Op-Ed: Whoa, Nellie! 'Dear White People' Producer Calls Out 'Deadline' Casting Story

by Lena Waithe 8:12 PM PDT, March 25, 2015
Photo: FOX

The blacker the berry, the higher the ratings – at least that’s what network executives are hoping. If only it were that simple. Too bad it isn’t.

I’m sure Deadline TV editor Nellie Andreeva wasn’t expecting this much backlash when she sat down to write an article about the abundance of minorities popping up in so many network pilots this year. But whenever you talk about race, particularly in Hollywood, somebody’s feathers are bound to get ruffled.

I think most people were upset by the article because she seemed to be frustrated that minority actors now have some sort of unfair advantage in light of break out hits such as: How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish and the biggest juggernaut of them all, Empire. Maybe her article should’ve been called, "I Get That Empire’s a Hit, But Enough Is Enough!"

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I wonder who’s going to lead the charge for the new Twitter campaign #WhiteActorsMatter?

No matter how you slice it Hollywood is a business full of heat seekers, copycats and trend followers. When one network sees another network succeeding at one thing, all the other networks immediately start trying to develop their own generic version of it – plain and simple.

Remember when Glee was a huge hit? No? Well, it used to be. It was everywhere. We couldn’t get "Don’t Stop Believin'" out of our heads. Now the show has ended and no one seems to care. But while it was at its peak success, every network wanted a show with oddball kids who could sing and dance their way into America’s hearts and every network’s lame attempt to duplicate that unique blend of teen angst mixed with cheesy pop songs failed miserably.

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Remember when vampires were a thing? Everywhere you went there was a huge billboard of a pasty white guy giving you his best bedroom eyes. Any TV writer worth his or her salt had a pitch that included a protagonist that wanted to sleep with a vampire, was a vampire in a past life or was the illegitimate child of a vampire and a werewolf.

Now "people of color" are the "new" thing. I’m sure every literary agent in town is advising their clients to write a pilot with black people in it. Or they’re telling them to go dig up some of their old material and add a black adopted brother to the mix with hopes of making it more commercial.

In that scenario, black actors win because it creates more opportunities for them to come in and audition. On the other hand, it’s offensive because if the writer decides to add a black character with the sole purpose of selling the material then that actor is not only being used, but they’re being taken advantage of.

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Something about a white writer using a black actor to sell his show just doesn’t feel right. But if that black actor gets some much needed exposure and a check big enough to send his kids to the best schools in the country, then shouldn’t I be jumping for joy? Yeah, I don’t know either.

At the end of the day pilot season is a numbers game. And most of the pilots Nellie is so freaked out about will be nothing more than a distant memory in a few months. Most of them won’t even go to series. Networks buy a ton of scripts every year. Only a few of them get the chance to shoot a pilot. Out of those select few only a handful go to series. And the one or two that do go to series rarely make it to a second season because audiences are so fickle. The point is networks can make all of these "we are the world" casting announcements until the cows come home, but until one of these shows actually makes it to air, finds a loyal audience and becomes a trending topic – nobody really cares.

Being that I work in the industry, I want to let you in on a little secret. Everybody thought Empire was going to be a huge flop. It had a lot of buzz going in because of the big names involved, but most industry folks thought it would just come and go. Now that it’s a big hit, everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon. And now BET, a cable network that once had the monopoly on minority programming, has to compete with… well everybody else.

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The reason I wanted to single Empire out is because the majority of the cast is black. Shonda Rhimes' shows have casts that include everyone. Some people refer to it as rainbow casting, others call it diverse casting. Rhimes just calls it normal casting and I would agree with her definition.

I recently referred to Empire as "the blackest show on television" – and I meant it as a compliment. Not only is the show unapologetically black, but it also happens to be one of the most successful shows in network history and released a soundtrack that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. I’m sure Madonna is somewhere still clutching her pearls.

Of course the show has its critics. What hit TV show doesn’t? Some folks feel like it shows black people in a negative light, while others don’t like the fact that there are more people of color in front of the camera than there are behind it. Even Empire star Malik Yoba went out of his way to make sure everyone knew the pilot was co-written by a white guy, Danny Strong, and has a white female showrunner who happens to be a lesbian, Ilene Chaiken.

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But be that as it may, it’s still a black show that’s destroying everything in its path and for that I think it should be applauded.

With that being said, I knew the Empire effect was coming – I just didn’t know how it would present itself. And alas it showed up in the form of a very misguided Deadline article and a bunch of network pilots popping up with black and Latino actors cast in the lead roles.

The truth is black people shouldn’t be celebrating and white people shouldn’t be running scared, because next pilot season something else will be the new black – and chances are it won’t be us. So black and Latino actors should enjoy this moment while it lasts because eventually Empire will be what Modern Family has become and something else will take its place. I just wish there could be an Asian Empire, a Native American Empire, a Middle Eastern Empire – you know, so every minority group could have a pilot season where they aren’t only going out for the "gay best friend," "eccentric neighbor" or "angry customer."

I have a dream too, that one day actors won’t be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their characters. I know we’ve made a lot of progress, but after reading Nellie’s article I was reminded that we still have a long way to go.

You can follow Lena Waithe at @hillmangrad on Twitter.