RSS ’22: Team behind “Deaf U” on breaking barriers with authenticity

Trust is always a key factor when negotiating access for a non-fiction television or film project, but its importance is magnified when producers from outside of a specific culture or ...
June 9, 2022

Trust is always a key factor when negotiating access for a non-fiction television or film project, but its importance is magnified when producers from outside of a specific culture or community want to document it.

That’s one of the key points from a session at the Realscreen Summit in Dana Point held on Tuesday (June 7) featuring members of the team behind the groundbreaking Netflix series Deaf U.

Moderated by RespectAbility’s VP of communications and entertainment and news media Lauren Applebaum, the panel featured Eric Evangelista, founder and executive producer at Hot Snakes Media; Naimah Holmes, currently VP of Discovery factual at Warner Bros. Discovery and a supervising producer on the series; and Todd Shill, Hot Snakes Media’s head of legal and business affairs.

Here are a few of the main takeaways from the session:

“It’s a culture you’re representing.”

According to Evangelista, the genesis of the idea for Deaf U came while he was watching the Freeform series Switched at Birth, which features several deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars. Thinking it would be interesting to spotlight deaf communities and culture, he then set out to find the right world for an unscripted project. As fate would have it, Shill’s wife was an ASL teacher and pointed them toward Gallaudet University, a college outside of Washington DC for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

When Shill first approached the school with the idea of filming an unscripted series within its walls, the top brass was initially uninterested. The focus for the Hot Snakes team then became breaking down that barrier.

“What do they need from us to be comfortable?” Shill said, recounting the process of bringing Gallaudet on side. In the end, it took a commitment to bring deaf producers, post producers and behind-the-scenes staff on board — 50% of the story crew for the first season was deaf, according to Holmes — and to immerse the whole crew in ASL training and learning about deaf culture.

“It’s a culture you’re representing,” said Holmes, “not just a language or a disability.”

Representation behind the scenes creates a better show

Bringing on Nyle DiMarco, a Gallaudet grad who went on to become a model, actor, unscripted star via a stint on America’s Next Top Model, and an activist for the deaf community, was also a key factor in convincing the school of the production team’s commitment to ensure that the series would be authentic and not exploitative.

Holmes and Evangelista told delegates that the rapport that the students featured on the series had with the deaf crew working the show helped bring moments to the fore that the non-deaf crew would have missed. Things that could appear as subtle to non-deaf crew and viewers alike — such as cast members rearranging the tables in a bar so that they could face each other more easily — resonate with an authenticity for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing, making the program more reflective of their realities.

Great ideas can be a hard sell

Evangelista recalled that many networks — with Freeform being an exception — didn’t even want to take the pitch for the show. The team eventually made its way to Netflix, who, according to Evangelista, were enthusiastic from the beginning.

And while some viewers took issue with the casting of the first season — noting the absence of deaf or hard-of-hearing BIPOC women — Holmes said the casting was intended to reflect a real group of friends, or a “clique,” to depict the realities of college life. And while further seasons could have expanded on the cast, at present, there is no word about a second season.

While that may seem to be a missed opportunity on Netflix’s part, all assembled for the session said they plan on continuing the work done with Deaf U to bring more stories about deaf culture and community into unscripted.

“After it aired I got a lot of calls from friends and colleagues who live with various disabilities, and they said the show made them feel like they could be seen and represented on TV at some point,” Shill said. “It’s kicked open the door a little bit.”

“Expand your casting,” Evangelista said, as advice to producers in the audience. “It will surprise you.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.