ATX Festival 2021: Black TV Creatives Discuss What Still Needs to Be Done in the Industry

Celebrating all things television, the ATX festival was virtual again this year with a lineup filled with wonderful television series as well as discussions by leaders in television. One of the many panel conversations had a very serious conversation about race discussions in television called Television in an Era of Racial Reckoning, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Television in an Era of Racial Reckoning Summary:

The past year has seen the fault lines of our country exposed and exploited, and we’ve seen loss to an unmatched degree. Through all the grief and introspection, the divisions of our country have been made crystal-clear. At this critical inflection point, the ACLU has launched “Systemic Equality”, a bold platform which reimagines the broken systems that are woven into the fabric of our society. But imagining an anti-racist, healed America means not just bold policies, but bold storytelling. TV producers and writers, along with an ACLU expert, will sit down to discuss how to repair inequitable systems, and build a future through storytelling, both on and off the screen in TV today.

The panelists consisted of Queen Sugar producer/writer Monica Macer, Them executive producer/writer Little Marvin, A Black Lady Sketch Show writer/actor Ashley Nicole Black, This Is Us executive producer/director/writer Kay Oyegun, and moderated by ACLU Texas Communications director Darryl Ewing.

Macer, who is mixed-Black and Korean, started in the industry in the early 2000s as a writing assistant on the hit series 24. She credits the FOX writer’s diversity program for giving her the opportunity to meet with the 24 showrunners. Now, as the showrunner for CBS’ MacGyver, she is providing opportunities for other people of color to write for her.

“It was because in the late 90s those who came before us with the AACP and the Asian advocacy groups together fight[ing] for us and diversity programs,” says Macer. “For me, I had a full circle moment this season working on McGyver. Now here I am, 20 years later, writing a high-octane action show for the oldest of the old school networks. In terms of representation, getting a job that had nothing to do with bring Black, Asian or a woman, was a profound statement in terms of representation. Those opportunities is far and few in between.”

Macer also credits executives of color, especially Eric Kim, VP of Programming at CBS, for being an ally and making sure she, and other people of color, had a seat at the table. Oyegun agrees with this sentiment.

“Having an ally in the room be able to see us and see you in a way you want to be seen that isn’t pigeon-holing you,” says Oyegun.

Having grown up in Nigeria, Oyegun revealed she’s fortunate to not seeing the stereotypes that America had placed on Black people. She had a foundation of seeing Black women as beautiful and not filled with the trauma that America created. She carries this perspective as she writes stories, “As a writer, I think for myself. I still carry that this is a white TV show, but the black characters [are the ones being] cheer[ed] for. There is a reason for that. I think part of me loves the idea of rolling into white spaces and being true to self and telling stories and they have to deal with it. That’s how I take on a feature side. Everybody got to deal with it.”

Black, who was in a PhD program focusing on contemporary Blackface minstrels before pursuing comedy, wanted to show that women like her were limitless. She revealed, “Within the form, Black Lady Sketch Show, you watch that show, I play 25-30 different characters over the course of this season. I dare you to think that a plus-size Black woman can be one thing after you watch that show.”

After years of working in corporate America, Little Marvin dreamed of being a writer. It was thanks to watching Lena Waite on Master of None that made Little Marvin realize his purpose and ended up working with Waite on Them, a horror series that follows a Black family in 1953, during the Second Great Migration, when Black families began moving to all-white neighborhoods and deal with evil forces that threatens to destroy them. Previously criticized for the Black trauma from Them, Little Marvin understands the importance to showcase joy for Black people, but also anted to have a space in the horror realm.

“I love joyful things too,” says Little Marvin. “I love joy. That said, we also have to level the playing field in this space. I refuse to believe as a horror writer, we get criticism because it’s dark. As a person who loves this thing, how are we ever going to get equity within this thing if we don’t get to paint with every single color in the crayon box. So, as much as I love joy, I have to make space for all these other permutations of stories that folks want to see. Just as equally people want to see those happy stories, I know for a fact that there are a massive horror fanbase who is looking for that dark shit and I want to give that to them because I love it too.”

“I don’t know about optimism because we’re not in an optimistic time,” Black, who is known for her comedy, agrees that they should be able to share all types of emotions. “Things are bad and scary. What I can offer you as an artist is the feeling that you’re not alone. You’re scared. I’m scared too. You can turn on the TV and see me be with you. I think we can be clear-headed about what is going on and how it makes us feel as people.”

The ATX Festival runs until June 20.