For years, television networks have danced around the idea of diversity, but all too often their half-hearted attempts to reflect American society have amounted to having one or two non-white characters in the cast — if that.
The stats on diversity in the entertainment industry often paint a dire portrait, but something might be shifting. The fall schedule on the broadcast networks features one of the most diverse array of actors in years, and executives are not just commissioning shows that embrace issues of race but are also acknowledging how much further the industry has to go.
This season, ABC will debut “Black-ish,” a family sitcom that humorously deals with issues of class and race, as well as “Cristela,” a show about a Hispanic family, and “Fresh Off the Boat,” a half-hour show about an Asian clan.
ABC will also debut “How to Get Away with Murder,” a one-hour drama that features a multi-ethnic cast and Viola Davis as the lead. “Murder” comes from Shonda Rhimes, whose three shows now occupy ABC’s entire Thursday night lineup, and who made “Scandal,” led by Kerry Washington, into the most buzzed-about show in years. (Rhimes other hit series is “Grey’s Anatomy.”)
“Let’s not pretend we’re there yet,” when it comes to the television industry accurately reflecting the demographics of America, ABC president Paul Lee said at the Television Critics Association press tour Tuesday. “I think we’re taking a very good step along that journey. But to be able to pull this off, you need not just stars on air […] [y]ou need the storytellers and you need the executives. I’m very proud of the fact that if you look at the executives who do development and do programming and marketing, across ABC, it’s a very diverse group of people.
“If you look at shows now that seem to lack diversity, they actually feel dated, because America doesn’t look like that anymore,” Lee said.
Davis talked about what it was like to be the acknowledged star of a project, not a supporting player.
“I will be bold enough to say, I have gotten so many wonderful film roles, but I’ve gotten even more film roles where I haven’t been the show,” Davis said. “It’s like I’ve been invited to a really fabulous party, only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show. I wanted to have a character that kind of took me out of my comfort zone, and that character happened to be in a Shonda Rhimes show. So I did the only smart thing any sensible actress would do — I took it.”
Davis also rejected the idea that taking on a television show was a step down in the entertainment-industry pecking order.
“The day of TV somehow diminishing your career as an actor or actress has changed,” Davis said. “I think people migrate toward material, especially after they reach a certain age, a certain hue, a certain sex.”
Rhimes was asked if it would be meaningful for there to be two programs on network TV with black women as leads, but the prolific writer/producer wasn’t inclined to speculate about that.
“We’ll see, don’t you think?” Rhimes said. “That remains to be seen. It hasn’t happened yet.”
The ABC show that takes on race most directly is the promising comedy “Black-ish,” which stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as suburban professionals with four children — one of whom would like to have a bar mitzvah, like the other kids at his prosperous private school. It’s based on an experience Anderson had with his own son (who did, in fact, have a “hip-hop bro-mitzvah,” a term that Anderson trademarked).
Executive producer Larry Wilmore of “The Daily Show” and Kenya Barris, the show’s creator, said “Black-ish” would be as much about class, upward mobility and culture clashes as it is about race.
Would it feature instances of characters experiencing overt racism? “God, I hope not!,” said Laurence Fishburne, who is an executive producer and who plays a grandfather on the show.
“It’s so passe these days,” he added with a laugh.
“We’ll save that for behind the scenes,” Anderson joked.
Speaking more seriously, Barris and Wilmore said “Black-ish” will often dwell on issues of assimilation, and what a person or family may lose when they ascend the ladder of success. Some of those issues will touch on race, but much of the show will revolve around a dad from a working-class background raising much more well-to-do kids.
“We’re not running away from the title,” Barris said of “Black-ish,” but he added that class is often “more divisive than race or culture.”
As Barris observed, “we are living in a post-Obama society, where race and culture are talked about less than ever before. My kids are living in such a homogenized world.”
“Even with the Obama thing, he’s called the first black president,” Wilmore said. “But he’s mixed. He’s really the first black-ish president.”