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At TV Press Tour, Actors And Producers Of Color Speak Of Hollywood Struggles

Issa Rae stars in the new HBO series <em>Insecure</em>.
John P. Fleenor
Issa Rae stars in the new HBO series Insecure.

Editor's note: As you'll see right away, this column includes a word that is offensive to many.

Ask star and co-creator Issa Rae about the many times the word "nigga" surfaces in her new HBO comedy Insecure — a wonderfully unassuming comedy about the life of a sometimes-awkward young black woman in Los Angeles — and she's got a simple answer.

This is how she and her friends talk to each other.

"I understand that people have strong feelings about the use and non-use of the n-word," said Rae, whose character in Insecure comes off like a thinly veiled version of herself — just like the woman she played in the online series which first made her a media star, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

"In conversations that I've been a part of, that I've heard, that word is used, so why not include it," added Rae, who said she used the language in her very first draft of the show's script. "In the same way my friends and I call each other the b-word all the time. That is just a dynamic of our friendship; it's part of how we talk."

At a time when real-life dialogue over racial issues seems filled with tension, Rae has produced a series that feels revolutionary just by poking fun at the life of an average, 20-something black woman.

These are the issues which can surface as television becomes more diverse and people of color get more control over the stories told.

For years, critics have noted the best way to amp up ethnic, racial and gender diversity in TV and movies is to give talented producers, directors and writers of color more power behind the scenes.

And now, Hollywood seems on the verge of getting the message. Besides Rae's work as star and executive producer of Insecure — a ray of multicultural sunshine on a cable channel, HBO, also known for ultra-white programs like Girls and Game of Thrones — there's a growing list of non-white creators trying to tell culturally authentic stories on TV, especially in well-produced, high-quality series.

Cheo Hodari Coker is the showrunner on Netflix's first comic book TV series featuring a black superhero, Marvel's Luke Cage. Kenya Barris leads ABC's family comedy Black-ish. John Ridley runs ABC's American Crime. Carlos Coto is showrunner for the El Rey Network series From Dusk Til Dawn. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay has an ambitious drama, Queen Sugar, about to debut on Oprah Winfrey's OWN channel. And there are more projects coming.

Just be careful about deploying the word "diversity" to describe what's happening. Overused as a buzzword in Hollywood, that term rankles some people of color in the TV industry who fear it marginalizes and isolates the issue as a subject only affecting non-white people.

"'Belonging' is a better word than 'diversity,'" said D'Angela Proctor, senior vice president of original programming at black-centered cable channel TV One. Proctor was speaking on a panel of non-white actors and producers convened Monday for the TV Critics Association's summer press tour in Beverly Hills. The group spoke on the efforts to improve Hollywood's dismal track record on inclusion, noting that change might have to start with altering how we talk about the subject in the first place.

"I think diversity, inclusion, belonging ... it builds bridges," Proctor told the panel. "[There are] two bridges: one from hope to talent, because people have to want to do this, and another bridge from talent to opportunity."

There's little doubt the success of black-centered shows like Fox's Empire and ABC's Black-ish has fueled interest in shows with more diverse casts, producers and crew. But Victoria Mahoney, a director who works on Starz's black-centered comedy Survivor's Remorse, also credited social media for giving a voice to non-white fans which got Hollywood's attention.

Social media has also helped industry veterans like Mahoney, who said she often feels shut out of the traditional system for landing directing and producing jobs in Hollywood.

"[Showrunner] Mike O'Malley hired me for Survivor's Remorse ... because he went on Twitter and he asked people, 'Where are the women of color?' because he couldn't find anyone from the agencies," she said. "So he put out an SOS ... he brought in me, he brought in a bunch of other directors, and he brought in writers who are completely outside the system."

Despite an increase in high-profile shows featuring non-white producers and performers, Hollywood's diversity numbers overall remain disappointing. In February, a study by researchers at the University of Southern California declared an "inclusion crisis" in film in television, noting that just 17 percent of directors on TV shows they analyzed were female and only 19 percent of series in the study were ethnically balanced.

Even on the diversity panel where Mahoney and Proctor spoke Monday, there were no Asian actors or producers. And the fear remains for some people of color in the TV industry that the rise in shows featuring non-white characters and producers may be short-lived.

But Mahoney remains committed to the fight — pushing to make sure the rise in inclusion we are seeing now is more than a passing fad.

"I have to walk in, and I have to confront people who are very comfortable in old, old ways of thinking ... it's exhausting," she said. "There's, like, a few of us popping through because we were too stupid and stubborn so we didn't quit. There are far more talented people than me that quit because it's so narrow. The opening — it's so narrow."

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.