At a 1994 writer's conference, David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, famously stated, "In the area of drama, it [is] difficult for black American writers to write successfully for a mass audience." The late David Mills, then a Washington Post writer, immediately fired off a letter to Milch, directly challenging his biased assumption.
Milch ended up offering Mills a gig writing for NYPD Blue, serving as his mentor along the way. Mills' stint on Blue proved to be the precursor to his own series, Kingpin, and his outstandingly successful collaboration with his college buddy David Simon on The Corner, The Wire and Treme.
Mills died suddenly last year at age 48 on the set of Treme. A crop of African-American writers are carrying on his legacy, writing for mainstream network shows while aspiring to produce their own shows, run their own production companies and branch out into film: writers like Dee Harris-Lawrence, who was an executive producer for Saving Grace and Detroit 1-8-7; Peter Saji, who scripts dialogue for Courtney Cox on ABC's Cougar Town; Angela Nissel of 'Til Death and Scrubs; and Saladin Patterson, co-executive producer and writer for USA Network's Psych.
But while these writers and others interviewed by The Root have made some gains in the industry, the numbers aren't in their favor. According to a 2011 study commissioned by the Writers Guild of America, the number of minority writers increased slightly from 9 percent in 2007 to 10 percent of all writers, a slight rebound to 2005 levels.
Still, this small increase in the number of writers of color isn't reflected in their paychecks; the television earnings gap between minority and white writers has more than doubled since 2007. According to the WGA report, "Minorities have been regularly underrepresented by factors of about 3 to 1 among television writers. As the previous report concluded, it appears that minority writers are at best treading water when it comes to their share of television employment, particularly as the nation itself becomes more diverse."
Despite the dispiriting stats, the writers interviewed by The Root all expressed a sense of optimism and resolve. Perhaps it's the Shonda Rhimes effect. Rhimes, after all, has found considerable success as the creator, head writer and Emmy Award-winning executive producer of Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and Off the Map. As LaToya Morgan, a recent graduate of Warner Brothers Writers Workshop, who writes for John Wells' Shameless, puts it, "Shonda Rhimes is definitely an inspiration, and her success has been phenomenal. Other black women have had a tremendous impact … opening doors, cracking the glass ceiling and making it possible for people like me to follow in their footsteps."
Adds Janine Sherman Barrois, co-executive producer of CBS' Criminal Minds, "I think when a black woman can make a network millions of dollars, it helps people realize other people of color can do the same."
Multiracial Casts: Friend or Foe to Black Writers?
Like Rhimes, many African-American television writers working today are not doing it on black shows. Over the past decade, major networks have moved away from producing black-centered television shows like The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, My Wife and Kids and Everybody Hates Chris. Instead, the airwaves are flooded with comedies and dramas like The Office, Grey's Anatomy and Treme, shows that feature black actors within a multiracial ensemble cast — casts helmed by white leads. This shift can be traced to the dissolution of networks, such as UPN and the WB, that showcased black talent.
Observes Maisha Closson, a writer for MTV's controversial Skins, "We lost a lot of shows and jobs for black folks. Unfortunately, executives don't believe that shows cast with primarily black actors can find a home on network TV."
Morgan, on the other hand, sees opportunities in writing for mainstream shows. "A good role is a good role, no matter what," she says. "If the character happens to be on a predominantly black show or a predominantly white show, I don't think it matters. What matters is whether or not it's a role that can showcase talent."
Jacque Edmonds Cofer, a writer for BET's Let's Stay Together and Reed Between the Lines, sees the positive aspects of multiethnic casts but also cautions against complacency on the part of producers and television execs. "The multiethnic casts are a good step toward adequate representation of all ethnicities on TV," she says. "On Treme and Grey's, they have substantial story lines and well-rounded characters. However, multiethnic casting on shows with white leads shouldn't be used as an excuse by networks for not airing shows with majority black or Latino casts, especially when shows like The Game and George Lopez prove that an eager audience and advertisers are waiting for them."
And multiracial casts don't always mean equitable story lines for minority characters. Programs such as Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries have been criticized for using black and Asian actors as "sight gags," or limiting their presence to stereotypically "dark" roles. In the blog PopWatch for EW.com, Youyoung Lee describes the Asian and black sidekicks on Gossip Girl as "practically mute, ostentatiously dressed and subservient."
David Mainiero of the Dartmouth Independent concurs, explaining that Gossip Girl paints its minority characters "in [an] ancillary, subservient light." Of the WB's Vampire Diaries, Price Peterson, a blogger for TV.com, writes, "Having all the witches be African American is definitely not weird. And having them all perform servitude to rich Southern white people — definitely not questionable."
Cable, MTV's Closson says, may be the best bet. Cable still offers a more welcome home to programs with all-black casts than the major networks. Consider the following roundup: two sitcoms from Tyler Perry on TBS, plus the Ice Cube-produced Are We There Yet; BET's wildly popular The Game, Let's Stay Together and Reed Between the Lines; and, for what it's worth, Fox's animated series The Cleveland Show. In 2009, HBO aired the critically acclaimed No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, starring Jill Scott, based on the series of novels by Alexander McCall. (The network has yet to air a second series.)
But being black and writing for a "white" network show doesn't mean being pigeonholed, confined to writing lines for the black crook who gets laid out by the police before the first commercial break. The writers surveyed by The Root insist that they are seated at a place of equality at the writers' table, bringing their perspective to bear on complex plotlines and character development. Says Sherman Barrois, who has also written for ER, Third Watch and The Jamie Foxx Show, "[I've] written over 30 produced scripts for television, and I have never been asked to [write only for a black or minority character]."
Getting a Foot in the Door
Aisha Muharrar, a writer for NBC-TV's Parks and Recreation, understands our nostalgic longing for programs that reflected us in authentic characters and situations that brought laughs without compromising our dignity. "I loved watching The Cosby Show, Living Single, Fresh Prince and Family Matters when I was a kid. But so did all my white friends. They were just good shows we all enjoyed. The answer is to make it the norm again so two shows don't have to be the representation for all of black culture."
Muharrar, like Morgan, is part of a batch of young writers getting their start in television. Television writing is competitive. Patterson offers sound advice for those who wish to try their hand at the profession. "Develop your 'voice,' whether it be comedic or dramatic. Challenge yourself to hone your point of view so that you will be unique in the crowded marketplace."
"Apply to all of the diversity programs," Saji says. "I think every studio has one. I came up through the Cosby program and the Disney program. And hone your skills. All the connections in the world mean nothing if your sample is weak."
"Be prepared to struggle," Closson says. "Have a clear and distinct voice in your writing. Once you do make it, help another black writer break in — this is the only way we will continue to have a presence in the TV landscape."
Camille Collins is a 2009 recipient of the South Carolina Fiction Prize and is the author of the novel The Exene Chronicles. She also writes for Afro Punk and other publications.