Ava DuVernay and Other Showrunners of Color Sound Off on Creative Pressure, Pigeonholing

By Sameer Rao May 17, 2017

Creators of color have perhaps more outlets than ever before to tell the stories of their communities and empower others within the industry. But as "Queen Sugar" creator Ava DuVernay says in a new The Hollywood Reporter (THR) showrunner roundtable, the surge of attention can force those creators to work at a pace their White counterparts don’t experience.

"Embedded in that very question is the idea that privilege does not apply," she says in response to interviewer Lacey Rose’s query about the showrunners’ confidence in turning down projects. She continues:

For me to say no [to projects], in my mind, there may not be another chance. There’s a natural tension with anyone to keep the chance for the open door. When you add to that issues of representation and marginalization that go on top of the artist’s feeling of ‘Can I get my thing made?’ it becomes challenging for me to say no. I get an opportunity from Netflix. ‘Do you want to make a doc?’ ‘Yes, I want to make a doc.’ Apple: ‘Would you like to make a commercial?’ ‘Yes, I will make that commercial.’ I’m running around doing everything because I love it, but also because there is the fear that any artist has that there won’t be another question asked to say no to. And on top of that, the fear that the industry might shift in terms of its attention to women right now or the current renaissance regarding people of color, specifically Black folk on TV, and then you’re left with nothing.

DuVernay later describes how industry executives try to put her in topical boxes: "I get the first Black everything. First Black firefighter in Tacoma, Washington. First Black ballerina to dance in Kansas City. I mean, it’s getting so specific that it’s like every first Black doesn’t need a movie."

The roundtable, published online with video yesterday (May 16) and in the magazine’s May 15 print issue, also features other showrunners of color. Lisa Joy ("Westworld"), Gloria Calderón Kellett ("One Day at a Time") and Kenya Barris ("Black-ish") each discussed how race consciousness and racism figure into their careers:

  • Joy: "There is that pressure not only to be prolific but to not f*** up. And especially when you feel the added burden of being a woman who is doing this now. I represent opportunities for other women and other people of color, and I’m trying to start my own kind of movement."
  • Calderón Kellett: "We’re doing a Norman Lear show, and it’s about a Hispanic family living in Los Angeles; we have to talk about [Trump-era politics]. And I’m the only [Latina showrunner in] TV right now. No Latino shows got picked up. None. I don’t want to be the only Latino show on TV; I would love to just be known as a good family comedy. But I can’t not have that on me because there’s obviously such a misperception about who Latinos are in America, and constantly I feel a [responsibility]."
  • Barris: "I did ‘Girlfriends,’ and then all the offers would come up and I was like, ‘I just have to get off a Black show.’ I shouldn’t have to think that way, but I remember ‘The Game’ had literally broken every cable record on TV when it debuted, and I walked into a staffing meeting [at another network], and they were like, ‘What show is that?’ and I’m like, ‘F*** you!’ Then one of my best friends, a White guy, was like, ‘Yeah, but those are all Black people watching.’ And I was like, ‘F*** you, you like me and you’re saying this?’ (Laughs.)"

Read the roundtable transcript and see video excerpts at HollywoodReporter.com