Diversity in the entertainment industry has been a much explored topic over the past year and a half — and deservedly so. This year, the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers put the issue under the microscope.
An online panel session at this year’s Congress explored the progress being made around diversity in the industry, specifically in the wake of the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020.
The idea for the session, as laid out by host Justin Shaifer of FascinateSci, was to look at whether the pronouncements made by many major companies at the time about the importance of diversity and inclusion were actually being honored or if the “boom and bust cycle” around calls for greater representation is continuing. Has there been a genuine shift in thinking?
On the panel were Joan Jenkinson, executive director of Canada’s Black Screen Office; Pat Younge, co-managing director for Cardiff Productions in the UK; and Wendy Llinas senior director of programming and development at PBS.
Early in the discussion Younge brought up Channel 4′s Black to Front project, which saw the British pubcaster devote a full day of programming with Black people on screen. Jenkinson said the concept showed how much further some regions and countries are than others when it comes to emphasizing representation.
“I’m encouraged by what’s happening in the UK, I hadn’t realized how far behind we are,” she said. “I’ve been involved in this fight for a really long time and right now it feels like there’s a lot of attention being put on this issue, but we are nowhere close to what’s just been described in the UK. I’m hopeful that if they’ve been able to sustain it over the long haul and to make those changes, that it’s possible.”
Younge, however, was quick to point out that there was still much progress to be made in his country.
“I wouldn’t oversell what we’ve achieved here in the UK,” he replied, detailing the launch of a program 20 years ago — the Cultural Diversity Network — to push companies to include details of who worked on a program, the same way they track use of archive footage and music cues.
“Twenty years on, probably only 25 to 30% of companies actually fill in that form. And probably they are the companies who believe in it and are committed to it,” he said, explaining that many larger companies just ignore the protocols. “The companies that aren’t filling them in are the big ones, and nobody wants to upset the big companies.”
The discussion moved to diversity and inclusion mandates that some networks and streamers have incorporated to ensure that the companies they work with have diverse teams. Llinas discussed the different approaches, including the one taken by PBS.
“I think it’s great when people are able to have a very public mandate that says this is what we expect; that eases the conversation for a lot of people. For legal reasons, every company can’t do that. We don’t have a mandate, we have guidance,” she explained.
Llinas went on to describe how she has engaged with these questions on essentially a project-by-project basis herself before broader calls for diversity became common.
“Every film that came in front of me, every series, any potential series, I felt like that was a conversation that I felt comfortable having with people and asking, ‘Who is telling the story, why are they the right person to tell this story, who are the diverse people on your team, [and if there aren't any] why don’t you have any of them?’” she said. “And not to put people on the spot in an accusatory way, but I think just bringing it up in a way that we’re thinking about it and we think it’s important, and that that’s one of the things that we’re looking for when we’re evaluating programs.”
The speakers all agreed that feeling like a token POC presence at an organization can be exhausting.
“I was very open with some of my white colleagues about the types of conversations I was having and why — making it easier, hopefully, for them to bring that up too so that I wouldn’t be the only voice in the room bringing that up,” Llinas said. “I don’t always want to be the only person of color who has to stick up for every Brown, every Black person — I mean I love it, but I don’t want to be the only one. I don’t want to be the only one representing everyone and checking all of the different boxes of diversity. It should be shared work, and that’s how we can move forward.”
Younge agreed, laying out how a person of color can be tokenized in their own organization as a gradual process.
“You play the role of being everybody’s cultural conscience, so they say, ‘Oh we’re doing a film about Africa — Pat, what do you think about Africa?’ And you think, ‘Well I was born in London and my parents are from the Caribbean, but if you want my view, here it is…’ And they sort of say, ‘Well if we can’t ask you about this stuff, then why are you here?’ And if you’re a Black person, you have to engage with that because part of the reason you’re there is they do want a more diverse team,” he said.
“So it’s really hard to navigate your career in those environments… When you’re isolated, and when until recently the mood has been very much that [diversity] is a special interest project, it’s not surprising that people think ‘F this, I’m going to go and do something else somewhere where I’m valued, where I feel appreciated.’”
That experience has driven away many people of color from the industry over the years, which has led to a shortage of BIPOC talent in many countries.
“Now that everything has shifted and everyone is scrambling for that talent, every single Black person who is a writer, director, [or] producer is busy,” Jenkinson explained. “You can’t get them. And there’s no pipeline. There have been so many talented people lost along the way because the barriers have been so unscalable that unless you were able to sneak in here and there when a program was initiated, there’s a real gap in our system. And our challenge right now is to start to fill those pipelines.”
The panel was in agreement that for there to be real progress around diversity and inclusion, real work has to be done beyond companies announcing initiatives and making public statements, however well-intentioned they might be.
“Often the pronouncements come from the top and there’s no work to change the culture,” said Younge. “You’re talking about changing the culture of an organization. The leaders get it, they announce a target, but if they don’t do the work of driving that down through the organization and making it everybody’s business, then it doesn’t happen.”