As Sonya Winton-Odamtten and Jonathan Kidd put the finishing touches on HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country, the writing duo saw the coronavirus pandemic unfold and felt they needed to jump into action. They teamed with the non-profit Frontline Foods to launch the #FeedBCHW Challenge, which supports health care workers in underserved Black neighborhoods.
The pair organized over forty Black creators in Hollywood for the challenge including Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, Robine Thede (Black Lady Sketch Show), Ayanna Floyd (The Chi), Anthony Sparks (Queen Sugar), Tracy Oliver (The First Wives Club), JaSheika James and JaNeika James (Empire), Yolanda E. Lawrence (Empire), Erika Green (New Amsterdam), Rashaan Dozier Escalante (SEAL Team), Aaron Rahsaan Thomas (S.W.A.T.), Jamie Turner (All American), Maisha Closson (The L Word), Ubah Mohamed (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow), Erica Butler (Greenleaf), Felicia Pride (Queen Sugar), Ben Watkins (Hand of God, Joel Anderson Thompson (Superstition), Erika Johnson (Americanah), among many others.
Winton-Odamtten said that the roster of Black creatives have helped feed hospitals all across the country from L.A. to Kansas City. “We’re just going to continue every week,” she said. “In addition to the 40 writers, we have a total of 31 donors who donated to the cause. We’ve had massive support around this.”
As co-executive producers of Lovecraft Country, which debuts in August, the two signed a two-year overall deal with HBO and have a resume of impressive TV credits, but as former Columbia University and UCLA college professors and with PhDs in African American Studies from Yale, the two bring insight to the current pandemic. In addition to talking to Deadline about what inspired them to start the #FeedBCHW Challenge, Winton-Odamtten and Kidd unpacked how the pandemic is a repeat of history when it comes to the disproportionate impact on communities of color and how this will affect inclusive storytelling in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: When the pandemic start to become more present in the United States, what was your initial reaction and did you see the disproportionate impact against people of color on the horizon?
SONYA WINTON-ODAMTTEN: I started tracking the stories about COVID-19 in Wuhan in January. And, the reality is that we live in a global society. So, this notion that somehow it’s happening over there and not in my backyard, that doesn’t really exist. [Jonathan] and I are students of African-American history, so we’d get looked at the impact on health disparities historically in African-American communities. And so, the question of whether or not an actual pandemic was to emerge and arrive on our shores, we already knew what the narrative was going to become as related to African-American communities, particularly those that are disenfranchised and underserved because you have higher rates of certain chronic diseases in those communities and, coupled with that, you have also health disparities in terms of resources that hospitals in those communities possess. You also have a history of systemic racism where an individual who is a black or brown person is not being served on the same level by the healthcare officials. All of those things have been historically proven and adequately researched.
DEADLINE: What can we learn from history when it comes to health crises?
WINTON-ODAMTTEN: We’ve lived through eight public health crises, to some extent, which is HIV and AIDS. People forget that that initially was called a white, gay man’s disease. But, if one was a student of history, they could have projected exactly where we ended up, which are, the numbers have paled out, unfortunately, that poor, African-American communities and Latinos are both communities who are disproportionately impacted by that disease.
If you’re a student of history, you can also forecast. We knew it was going to happen. A lot of the ridiculous conversations that Black people couldn’t actually contract it initially was just so mind-boggling. I was like, why are we even engaging in that conversation when, in fact, we should be preparing and hunkering down?
DEADLINE: What made both you jump into action and start #FeedBCHW?
WINTON-ODAMTTEN: [Jonathan] and I were on a call and we said, “well, we should be feeding, providing resources to those hospitals that are in underserved Black communities because there we can have an impact.” We want them to know that we have their backs and that they’re supported, but we also want to give them one less thing to worry about. The throes of the day when they’re surrounded by grieving families and failing health. That is my perspective of how we’ve gotten here.
DEADLINE: How do you think this pandemic speaks to the bigger picture and how events like these impact communities of color?
JONATHAN KIDD: To me, people talk about COVID and the way in which it’s ravaging a community, but I feel like it speaks to a broader conversation. In terms of the core-morbidities that people have, in particular, issues around the Department of Justice. We talk about the Flint Water Crisis, but we don’t talk about the new garbage dump they’re building and there’s going to be particulates in the air that cause asthma. Where do they put that? They put that in poor communities of color, for the most part. Look at how highways have been built. There’s a highway here in L.A. right next to a high school. That’s not in Beverly Hills. That’s not in Calabasas. Again, impacting people of color.
If you look at food deserts in urban areas, food deserts cause diabetes because all you’re eating are Cheetos and drinking Fanta. You know what I mean? We were just talking yesterday… being a vegan is expensive. Healthy food is expensive. And so, if you don’t have access to these things, then it’s like, “Oh, I have diabetes. I have asthma, hypertension.” Then I’m more susceptible to COVID. So, I feel like it’s also part of a broader conversation we want to have about health and wellness and how we as a society can treat people better in terms of better access to healthy food. In terms of not putting waste dumps in the middle of communities. Not having lead paint so kids have brain damage because they’re eating lead paint that should have been banned in 1973.
DEADLINE: It is clear that all communities of color are being impacted on all fronts. As you pointed out, Black and Latinx communities are being disproportionately affected but we have seen the increase in harassment against Asian Americans. How important do you think allyship is in this pandemic and, not only within marginalized communities but with white communities?
WINTON-ODAMTTEN: Our former agent is a Chinese-American brother… we called him and said be careful out there. He got a little quiet and I said, “Dude, the pendulum has swung.” The president of the United States, presidential aides are calling it “Kung-Flu” in the White House. It’s unapologetically white-supremacy at its finest. The “model minority” is thrown out the window. It’s forever changed. It’s gone. I told him to check on his family and to make sure that they understand that, if they step out of the house, that they are aware of their surroundings and if they’re being followed.
I called [Nancy Drew showrunner] Melinda Hsu-Taylor — she’s like our big sister — and told be careful out there. She lives on the west side [of L.A.] and she said there hasn’t been any verbal statements made, but she could feel the shift.
As historians, it’s very hard to not live also in the future. I’m having a conversation with you about alliance-building, but I’m also living 10 years ahead, because, again, we can see where this is going. [Jonathan] and I have always warned people about the pendulum swing. You can look at it historically. One moment, you are the “model minority” and then they’re calling it “Kung-Flu” and they don’t give a fuck about that “model minority” status.
Everybody always falls out of favor. With the exception of white, straight, rich masculinity — we’re talking about our president — rarely does anyone else get a pass to make a mistake, to be of error, to be part of a group where an individual has digressed. Rarely does that happen. We don’t call all white men serial killers. We don’t….although, they make up the majority of serial killers.
In terms of your specific question about alliance-building, I haven’t seen it. But, part of that is because, again, our living in a bubble right now. We’re launching and developing our other shows. My alliances have come in my personal relationships.
KIDD: Looking forward, it’s about not forgetting this moment. I think that’s what’s important. The initial title of my dissertation was “Nation in Contagion” and it was basically how religion, disease, otherness all contribute to the power gangs. So, if you look at Jews, Catholics, and White Women in 1600s, they were seen as witches. In Shakespeare they were seen as witches. The same conversation happened about captive Africans — they’re pagans. People said “They’re going to fuck all our women! They’re going to steal all our shit!” Same thing said about Native Americans. If you look at 9/11, or actually HIV-AIDS in the 80s, hemophiliacs, homosexuals, hypodermic drug users, and Haitians — it’s the same conversation. There was an assumption that Haitian boat people were bringing their disease and that AIDS because they practice voodoo. With 9/11 and Muslims, it’s the same thing. We got to ban the Muslims from coming into this country. Same story with immigrants from the American South.
These immigrants are coming in are stereotypically against abortion and against gay marriage and republicans are saying they don’t when them to come over? Why? That’s your base!
It doesn’t make sense. For me the thing that’s fascinating is in every single conversation, it’s the same language being used. So, for those in the Asian-American community, there was a time when people got beat up because they were mad because there were Chinese workers working on the railroads. Then there’s the stereotype of the Chinese laundromat. They got burnt out of laundromats, right? People also forget about Japanese internment camps during WWII. Asian American identity itself is based on a hate crime.
DEADLINE: How do you think the pandemic will affect the movement toward diversity and equity in Hollywood? Do you think it will hinder or help?
KIDD: Maybe I sound optimistic and I’m delusional, but I feel like COVID, in terms of work, is kind of an equalizer. You still have to go through insurance. You still have to secure your location in terms of health and wellness. You still have to make sure your cast is comfortable getting on set. You still have to have content. You still have to have people writing stuff. You still have to have directors who direct with a vision. I feel like it shifts and adds a lot of complications in terms of prep and in terms of being in production, but I feel like the great equalizer that is cable TV, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max — we’re going to need a lot of content.
I don’t fear… Sonya and I have an obsession with TV shows set in Africa. That’s part of our long-term plan. We just love storytelling. I think that, again, there’s always the opportunity for disparate treatment where sexism, racism, homophobia can come into play and in terms of people making money or not making money, but I feel like the upswing that we’ve seen in terms of access is going to remain because it’s money-driven. Crazy Rich Asians was a hit. People are like, “Shit, let’s make another one!” It’s like The Game — when it went to BET, it was a game-changer. They got eight million eyeballs on BET and people were like, “Oh my gosh, what?!” Then you have Being Mary Jane, Scandal — now, all of a sudden, we’re in the middle of a Black Renaissance.
WINTON-ODAMTTEN: I’m also optimistic. For me, the broader conversation is how do creators address or directly speak to this pandemic that we’re having? How does one do it and make it nuanced? Because who wants a spot-on version of the one we’ve been living? It gives people popcorn ideas to chew on in the form of comedy and procedurals. I do think that it’s going to be a challenge for drama writers who are from historically marginalized communities to then take the question around identity politics and put it within the construct of the conversation of what a pandemic looks like. I think that this is an opportunity for us to sit for a second, self-reflect, and then figure out, how do we elevate it by putting ourselves at the center of it.
For more information on how to donate to #FeedBCHW click here.