African American writers already faced challenges to succeed in the entertainment industry before the Writers Guild of America (WGA) began its strike on May 2.
Now more than 100 days old, the strike took action against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) regarding issues directly affecting the living wages and the potential future earnings of its members. Two of the major concerns are artificial intelligence and residuals.
Artificial intelligence programs like “chatbots” are coded to imitate and develop human dialogue. The chatbots work by deploying basic information inputted by users to scour the internet for content related to key phrases and then amalgamating the content. The bots can be used as a brainstorming tool, but as the technology advances, the WGA is concerned that it may be used to replace writers.
Residuals are a percentage of income received by writers from production companies, studios, and streamers. This passive income for writers is based on the frequency with which television shows are screened. The WGA is demanding an increase in residual income for its writers.
So, how do these issues directly impact Black writers? According to Dr. Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost and lead author of the “Hollywood Diversity Report,” Black writers “are probably at higher risk than any other group of losing their livelihoods.”
“Black people in the industry have always occupied a rather precarious position. The strike and the conditions that gave rise to it only exacerbate the situation for Black writers as Hollywood pushes diversity and inclusion concerns to the back burner while focusing, instead, on the issues surrounding streamers and industry restructuring,” explained Hunt.
Tash Gray, an African American drama and comedy writer, offered similar comments, noting that Blacks are historically underemployed in the industry and are often “the last hired and first fired.”
Fortunately, Gray has fared well during her Hollywood career. Her credits include serving as writer/producer on Amazon’s “Harlem, FX’s “Snowfall,” Hulu’s “Reasonable Doubt,” and Starz’s “P. Valley” and “Raising Kanan.”
Even with her success, Gray noted, “I’ve been a writer for 14 years and with the guild for 11. I have been marginalized, underpaid and undervalued. But [the strike] is not just about the entertainment industry, it’s about the workforce overall.
“As a society, we shouldn’t be this poor when there are so many people beyond ethically rich. The model is broken. You can’t have billions and we barely have food. That should be an unalienable human right – to be able to eat,” she insisted.
And Hilliard Guess agrees with Gray’s viewpoint, especially regarding the impact on Black writers who he described as already being at “the bottom of the totem pole.”
“Even some of the low-level writers that are working on a series are still living below the poverty line [and] also have part-time jobs when they’re not working,” said Guess, who is a producer and director of Development at Blue Monday Productions as well as co-chair of the WGA Committee of Black Writers and the Writers Education Committee.
“How is that a healthy situation for a writer knowing they are at the bottom and more than likely the first not to be sent to produce their episodes, the first not to get any extensions/contracts renewed, first to be cut for ‘budget reasons’ and not to be brought back the following season,” he questioned, adding that is it usually BIPOC writers and actors that are usually let go.
Acknowledging the “hard” effect of the strike, Guess declared, “I mean, try living over 100 days without any real money coming in and see if it impacts you! No use depending on residuals that can, at times, cover some of your bills. Our residuals are down to pennies on the dollar!”
As Erica Butler framed the issue, writing for television is a difficult career to break into – “even more so as a Black writer – and there is more on the line for us.” In Butler’s opinion, BIPOC writers want to protect the future of the profession.
“Black writers are also striking so that they may continue to improve the conditions of our industry for the Black writers to come,” said the seasoned scribe who has written episodes for NBC’s “Law & Order: Organized Crime” and OWN’s “Greenleaf” and “Delilah.”
While everyone is hoping for a swift resolution to the strike, many Black writers shared suggestions on ways the public could help the situation to reach that conclusion.
“Donating to industry funds helps. Checking in and encouraging Black talent that you know can also be helpful. Mentally, it’s a struggle to thrive in an industry that isn’t always welcoming to our stories,” said Barret Helms, a two-year WGA member who wrote for Netflix’s “Sweet Magnolias.”
“Making positive statements on social media about Black writers or their work that you like reminds us of why we fight so hard to have writing careers. We love to see our craft is appreciated, especially at a time like this!”
Other tangible actions people could take such include meeting Black writers on the picket lines or sponsoring a picket event, recommended actor and playwright Bianca Sams. A member of both WGA and SGA, she has worked on a range of shows including “Training Day,” “The Originals,” “How They Made Her,” “Titans” and “Charmed.”
“Our community needs so much support right now and in the future,” said Sams. “Our community has been historically excluded, marginalized, underpaid and stalled at the lowest rungs. Which is why many of the initiatives in this strike are VITAL to our survival!”