Last weekend I attended two of the Diversity Speaks panels the LA Film Fest. I made it to the second half of Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley‘s Q & A session, moderated by Elvis Mitchell, and was available for the entire Diversity in Primetime panel featuring Wendy Calhoun (writer/co-executive producer, Empire), Gail Lerner (writer/co-executive producer, Black-ish), Andrea Navedo (actor, Jane the Virgin), Randall Park (actor, Fresh Off the Boat), and Our Lady J (writer, Transparent). Here are a few of my favorite take-aways from the event:
John Ridley was asked what it’s like to work in a biased industry that promotes racial stereotypes, and if he feels that by working in Hollywood he is somehow supporting the negative aspects of the industry. His response? Bias is everywhere, but it’s his duty to tell these stories.
Since John Ridley wrote my favorite film of 2013 (12 Years a Slave), I definitely “fan-girled” a little bit in his presence, but luckily I was capable of internalizing those feelings. Listening to Ridley, it was impressive just how incredibly smart and well spoken he is. I really don’t think you can have such interesting and thought-provoking things to say and not be a magnificent and prolific writer. Long story short, he was blessed with some major skills and I was so happy to be in his presence, trying to soak in a little bit of his knowledge.
During the Diversity in Primetime panel Wendy Calhoun was entertaining and playful with the audience, but she always came back to the seriousness of her role as a writer. Her insight as a woman of color in a white, male dominated field was particularly interesting, and she wasn’t hesitant to share her advice on writing for TV, stating matter-of-factly that “political correctness is the enemy of good storytelling.”
Throughout the panel she also discussed the popularity of Empire and the power of television. She noted that because television is in our homes and is extremely intimate, it has the ability to change the conversation.
Although every guest featured at the panel had such interesting opinions and ideas to contribute to the conversation, one of my favorite panelists was Andrea Navedo. Navedo discussed how being Latina has affected her career, and the joy of finally playing a character that she believes in and feels represents a real Latina woman.
She also discussed the difficulties of being offered a role that perpetuates stereotypes and having to decide whether to take it and get paid, or decline and continue looking for work. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for working actors who need a job, but want to play characters who break the mold. Navedo was profoundly honest and sincere, even coming to tears at one point while discussing her current role as Xiomara Villanueva on Jane the Virgin.
From Veep to The Interview and Fresh Off the Boat, Randall Park‘s comedic performances are always impressive, and above all, entertaining. And as an actor, Park draws a clear line when he feels he is being pushed in a direction he isn’t comfortable with. When it came to the role of Louis Huang, the patriarch of the Huang family in Fresh Off the Boat, Park told the showrunner and writers that he wasn’t going to let Louis be a buffoon – anything but a buffoon. And it seems that he got his wish.
Park’s particular point on not letting Louis be the butt of every joke was interesting to me because prior to the panel, I had only watched the pilot episode of the series and did think his character was a little buffoonish and stereotypical. But after the panel, I decided to give the show another chance and have been enjoying it immensely now that I think the characters have settled into their individually outrageous and fun personalities. The Huang family, with all their quirks and mishaps, make Fresh Off the Boat a great family sitcom.
Despite the fact that I’m not fully caught up on the show, I’ve watched enough to know that I LOVE Black-ish. The cast is spectacular, the writing on-point, and Kenya Barris’ style of storytelling is splendidly unique and refreshing. If you don’t watch Black-ish, get a Hulu Plus account and check it out ASAP. IT’S SO GOOD. Anyways, although Gail Lerner had some great insight on working as a television writer, and the benefits of a diverse writing room, what I enjoyed most was her advice to aspiring writers. She said she’s constantly doubting herself and her ability, and the only way for her to get past the fear and trepidation is to keep writing. Even when she questions her skill, she continues writing, writing, writing, and eventually, something sticks. Not only is that sage advice for aspiring writers, but a spectacular way to look at any goal or aspiration. If you want to achieve anything in this crazy world, you must work your way through any doubt.
Our Lady J – a professional pianist, singer-songwriter, and now, writer – was a super-fan of Transparent before she was given the opportunity to write for season two. According to Our Lady J, the season one writing room seriously lacked trans writers, so Jill Soloway decided to make a change.
And what did Soloway do? She asked people in the trans community to send in a short story, and of those who submitted, six were chosen to be trained in the skill of writing for television.
As a fan of Transparent, I’m excited to see where the story will take the Pfefferman family in season two. According to Our Lady J, Mora’s flaws are going to be exposed a bit more this next season, and the ride will get even bumpier for the entire family. I can’t wait!