The Hollywood of today is different from what it was even 10 years ago.
More diverse stories are being told. There is an evolving sensitivity to the realities that are different from the “mainstream.” We’ve seen women of color lead highly rated shows: Kerry Washington in “Scandal,” Viola Davis in “How to Get Away with Murder,” Sandra Oh in “Killing Eve,” Issa Rae in “Insecure,” Mindy Kaling in “The Mindy Project.” We’ve watched diverse casts become family in front of our eyes, bringing people together like never before (like in “This is Us”).
We’ve said “Wakanda forever” as Marvel’s melanin-rich kings and queens dominated the box office at the hands of a young, black director (Ryan Coogler). We’ve seen the #MeToo movement take off and we’ve witnessed seemingly untouchable Hollywood kingpins fall for committing heinous crimes against women.
Women are demanding equal pay, and stepping down when they don’t receive it. We saw Billy Porter make history as the first openly gay black man to win an Emmy for best actor in a drama. There is no doubt that times are changing for the better.
As a black woman in Hollywood, seeing people who look like me thrive on screen has been incredibly inspiring. I am grateful so many barriers have been broken. It is no longer rare to see a black woman in a major role in television or film. Black artists, both in front of the camera and behind it, are becoming less anomalous. There are more opportunities today than ever before, and nothing seems impossible. However, that does not mean that there aren’t still challenges that exist.
Earlier this year, model Olivia Anakwe voiced concerns on Instagram after a harrowing experience backstage at a Paris Fashion Week show where none of the stylists hired were equipped to do her hair. She said that she felt “ignored” and “forgotten” and ended up having to call on other models for assistance.
Her story went viral and resonated with much of black Hollywood, including myself. It was both frustrating and cathartic to share what we’d all been through and to realize that we weren’t alone in these experiences. This unfortunate reality should not be normalized or accepted. So what can be done and where do we go from here?
Inclusivity and diversity, on all levels, is crucial. Hiring a diverse range of performers is step one. But that’s still not enough. Designers, showrunners, producers and executives, please be sure those you’ve hired feel safe and seen behind-the-scenes, as well. On top of the jobs for which we’ve been hired, too many of us have had to become our own beauticians, products in tow, in fast-paced and high-pressure environments. We fear what might happen if we don’t: mismanaged, damaged hair, or showing up onstage or on the screen two shades too light, or dark, or orange. Please make sure someone within your hair and makeup departments has experience with all types of hair and a variety of skin tones.
Artists, when we are in your chairs, don’t just hear our concerns, really listen. Many of the stories shared reveal the fact that when black women have spoken up, we’ve often been dismissed, discounted and disregarded as “difficult,” a cringeworthy scarlet letter that every person in our industry tries to avoid.
I am currently filming an arc on Fox’s “The Resident.” On this show, my hair is completely natural. Instead of trying to straighten all my curls, or simply resorting to the easy and safe style of a bun, the head of the hair department chatted with me, listened to my thoughts, and then assigned an artist who was skilled in my hair texture to do my hair — in unique, beautiful and non-damaging styles — every episode. I was shocked. Could it really just be that easy? I wish this for every person who steps onto a set. This should not be extraordinary.
In addition to hiring artists who have competency with a diverse range of hair textures and complexions, showrunners and executives, please sit with your performers and ask them what their preferences, needs and concerns are. Of course, these meetings should not be limited to people of color, but be especially prepared and open to hearing from us when we are in front of you. When we feel safe, seen and valued, everyone wins.
During her Emmy acceptance speech earlier this year, Michelle Williams said something that really stuck with me: “And so the next time a woman — and especially a woman of color ... tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her. Believe her. Because one day she might stand in front of you and say thank you for allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment and not in spite of it.”
I felt seen in this moment. As women, we are all still fighting for equality in so many ways. But women of color have to fight harder. This acknowledgment was important. White friends in Hollywood, I implore you: Act as allies. It means so much when you use your voices and platforms to support us.
And support transcends hair and makeup rooms. During Season 2 of “Insatiable,” the show on which I currently am a series regular, there is an episode titled “Finding Magnolia,” where my character — Magnolia — confronts her sense of “otherness” as a biracial woman and a woman of color in a predominantly white world. At the suggestion of showrunner Lauren Gussis, I was invited to the writers’ room to collaborate with them on this story.
I sat with the group for a couple of hours. I shared personal anecdotes and I left them with an entire document I titled, “Finding Erinn,” on my life as part of the “other”: a black woman, from a multiracial familial background, growing up in predominantly white environments. The writer assigned to take the lead on this episode was a black woman named Jessica Watson.
So much of what is seen in that episode, including statements made in Magnolia’s noteworthy monologue, stemmed from our real, lived moments. I have gotten a multitude of incredible messages from viewers, from a variety of backgrounds, about “Finding Magnolia” because it resonated with them. It resonated because it was real. When diversity of background and perspective are acknowledged and embraced behind the scenes, authentic stories can be told.
It is clear progress has been made in Hollywood. Ultimately, however, there’s more to be done. Let’s all continue to work together to become better. Recent positive experiences that I have had, as a woman of color in Hollywood, should not be considered unusual. My hope is that with continued sensitivity, compassion and conversation, experiences like these become the norm.