The 2021 Primetime Emmys Awards were historic.
Michaela Coel became the first black woman to win the Emmy for writing a limited series for “I May Destroy You”. “Lovecraft Country” was the first drama series to win nods for both a black lead actor and a black lead actress.
But neither Jonathan Majors nor Jurnee Smollett, the two stars who directed the HBO series, have won a trophy.
In fact, of five acting nominations for “Lovecraft Country” – including one for the late Michael K. Williams – only Courtney B. Vance won the award for Best Guest Actor in a Drama Series. This reflects a larger trend: White stories with white production staff continue to dominate the industry.
At this year’s ceremony, only five of the acting trophies won went to black actors – or any actor of color – and all were for guest roles or the short form category. Two of those awards were for hosting Saturday Night Live.
The programs hosted here at UNC can play an important role in training emerging artists of color, such as next generation screenwriters and producers. Support for student filmmakers of color on this campus is objectively lacking, and at the same time, it’s better than ever. Much like the industry itself, there is still a long way to go.
Within the UNC media production program and writing for the screen and stage program, every professor in the Faculty of Communication is white.
Professor Dana Coen, who directs the minor’s writing on screen and on stage, told the Daily Tar Heel in an email that although the admission process for the minor is blind, “we are keenly interested in attracting applications from students of color and have expanded our outreach efforts in recent years to include color-focused campus clubs and organizations. ”
He also noted the recent hiring of two assistant professors of color under the screen and stage program writing: Professors Nizar Wattad and Skye Dent.
Professor Renée Alexander Craft, Acting Chair of the Communications Department where media production is located, says the department’s process of working “thoughtfully and collectively (to address these issues) helps us ensure that our values are held true. align with our methods and our offers. ”
Professor Coen also provided a list of 13 films featuring characters of color that had recently been added to the minor’s classes. While these films all add a new level of racial diversity to the screen, three of them were directed by white men and only one by a woman of color. Only one woman has been credited for writing the screenplay in one of the named films: Emily V. Gordon, a white woman who co-wrote “The Big Sick” based on her actual romance with Kumail Nanjiani.
Sadly, these new films barely made a dent in actual lessons.
A fall 2021 program for a section of COMM 131, Introduction to Writing for Screen and Stage, includes two of the films referenced by Professor Coen, but maintains a lackluster distribution of classroom screenings.
Of the 10 films that the class will read or watch depending on the schedule, none were written or directed by women. Of the 23 male screenwriters and directors portrayed in these films, all are white except Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed “Moonlight.” This whiteness is reflected on screen in the same films, with many characters played or voiced by white men.
This is unacceptable, both for students of color who deserve to work with stories that sound like the ones they want to tell, and for white students who will need cultural skills to make the film industry and fairer television.
While this program breakdown doesn’t reflect all classes, it does indicate a connection between what we see during the Emmys and what we see on campus.
Universities can’t control what shows are produced in Hollywood today, but they play an important role in training the writers and producers of tomorrow. The UNC must step up its support to support student artists of color on campus at the classroom, departmental and university levels.
Programs need to be updated to include a wider range of films, perspectives, styles and visual storytelling themes. But beyond that, media production professors need to prepare students to enter an industry that is already about race.
There is already a plethora of resources at UNC and at the national level to support faculty in this effort. Professors can make the annual Diaspora Black and Independent Film Festival an integral part of their classes and encourage students to attend and engage in it. The festival, hosted at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, brings together filmmakers to discuss industry trends and the black cultural experience.
Some media production courses have also opted for the Student Learning to Advance Truth and Equity program. The program, an extension of the College of Arts and Sciences “Reckoning” initiative, brings together a cohort of students from 13 departments and schools to critically study the race and experience of black Americans. Teachers integrate SLATE courses into their curricula, creating an accessible channel to build discussions about race into their lesson plans.
Additionally, Craft said the communications department has internally launched an “anti-racism program initiative” to create a space for faculty to grapple with tough questions about what an anti-racism program can or might look like. Outside the classroom, professors advocated the creation of a student writing competition that examines anti-racist themes. They want the competition to include a cash prize and a public reading of the winner’s work, a prize that both strengthens the career prospects of a winning writer and creates space to engage with race within the program. .
The greatest long-term need, however, is an investment in filmmakers of color to teach at UNC, and this responsibility cannot lie with the communications department alone. The department must be supported by sustainable funding from the University to recruit new professors in each of its programs. But that doesn’t mean the ministry’s hands are tied in the meantime.
Even when the opportunity to hire new faculty is limited, the department may invite established filmmakers of color to lead workshops and film screenings at UNC. It is not a new concept; professors invited filmmakers like Miao Wang and Kalyanee Mam to dialogue and screen their work. But funding needs to be made available to bring these filmmakers to campus, even if on Zoom.
When we see diversity issues in programs like the Emmys, the problem isn’t a lack of talent, but a lack of fairness. The solution must be a change in how and where we invest. It is not enough to fund Arts Everywhere without investing in the long-term educational growth of programs that are supposed to produce artists who are not only ready to join the television industry, but to shape it.
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