Writing in a racially charged America

If you follow race issues, you may know the entertainment industry has a weensy little problem with diversity. You may also know the people in this photo (from left): Jelanimg_8925i Cobb of the New Yorker; Robin Thede, former head writer for “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore”; Jane Tillman Irving, CBS radio news; Jo Miller, showrunner/head writer for “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”; David Simon, THE David Simon; and moderator Jamal Joseph, filmmaker and director.

Last night they gathered at the invitation of my union, the Writers Guild of America East, to discuss writing in a racially charged America. You know how you go to a non-mandatory weeknight work event because you think you might learn something and also because you had something small to do with its conception (I’m part of the guild’s diversity effort) and also because you RSVP’d—but then it turns out to be amazing and you’re SO GLAD you went? Yeah. I’ll link to the video when it’s up, but meantime, here are some takeaways that might be of interest to writer friends, no matter your medium:

• David Simon says we should all of us be watching “Atlanta” on FX, and everybody on the panel agreed. So: gospel.

• It’s important to bring stories about slavery and mass incarceration to film and TV. But audience fatigue surrounding these weighty issues is real. Give us middle-class problems too. Give us funny. Give us mundane.

• What kind of responsibility does a writer have to effect change? Opinions differed, but in TV, said David Simon, “I’m not writing to change a law. I’m writing to tell a story.” His responsibility is to the people he’s depicting, and to telling their stories accurately and honestly.

• How do you write about race if you’re, say, white? In news, it’s simple, says Jane Tillman Irving; if it happens, you write it. In entertainment—not so simple. “Full Frontal” does plenty on race, but Jo Miller notes they’re aware of where a “white Canadian lady” like Samantha Bee can and can’t tread. David Simon says, “If you’re writing outside your own experience, then you better get it right.” (PSA: if your show deals with race, hire a diverse writing staff.)

• That said, writers who write about race get to write about other things. Even though he’s known as “the #BlackLivesMatter guy,” Jelani Cobb lived in and wrote his dissertation on Russia—so don’t be a fool and jump on him when he tweets about it. Because he will take you down.

• Police shootings aren’t just a race problem but a systemic one. If you look at the statistics, “there are a shit ton of white people who get shot by cops,” says Jelani Cobb. We need to tell that story in the media to make Americans understand it’s in all of our best interests to address this.

• Also: Robin Thede is super funny, and super smart, and owns super fabulous shoes, and she should get her own show. My two yen.

Thanks to Jenna Bond, Dana Weissman-Scali, Jason Gordon and everyone at WGA East who worked so hard on putting this together. We write on.#WGAEwritingrace WGAE


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