It’s February 2018 and I’m in front of Danai “damn” Gurira during a Black Panther press junket, and yes, I’ve been here before: the hot lights in the face, jaded publicists in a corner, actress getting dabbed in foundation, etc. etc. Nervously, I go for my notes and underline the word, “diversity.” For an actress and playwright of over 15 years, I damn well know that there’s a ton I could go for here, but my time is low, and I go for the easy question:
“How do you feel about the current state of diversity?”
It happens in a split second, but it’s hard to unsee; her grill of disappointment is clear. Common sense told me that this had to be the upteenth time Danai faced this tired ass question. But still, I went for it like a dog looking for an old bone—like it was an obligation.
This scenario comes back to me because just a few days ago, Green Book star Mahershala Ali spoke about a similar issue during Variety’s Actors on Actors.
“Forty percent of my interview is usually around things of diversity or colour,” he told BlacKkKlansman star John David Washington. “You get these questions about the work, or the process so far down the line, that you almost don’t get to exhaust it.” Director Ava Duvernay (A Wrinkle in Time) also echoed something to the same effect back in 2017 when she admitted that she’s seldom asked about her filmmaking over the issues of race, and the other examples are plenty.
As a writer, it’s a picture I haven’t owned up to; that “diversity” and topics of “race” have become the shallow objects of journalistic intrigue. Yeah, I said it. Whether it be the famous associations, emotional triggers (race), struggle quotes, and evergreen problems (still a problem), the topic brims with that clicky bullshit that publications die for. And in the thick of that hoopla, there’s been a disregard for the onus of responsibility befalling black “headline making” professionals. Instead, we’re turning successes like Danai Gurira and Mahershala Ali into the delegates of a problem that was never theirs to solve. And it’s becoming harmful in the most unnecessary way. Frankly, I’m tired of asking black folks about “diversity” and for the sake of progress, we all should be.
I mean you know how this started. The push for modern day “diversity” gained steam back in 2015, when activist April Reign tweeted the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag adopted by commentators and writers everywhere—the response to the all-white slate of acting nominees that year. During a process of keeping folks honest, journalists went after the black student body, never wasting a moment to ask Hollywood’s minority faces about thoughts and solutions. The questions initially—while good intentioned—were the confessional booths of frustration. Where year after year, grand epiphanies about an issue surrounding diversity turned into the pushy bullshit we’re currently working with that internet-having folks should already be versed in.
In the bubble, none of it is harmful. There’s no such thing as too much of a healthy conversation...at least when it comes to questioning the right people. But in that same interview above, Mahershala Ali goes on to tell young Washington about how we collectively spend too much time asking black Hollywood to zero in on race, and how “the transformation process of actors of color don’t get recognized. At least, not in a deeper way.” He also went as far as to admit that he took on a role in True Detective made for a white actor to prove this as much; that it was his skill that was normalizing the “diversity” answer, not the replies to tiresome questions. Like everyone else, he’s a black man in Hollywood that lives it and breaths it. He doesn’t also have to be a victim and a lip-service to it.
I’m no saint to this practice. In 2018, I interviewed 18 black professionals in Hollywood, and each and every one of those people received a question around diversity versus all the white/actors directors I talked to, none of whom received the same questions. Maybe I was more concerned with the pat-on-the-head comfort of white publicists and white actors. Maybe I had some Herculean desire to effect change without losing the press pass that would allow me to do so, but I do know that I could have done a better job at focusing on the talents that placed POC in the positions they landed in the first place.
Moving forward, I wanna do better. I’d rather hear/ask more questions that embody the same kind of respect for the craft I’ve given to white actors. And by that same token, recognize the responsibility in keeping a white industry honest. They need to be a part of the conversation. They need to be the solution as enablers to the problem. Without that same energy applied to white supremacy, it’s just the same bullshit for another day.
As Shaka King put it best, “white people are never involved in the conversation. They’re never asked about their whiteness. I would love for someone to say, ‘What’s it like being a white director?’ to Christopher Nolan.”
I plan to do just that.
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