you want to do something different, we will do something different, and so that’s great. But I think on the industry side, there’s so many different things that need to be done to really have parity for Black writers.
There’s a huge problem with the gap in earning, being forced to repeat a staff writer level several times, and this lack of hiring retention and recruitment. I always say, if you aren’t putting your attention there and you aren’t really tracking it, how do you know how good or bad you’re doing? You think about baseball—how many stats do they have? How much stuff do they track every time? A lot of these companies are not tracking any of the things that have to do with diversity, or issues that are coming up, or things that are systemic, and aren’t really trying to get ahead of them before they become major problems.
There’s also a severe lack in the number of upper-level Black writers or showrunners, people who are executive producers, and people who have overall deals. In our industry, those jobs are where decisions are made. Countless different surveys and things that have been done—research at UCLA or Color of Change—show that the people who are higher up and people who are in those positions to hire—those actually become the most diverse staffs. And not just all Black writers, we tend to hire everybody. So it means diversity across the board tends to go better, and not just in the room for writers: for directors, for the costumes, the makeup, the things that Hilliard was talking about.
And we really need to also look at the executives and the people who are green-lighting these projects. If we bring our stories and are multilayered but they stay in stereotypes, or we’re not allowed to show the breadth of our abilities in our lives—that, too, is a problem. And I think as much as America starts to really demand to see themselves in full color, we will all get better stories and really be able to push the envelope of what we can and can’t do. And I’m really excited about seeing that. I really hope that both the consumers and us who are creating—and also people who are with the money—are also willing to take that deep dive and look to expand. So we have a lot of institutional stuff that we can be working on with the overall deals and things like that. But also, we vote with our money, we vote with our time, and we vote with our energy and our voices. So I’m really hoping that normal people are demanding better. I would love to see it.
What are you reading or watching right now?
SAMS: I just watched Hamilton this weekend, which I enjoyed like everyone else. That was amazing. And then a friend turned me on to an older show on Netflix—it’s called Lovesick. It was so much fun. It was candy for me this weekend, and I absolutely enjoyed it.
AMOR: I finally got around to begin reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I’m late on it, but I’m enjoying that as far as books. As far as shows, I am finishing up season two of Dead To Me. I’ll be honest—I’m sure I’m going to get some hate—but I’m not really interested in Hamilton.
GUESS: Oh, my god!
AMOR: Honestly! I’m like, whatever. I have all of the channels—and that’s the thing, too, I have so many choices. You know, it just speaks to the fact that we have choice. I want to see season three of Mindhunter on Netflix. I like twisted things.
GUESS: I’m kind of a podcast-head. I have my own show, but one of my favorite ones is “Into America.” I love true story stuff. I’m just fascinated with worlds. And of course, “1619.” You gotta listen to that podcast, it’s freaking amazing. So I’ll just pitch those two—they’re just hot. If you want to learn and get some game on the world, from Black culture, those are the two that I just love.
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