As a writer, Aaron Covington knows a thing or two about fights. And the co-writer of the boxing hit "Creed" thinks the current battle over Oscars diversity is a fight worth having.
Within the entertainment industry, "I think there's a lot of unfair treatment," Covington said at a panel Wednesday night sponsored by the Committee of Black Writers at the Writers Guild of America, West. "We're knocking down doors every day, with every movie."
This was the second annual Committee of Black Writers panel, although this one arrived at a particularly charged moment. The lack of any persons of color among the major Academy Award performing nominations this year has brought back a familiar hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, and sparked an international debate about race relations and the entertainment industry.
#OscarsSoWhite: Full coverage of the boycott and Hollywood's reaction
Among the key questions is whether the decision-makers behind the camera — typically white and affluent — are blind to the considerations necessary to make entertainment more representative of the American population. Academy leaders, stung by the criticisms, have pledged to ramp up younger and non-white membership, a move that has itself attracted outrage in some quarters.
Some celebrities, including director Spike Lee, have announced they will not attend the Feb. 28 ceremony to protest a lack of people of color as nominees in major performing categories.
Referring to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Covington said: "The boycott, it's doing a lot of good, just being around and being so talked about every day.
"We're going up against things that are real barriers for us," the USC film grad said.
Covington was one of five WGAW panelists, all of whom have been nominated in writing categories for Friday's NAACP Image Awards in Pasadena.
LaToya Morgan was nominated for AMC's "Turn: Washington Spies," while Jameal "Jamie" Turner earned a nod for BET's "Being Mary Jane."
Much of the talk centered on career issues familiar to any struggling writer — namely, how to find work in a town that often seems indifferent to unproven talent of any color.
Morgan recounted an early break that led to joining the writing staff of Showtime's acerbic comedy "Shameless." She first had to meet executive producer John Wells and "the entire writing staff," which she conceded was a nerve-racking experience. Preparation, she emphasized, was key, a point underscored by all of the panelists.
Turner said that in cases where a minority writer joins an all- or mostly white staff, he or she can almost always bring much-needed outside perspective. He worked his way up as a script coordinator, eventually breaking in by co-writing one of the last episodes of FX's "The Shield."
Sometimes when spitballing ideas with white writers trying to approach young, nonwhite characters, he can feel a need to add some script notes of his own: "Look," he recalled saying, "no one's [talking like] that right now."
The other two panelists were not people of color but worked on projects centered on black characters. Andrea Berloff was nominated for her work on the rap biopic "Straight Outta Compton"; playwright Shem Bitterman wrote Lifetime's biopic "Whitney." The panel was moderated by former "Everybody Hates Chris" executive producer Ali LeRoi.
One of the issues the panelists examined was the concept of diversity.
"I feel diverse myself, being Jewish," Bitterman said. When LeRoi smiled and looked down, Bitterman persisted: "I'm serious."
Later, when LeRoi said that one might think "an older white Jewish guy" would find it easy to get work, Bitterman countered: "You said it right there .... 'old' is an issue."
"My own strategy," he continued, "is to just keep working every day."
LeRoi raised the issue of Berloff's race in connection with "Straight Outta Compton," saying that it might look to an outsider as if the producers decided to hire "a white girl" to write a movie about an urban black experience.
"I know why I was hired to write this movie," Berloff said, recounting the 3½ years she spent working on the project. "I'm known for doing a ton of research, and there was a ton that needed to be done on this."
She said she proposed writing a story about police abuse and race relations, while other writers considered for the job proposed a more straightforward biopic of the group N.W.A. Berloff said her views clinched the job for her.
LeRoi then pursued the notion of whether hiring white writers is necessary to sell an idea to a white audience. White men are doing the hiring, he said.
"[The black rapper and film star] Ice Cube hired me," Berloff said, to laughter and applause from the audience.
Yes, but a white man runs the company, LeRoi said in a stage whisper.
"No one runs Ice Cube," Berloff shot back.