In 2016, the entertainment industry continued to make progress in giving people of color the platform to tell their stories, their way, with representation both onscreen and behind the scenes.
Atlanta, Queen Sugar, and Insecure all made their TV debuts, while movies like Moonlight and Fences were released in theaters. They all tell the stories of everyday black people while not trying to adhere to a monolithic perspective—and, just as importantly, they were all conceived and produced by black people.
That’s a vital distinction that often gets lost in the talk about diversity. We need people of color to not only be included in the script, but also given the opportunities to be the creators of their own authentic stories.
The Golden Globe nominations of Insecure, Black-ish, Atlanta, Moonlight, and Fences, which were announced today, show that the majorly white entertainment industry finally seems to be getting this, at least a little bit. All of these stories show different versions of the black experience—from best friends living in Los Angeles on Insecure to a coming-of-age story about a poor black boy in Miami in Moonlight. As Moonlight director Barry Jenkins told the New York Times, “I think all these [black filmmakers] are creating work that is addressing these very finite depictions or versions of the black experience.”
But, crucially, these artists aren’t just trying to fill a quota to make sure black people have something to watch on television or at the movies. They are crafting meaningful stories that allow audiences to relate to black people as human beings.
As Insecure star and creator Issa Rae told me earlier this year, “I just want to force people to relate to black people. That’s kind of what I want the legacy to be. For people to look back and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, these human black characters, I saw myself in them and I didn’t know that I could.”
Still, we’re reminded that this progress could disappear in an instant. And, as April Reign, who created #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, pointed out in an interview with Fusion, although we’ve made some progress in terms of the representation of black people on screen, this award season has failed other people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
Nevertheless, this year’s Golden Globes show us a way forward in how we think about representation in culture. The story of a person of color or an LGBTQ person told from their perspective should be just as important, if not more, as an Asian American or black person getting cast in a franchise movie like Star Wars.
It’s not enough to just include Asian American characters in your cast, and then depict them as caricatures. Or, create a romance movie about lesbians and not give them realistic sex-scenes. That’s not to say that people from outside these groups can’t tell these stories, but it does mean they need to work twice as hard to get them right.
“Defying stereotypes” was a term used often when describing the characters from Moonlight, Atlanta, or any other film or television show that tells the stories of black people told in a way that’s not usually seen in mainstream media. But we can only defy stereotypes with characters who come from a place of understanding and authenticity. Atlanta was mostly written by a team that had never worked in television before, but was nearly all black and from Atlanta. Moonlight was adapted from a play and written by two black men who both grew up poor in Miami and had mothers who struggled with crack addiction.
When you can relate to a story or see a person as a human being, there’s an entry point for creating a character with depth. And if the conversation around diversity is to progress, there needs to be more talk about who gets to tell their stories, and less reflexive praising of mainstream films when they casting one person of color.