One of the biggest hurdles to promoting diversity in Hollywood is figuring out how to improve diversity behind the camera. Having more diverse writers and directors will lead to more diverse stories being told, which will lead to more consistent work for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people across the board — or so the theory goes.
Most public pressure when it comes to Hollywood diversity, however, focuses on faces in front of the camera, because those are the people moviegoers and TV fans actually see. Notice how the recent #OscarsSoWhite protests have focused almost exclusively (for two years running) on the acting categories, rather than, say, the cinematography category. (For more on this topic, read this piece by my colleague Caroline Framke.)
Thus, Hollywood often tries to handle its diversity problems by casting more actors of color, or by putting women in more lead roles. And both of these things are important, to be sure. But they're treating the problem in the most superficial way possible.
Obviously, people can tell stories about experiences other than their own. That's part of what makes art so great. But there's something special about the authenticity lent to a story by someone who has actual life experience with at least a few of the events depicted therein.
That's what makes TV producer Ryan Murphy's new effort to better promote Hollywood diversity so potentially powerful. It's not just a buzzword. It's a workable plan the rest of the industry can adopt.
Murphy's new plan aims to boost the diversity of directors on his TV shows
The biggest problem many women and people of color face when breaking into Hollywood is how to get their foot in the door. Diversity initiatives can help, but they also have a tendency to isolate those who benefit from them (as explained in this terrific Gawker piece by Beejoli Shah). And both executive suites and agencies are full of white men who gravitate toward stories told by other white men. Often, they do this completely without malice; it mostly happens because they find said stories easier to identify with.
If it works as planned, Murphy's initiative, called Half, will help change that. As detailed in an excellent piece in the Hollywood Reporter, Half's stated goal is to fill half of the director slots on Murphy's shows (which include, at present, Scream Queens, American Horror Story, and The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) with women, people of color, and LGBTQ people by the end of 2016. He's already achieved that goal with People vs. O.J. Simpson, where six of the 10 episodes were directed by black directors.
Currently, only 16 percent of director jobs on TV go to women, which broadens to just 18 percent when all minority candidates are taken into consideration, according to a Directors Guild of America report on the 2014-'15 TV season.
Murphy's greatest strength has always been coming up with new ways to reimagine systems that seem intractably broken. In terms of storytelling, that led to his invention (along with Brad Falchuk) of the "anthological miniseries," a show that tells a new story with new characters in every season. And with Half, it means reversing the way Hollywood does business.
Writes Lacey Rose of THR:
Half will begin extensive outreach efforts at colleges and universities, beginning with visits to AFI, UCLA and USC before expanding around the country later this year. The foundation will then align candidates with mentors within Ryan Murphy Productions, as well as with internships and shadowing opportunities around Hollywood. The goal, per Murphy, is to let young people know that there is a place for them in Hollywood. "The industry has always been about, you come to us," he says. "There’s not a lot of effort and inclusion, and I’m saying, ‘No, we’re going to go to you.'"
It's that last sentence — "No, we're going to go to you" — that makes it seem as if Half has a better plan than other, similar Hollywood diversity initiatives. After all, the easiest way for promising young talent to get signed to an agency, so they can get further work in the industry, is to have a powerful name backing them up. And there are few people in the television industry more powerful than Murphy right now.
(It should be noted that the only producer who is arguably more powerful than Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, has been doing much of the above all by herself, without much publicity, for more than a decade now.)
What's more, Half also sets a good, workable example for everybody else. Other producers of similar weight who care about diversity but aren't sure how to approach it on their own shows can, at the very least, set similar 50 percent goals for themselves, and hopefully perform some outreach of their own. It won't solve Hollywood's diversity problems overnight, but it could start chipping away at them, bit by bit.