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How Diversity Writing Programs Can Help Sci-Fi Live Up to Its Ideals

A conversation with TV and comics writer Brandon Easton of 'Agent Carter' and 'Vampire Hunter D.'

by Joshua Sky
Jan 16 2017, 11:00am

Image: Brandon Easton

Hollywood has been struggling lately with the reality that many projects in film and TV remain predominantly white and male, both in front of the camera and behind it. Yet the industry is clearly attempting to make inroads, offering diversity writing programs for novice writers that are amongst the most sought-after and competitive routes to breaking into the business. While open to candidates of all backgrounds, the programs are widely known within the industry to be seeking diverse applicants to promote inclusion in writer's rooms.

I recently had the opportunity to interview an African-American writer who has gone through this door: Brandon Easton, a 2015 fellow of the Disney-ABC Television Writing Program, and a staff writer on the second season of Marvel's Agent Carter. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed graphic novel, Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven and is currently writing the comic adaptations of M.A.S.K. for IDW as well as Vampire Hunter D for Stranger Comics and Unified Pictures. Brandon also wrote Transformers: Deviations for IDW Publishing, and wrote, produced and directed the documentary, Brave New Souls: Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers of the 21st Century.

We discussed some of the misperceptions of diversity programs from those who criticize them as unfair, and the larger issues of diversity in Hollywood. Here's a condensed and edited version of our phone conversation.

Motherboard: I've heard complaints, particularly from new writers who are feeling shut out and blame the diversity programs. They claim that they can't get in because they aren't diverse enough. What's your take on that?

Brandon Easton : This is something that infuriates me to no end—there is so much ignorance. And I mean in the textbook definition of ignorance, in that people don't understand how these programs and fellowships operate. First of all, the Disney ABC Writing Program accepts anybody regardless of race, class, or gender. They aren't so much concerned about diversity; they're more concerned about what kind of life you've lived and what kind of story you have to tell. Everybody who got in is an exceptional individual and the exceptional part of their nature has nothing to do with them being a person of color, or a woman, or whatever. For example: One of the guys in the 2015 program who is white, happens to be a medical doctor who traveled the world going to war torn regions that needed help and then he decided to become a TV writer and write about those issues. That's why he got in.

My story is that I'm a graphic novel guy, who also was a school teacher in NYC, who also had been an Eisner award-nominee. My story isn't about me being black, it's about somebody who took a chance on their life and has created a career for himself in a very difficult place and also has very good samples. I can go down the list of everyone who's won. And when you look at their accomplishments they are just like me. But they could not get into the industry the old fashioned way because of racism, or sexism or other biases. So the reason these programs exist at all is because this industry has been so hard to crack, particularly if you're not a white man, therefore you have to go through a program that's harder than any other thing in order to prove that you belong. And yet people still complain about it.

Motherboard: Some people don't even want to see this reality. They say, "these people are complaining because they aren't good enough writers and need a program. They don't have what it takes."

Brandon Easton: Which is a lie, and you're right about that. Anyone who says that, I could challenge them to put their spec scripts up against these people who they say aren't good enough. The people in my program, I've seen their work, and this is a lot better than the spec scripts I read by a lot of assistants. That's what pisses me off. If the people they were saying suck, actually did suck, they would have a point. But the people who they say suck, don't suck! What're they talking about?

Motherboard: What do you think is really the problem that people aren't talking about?

Brandon Easton: A lot of the reason why white writers who are entry level aren't getting work has nothing to do with diversity programs. It's because showrunners are hiring their buddies who are also EP's [executive producers] and co-producer level who have these immense salaries that eat up the budget, so that they can't hire anybody underneath a story editor level. This is what's going on. Everyone knows this, yet still you have all these disgruntled writers scapegoating diversity programs instead of talking about the real issue at hand, which is nepotism. If you look at how many people graduate from these programs every year that number is so fucking low, it doesn't even register as a percentage.

Motherboard: Science fiction has a long history of being open-minded about multiculturalism. Some argue that it's the most open-minded of the genres. Do you think that's true?

Brandon Easton: Science fiction as a literary genre, in theory, has open-minded concepts. And the fact is that historically, black writers have not been allowed in because for a while the editors, the people who controlled it, the publishing industry itself, even if someone had a great story - once racial politics were revealed, those people didn't get to work. Now, if you're talking about TV and film, there has been some really cool stuff that has progressive undercurrents thematically, but, when it comes to hiring practices we still revert back to straight white men as writers and creators of science fiction. Again, I do believe science fiction in its content itself can be extremely progressive and extremely life affirming, but we're talking about the content versus the content creators. And I think that's the issue.

Motherboard: I still think science fiction is special versus the other genres. Not only historically in terms of casting, but because when I read the genre, I don't care what the race of the writer is. I just want to be blown away. Show me a new way of thinking.

Brandon Easton: I don't think anyone would disagree with that. What I'm saying is that it helps when people get the opportunity. That's where the problem is. If you want to be really serious about it, the only genre that's really helped black people more than anything else has been comedy. Historically, I'm going back to the early 1900s, comedy was the only place where black writers could get a chance to write. Several generations of mainstream black stars came out of comedy: Will Smith, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Jamie Fox, Bill Cosby, Chris Tucker, Eddie Murphy, Steve Harvey, Tyler Perry, Wanda Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg and so many others. Comedy is where African Americans have had a shot, as opposed to science fiction, particularly television, has almost been completely closed to black writers.

Motherboard: How do we fix this problem?

Brandon Easton: Very easy! There is a large population of black science fiction and fantasy writers currently under contract at major publishing houses that nobody seems to be aware of. The first thing is to let people know who is creating this stuff. Publishing companies need to educate the public and market their material better, but fans have to reach out and start looking for these people. Because there's only so much an individual author can do to increase their market awareness. And I'm not criticizing white people; I'm actually criticizing people of color. Particularly African Americans who want black writers and material, but they don't always support the black writers on the market place. And that's an issue we have to face.

Motherboard: Do you think it will ever equalize?

Brandon Easton: I believe in solutions. We already have solutions on the way in. For example: This season alone we have a show called Insecure on HBO. Black showrunner, black created. And you also had a show on FX called Atlanta, also the same. Here's the deal with that, if those people get bigger show deals, they'll hire their friends who are also diverse. So those people, who also get hired, will hopefully get a deal too, and so on. So the solution is people of color hiring people who are best for the job and also realizing that diverse voices do count and do matter. That's going to take some time.

Motherboard: A lot of people call for diversity casting on the screen, but never say why. It's because without it, we can't see other races as main characters in their own story. We can't process other people being main characters and identify with them. When it's just - white, white, white, we just see white men as the main character of all stories, and minorities as trivial background work. What do you think is really being strived for at the end of the day?

Brandon Easton: I quote my friend Geoffrey Thorne who is a producer at Marvel Animation. One of the things that he's always said is: "No one is asking anybody to do anything for them, no one is asking anybody to make any concessions. All we're asking for is a fair shot, a level playing field. That's it."

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