By Saira Khan
The past few years have been promising for storytelling by and for people of color. On Sunday, at the Golden Globes, Sterling K. Brown became first black actor to win for leading performance in a TV drama, Aziz Ansari became the first Asian male actor to win best leading performance in a TV comedy, and Oprah Winfrey became the first black woman to receive Cecil B. DeMille Award. This recognition comes on the heels of last year’s awards season when at the Emmys, Lena Waithe made history by becoming the first black woman to win for Comedy Writing, Donald Glover became first black person to win the best-directing comedy award, and Riz Ahmed became the first male South Asian actor to win the outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie Emmy.
It’s hard to imagine that it was only three short years ago that an alleged e-mail exchange between Sony Pictures’s co-chair Amy Pascal and film producer Scott Rudin was leaked to the public:
“What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast,” Pascal wrote to Rudin.
“Would he like to finance some movies,” Rudin replied.
“I doubt it,” responded Pascal. “Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” she added,
“Or the butler. Or think like a man,” Pascal continued.
“Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart,” Rudin answered.
Lest you have forgotten, our president at the time was Barack Obama and all of the films Pascal and Rudin mentioned were films with black characters. The e-mail hack (which may or may not have been orchestrated by North Korea) also told us that Sony executives thought Denzel Washington wasn’t famous enough to sell tickets in a lead role and that Angelina Jolie was “difficult.”
What’s striking about this exchange (aside from the blatant racism) is that these are the people who decide which films get made and which ones don’t; which stories get told and which ones are left out. These are the people who, in the past, decided that the only stories about black people worth telling were those of black pain and suffering, and that all Asian characters should have accents (something that Aziz Ansari brilliantly addressed in the “Indians on TV” episode of “Master of None.”) These are the people who hired white writers to create these roles. These are the people who thought no one would be interested in paying to watch a film about the real lives of people of color. But, maybe, times have changed.
“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” Viola Davis said in 2015, after winning an Emmy for her performance in the show “How to Get Away With Murder.” For decades, white executives and writers denied people of color the chance to win such awards simply because they didn’t allow roles like the ones Davis won for to exist. The Internet has helped usher us into a time when we don’t need those white executives to give us those opportunities, because we can create them for ourselves. Gone are the days when studio heads and producers like Pascal and Rudin decided, based solely on their perceptions of people of color, whether our stories would be told.
In 2011, a black woman wrote a role for herself, based on her life, and created a web series, called “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” on YouTube. By 2012, the episode had 1.2 million views. She went on to raise $44,000 for the show through Kickstarter and kept at it. That woman now has a hit TV show on HBO and is currently working on another one with the network. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe this year. Yes, that woman is Issa Rae.
If it wasn’t for platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., that have allowed people of color to create their own opportunities, would “Insecure” exist?
I’m a South Asian woman from Pakistan. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to be forced to reckon with that fact that you’ve spent your entire life watching, and tacitly accepting, the white-washed stories that Hollywood thought we wanted to hear. Watching actors like Riz Ahmed, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj, and now, Fatimah Asghar (who is currently developing a TV show with Sam Bailey for HBO, based on their web series “Brown Girls.”) tell stories that I understand and can relate to, on a deeper, cultural level, was, at first, jarring and emotional–after a lifetime of being ignored on television, suddenly my people are out here winning awards for playing roles that are actually familiar to me. Suddenly, people who look like me are changing the entertainment landscape. With this new-found representation comes much-needed understanding. For far too long South Asians have been delegated to playing the shopkeeper with an accent or the untrustworthy, is he-or-isn’t-he a terrorist on TV.
We no longer need white executives in the entertainment industry to give us opportunities, instead they need us. Because while those same executives hold the keys to the kingdom, we have the numbers. They can no longer deny the power of storytelling by people of color. We, on the other hand, can go ahead and build our own shit now, without their support and money. It’s clear that the entertainment industry has taken note of this, which is why we have films like “Girls Trip,” “Coco,” “Get Out,” and “Black Panther” and televisions shows like “Atlanta,” “This Is Us,” and “Black-ish.”
By approximately 2020, the Census Bureau says that more than half of the United States’ population will be made up of minority children–which would, of course, no longer make us minorities. With this in mind, it’s preposterous that it took 96 years for a black man to win a Golden Globe for a leading performance in a TV drama. We’ve made much progress in that past few years in terms of equal representation on television and film, but we still have a long way to go. I, for one, will not be satisfied until every single movie and television show has a substantial character of color. It’s not good enough anymore to have films with all-white casts or to throw minorities into supporting roles just for show. If Hollywood is unable to accept that minorities are woven into every fiber of this nation, then I’m more than willing to change the channel.