The Milken Institute Global Conference hosted the panel “Advancing Inclusion and Addressing Inequality In Entertainment” which focuses on the progress that film, TV and music have made when it comes to diversity and inclusion, a conversation that remains floating on the surface of the entertainment industry. From discussing stats to the cancellation of One Day at a Time to what needs to be done to promote change, a lot of ground was covered — including Green Book, a film that has become a divisive conversation topic since it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Moderated by MSNBC’s Alex Witt, the panel included One Day at a Time co-showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett; Rotten Tomatoes editor Jacqueline Coley, Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Publishing Group Jody Gerson; President, Narrative Film and Television, Participant Media Jonathan King; Co-CEO, Bad Robot Productions and co-founder of Time’s Up Katie McGrath; and Founder and Director, Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, University of Southern California Dr. Stacy Smith.
During the in-depth discussion, the film Green Book was put in the spotlight. Witt asked King his thoughts about the backlash the film received. The film’s title took its name from Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, a road-trip guide written during the Jim Crow era that detailed establishments around the country that were relatively friendly to the black community. That said, many criticized the movie for being a civil rights movie told primarily through a white man’s gaze. All eyes were on King, who served as an executive producer of the film. He took a moment to address the controversy and criticism.
“Making a movie is a team sport — especially a movie about people coming together from wildly different backgrounds,” he pointed out. “What was important for us was to have every perspective represented at the table.”
King said that they were conscious about diversifying those involved with the film which included white people, black people members of the LGBTQIA+ community and women such as Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as a producer. “The intention and making of that project was to engage all different parts of the movie-going audience,” he said. King also adds that the movie was primarily targeted at the older white demographic to remind them to be less racist — and even though King said that with a tongue in cheek tone, he said that people still need to be reminded.
McGrath chimed in saying, “A lot of the criticism [of Green Book] was probably more exhaustion about stories less centered on people of color and told through a white lens.” She points out that the real challenge King and his team were up against was not building a thoughtful team, but the vantage point of the story. McGrath said that as long as we tell these stories with a protagonist of color, we should give them the opportunity to have perspective and let them drive the narrative.
Coley also chimed in and pointed out that despite all the Green Book arguments, strides have been made for marginalized communities at this year’s Academy Awards, citing winners like Alfonso Cuaron, Rami Malek, Mahershala Ali, Regina King, Free Solo‘s Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and others. “Regardless what you think of [Green Book], it doesn’t matter,” she said, adding that we had the opportunity to see the fruits of labor started by AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “These are all successes. We’re getting representation and driving every step — even if it is a wobbly step.”
In regards to that state of the industry when it comes to inclusion, Smith points out that the needle has moved. “This year is the first year where we’ve seen a huge uptick in who’s telling the stories,” she said. However, there’s always room for improvement. What we see on screen and at industry events tends to be disproportionate to what is reflected in the real world. She uses the attendance at the Milken Institute Global Conference as an example.
She lays out facts citing that out of 373 attendees during Monday’s Milken sessions, 75% were white and 72% were male. Broken down further, 28% of the attendees were females while 53% were white males and 21% were white females. It’s metrics like these that are common in all industries — especially Hollywood. Smith points out that we can do better. More specifically, film and TV can use some help.
“There’s a cacophony of voices calling for change,” said Smith. “The talent has always been there and women of color are thriving. [The music industry] figured this out a long time ago — film and TV don’t know what they are missing out on.”
Gerson, who has signed some of the biggest names in the music industry including Adele, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, has changed the culture of a company that has always been led by men. She said that it’s important to her to encourage other women to do what she does, which is running a billion dollar business.
The Time’s Up campaign has been championing women in the workplace since it started over a year ago. McGrath, who is a co-founder, said that this is an issue of status quo. “This is a 100-year journey,” she said. “We have dented it in places, but we are at the very beginning of a journey of dismantling a culture. There are incremental gains that have been made. It started on the red carpet but not meant to stay there.” She points out there once was a scarcity of opportunity, but there is now an awakening to create opportunity and share resources.
Although groups like Time’s Up are giving opportunity, there is so much more that should be done when it comes to films and TV — mainly from the top. “Decisions about what gets made happens at the board level and C-suite,” said King. He adds that those board rooms don’t look inclusive like the stage he was sitting on. “There’s outdated assumptions about what the audience wants.”
Kellett’s show One Day at a Time could speak to that. The show found a solid fan base but was still canceled on Netflix. It is still unclear on who canceled such an inclusive show adapted from the Norman Lear classic which followed an L.A.-based Cuban family that dealt with modern-day issues. But if it was critically acclaimed and so well received, why was it axed? Ultimately it has to do with gatekeepers and decision makers — leadership positions that are often held by white cisgender men who can’t seem to overlook the reason behind such shows and seem to focus more on the dollar signs.
“We are creating culture and talking about stories in a way that lifts up communities,” said Kellett. “It becomes impactful in life and in policy making.”
Coley adds that everyone in entertainment is part of an ecosystem and we need to understand gatekeeping and that there is lack of access for some — particularly many journalists from marginalized communities. She points out that publicists have plenty of assumptions when it comes to what journalists cover based on race. In other words, just because someone is black doesn’t mean they only report on films like Black Panther or just because someone is Asian doesn’t mean they only want to report on movies like Crazy Rich Asians. Although certain ethnic groups may gravitate towards films where they see themselves on screen it doesn’t mean that shouldn’t get the opportunity to cover a wider spectrum of genres like their white hetero male colleagues.
When it comes to diversity, Coley said that many people industry love talking about it but “when it comes to execution everyone just sort of leaves the room.”
There is an agreement among everyone on the panel that in order for change to happen, those at the top need to change. “We need to have metrics and set goals,” said Smith. “Even places like Milken have to start from the top and create inclusion.”
Even though change should come from the top, Kellett reminds everyone that members of marginalized communities need to be aware of their “unconscious bias and privilege” and support each other. Kellett puts her money where her mouth is and uses her platform to help aspiring writers. She created a masterclass series with YouTube that will be free for those who want to learn how to be TV writers. “That shouldn’t be privileged information,” she said.
“Change can happen overnight,” said Smith. She reiterates that the film and TV industry should look to music where change is accelerating. “We started the 4% Challenge with Time’s Up because we wanted to give people something tangible to do— it’s possible for change to happen quickly. The hope is that we don’t go back and keep moving forward.”