This weekend, the Emmys set several new records: At 24 years old, Zendaya made history as the youngest person to win Lead Actress in a Drama Series; seven awards went to Black performers, topping the previous record of six, set two years ago; and Variety reported that 34.3 percent of the acting nominees were Black.
Yet while this might sound like progress, many Black actors report that– from the boardroom to the set– the industry continues to silence their voices and devalue their stories.
During the socially distanced awards ceremony, Insecure creator Issa Rae looked back at her first-ever Hollywood pitch, where a white executive reduced her groundbreaking series to a show about "this Black woman and her Black-woman problems." He then explained to her that "the Black audience, they want to see familiar faces. So, you might need to switch up the characters."
"Why does he get to tell me what people like me like to see?" she asked. Thankfully, the experience would motivate her to tell her story, but the interaction reflects the kinds of structural racism that disadvantage Black people in Hollywood. Rae talks about the moment in detail in the video below, which includes an introduction from Zendaya who pits the question, "who decides which stories can be told? The truth with storytelling has to lie with those who have lived those stories on a daily basis."
Comedian and writer Travon Free echoed Rae's statement in the tweet above, as did Dear White People's Jeremy Tardy, who earlier this month announced that he would not be returning to the Netflix show citing his experience with Lionsgate studio and "their practices of racial discrimination." In a lengthy social media post, Tardy explained that his white co-stars were able to successfully negotiate for a higher salary, while many of the Black actors could not.
The incident aligns with the experiences of many other Black actors including former Glee star Amber Riley, who this summer spoke of being told by a producer that actors of color are “a little more disposable because that’s the way the world is.”
While revelations like these are not new, the increasing mainstream discourse around systemic racism presents a new hope. And given the significant contributions of Black people to the film industry and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, change is well overdue.
Newcomer Jeremy Pope, who starred as the fictional Black and openly gay screenwriter Archie Coleman in Hollywood said of his nomination, "I'm proud to see so many Black artists nominated this year. It gives me hope that systemic change in our entertainment industry is not only possible, it's imminent." Hollywood has, however clumsily, begun to reckon with its deep-seated sexism and transphobia. There is hope that the same reckoning might happen with racism in the film industry.