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‘We can do better’: How Hollywood’s diversity awakening hit a speed bump in 2021

Michaela Coel, in a yellow outfit and heels, arrives on the red carpet
Michaela Coel arrives on the red carpet at L.A. Live before the 73rd Emmy Awards on Sept. 19.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The audience for the 73rd Emmy Awards erupted in cheers when Michaela Coel, the creator, star and key force behind the bold HBO dramedy “I May Destroy You,” was announced as the winner for writing for a limited or anthology series or movie.

The jubilant response at the September ceremony signaled a deep appreciation for Coel’s semi-autobiographical story of a young influencer wrestling with the trauma of sexual assault, not to mention the series’ distinctive backdrop, the African and West Indian immigrant communities of modern London.

But Coel’s eloquent acceptance speech also alluded to the challenges that come with telling, as she urged, “the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable.”

After all, despite a record-setting number of nominees of color, for such acclaimed programs as “I May Destroy You,” Barry Jenkins’ literary adaptation “The Underground Railroad,” and the topical horror anthology “Lovecraft Country,” conventional fare with mostly white casts — “Ted Lasso,” “Mare of Easttown,” “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Crown” — dominated the night’s top prizes.

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A little more than a year after the murder of George Floyd ignited worldwide protests for racial justice, Coel’s moment in the Emmy spotlight underscored the halting progress and continued struggles of Hollywood and the entertainment industry in their efforts to embrace diversity and the value of inclusion after the reckonings of 2020.

“Diversity” may have become an even more popular buzzword in show business circles since the summer of 2020, but the goal of attaining full and meaningful multicultural representation remains elusive.

If 2020 was the year of awakening, then 2021 was the year of accountability, as observers and consumers looked to cultural institutions, corporations and individuals to make good on their promises.

From the Capitol riot to vaccines and climate change, a look at what dominated the news and conversation in 2021 as the world began to move past the pandemic.

Major awards shows illustrated the industry’s still-spotty record.

After a Los Angeles Times investigation published in February found that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the organization behind the Golden Globes, had no Black members, powerful entertainment publicists announced a boycott of the group and NBC canceled its telecast of the 2022 ceremony — leading the HFPA to induct its largest class of new members and accept other reforms in an attempt to diversify its ranks.

The first Tony Awards since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic came under fire for leaving the most-nominated production — Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” set at a retreat on a former Virginia plantation and featuring provocative treatment of interracial relationships — empty-handed. Latino playwright Matthew López, whose “The Inheritance” won for best play, called for more diverse stories on Broadway, as did honoree the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.

Kenny Leon and cast members on stage
Director Kenny Leon with cast members after the opening night performance of “A Soldier’s Play” at American Airlines Theatre in New York City on Jan. 21.
(Walter McBride / Getty Images)

“We can do better,” said Kenny Leon, who won for best revival of a play (“A Soldier’s Play”), repeating three times the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker killed by Louisville, Ky., police in early 2020.

Having doubled the number of women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) in the group since the #OscarsSoWhite firestorm of 2015, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded best supporting actor and actress Oscars to Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”); Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color to win best director, for best picture winner “Nomadland.” Still, the ceremony was clouded by disappointment when the late Chadwick Boseman lost out to an absent Anthony Hopkins in the best actor category — the last of the night — for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

And after being criticized by Drake, Frank Ocean and others over what they complain is the mishandling of hip-hop and R&B at the Grammy Awards, the Recording Academy is introducing a number of initiatives designed to increase the racial and gender diversity of a membership widely believed to be mostly older white males.

As evidenced by the nominations, if not always the winners, it’s undeniable that the spectrum of pop cultural offerings showed promising forward momentum when it came to diversity in 2021 — and more hopeful indicators are on the horizon.

A painful chapter of Black history that had been ignored by broadcasters and history curricula alike until HBO’s Emmy-winning “Watchmen” highlighted it in 2019, the centenary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre received intense exposure. Documentaries on CNN, History, National Geographic and other networks explored the story of the destruction of “Black Wall Street,” in which a prosperous and independent Black community called Greenwood was savaged by angry white people who killed hundreds of Black residents and set fire to numerous homes and businesses.

NBC’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Tokyo Olympics, which turned athletes into household names beyond the realm of sports, highlighted the triumph and significance of Hmong American gold medalist Sunisa Lee in the women’s gymnastics all-around competition. But it also captured the intense pressure, often fueled by racism, facing tennis champion Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles, whose openness about the mental and physical toll of being young women of color at the top of their respective sports made them objects of both adoration and conservative attacks.

Native Americans, who have been historically shortchanged and misrepresented in Hollywood, had a landmark year for representation, led by two TV comedies: Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls” — whose co-creator and co-lead are both Native American — and FX on Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs” — made by all Native writers and directors, and with an all-Native main cast.

Asian Americans also scored a central place in the pop culture landscape, courtesy of the smash hit “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and the superhero epic “Eternals,” directed by Zhao. The excitement surrounding those two projects — both Marvel productions — was welcome news, particularly in the wake of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Progress can also bring unforeseen controversies, though, as audiences eager to see themselves in pop culture bring new scrutiny to film, television, pop music, media, literature and more.

That became clear when “In the Heights,” the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, was released in early summer. One of the first major studio releases to appear in cinemas — back when it seemed that the pandemic was finally on the decline — prognosticators wondered if the phenomenon of Miranda’s “Hamilton” might help the film’s theatrical box office, and early reviews gave the film a thumbs-up, with critics insisting that the dazzling production numbers needed to be seen on a big screen rather than being streamed at home.

But blockbuster audiences never showed up, and soon after it appeared in theaters, the film faced backlash from those who said the large Latino cast didn’t feature dark-skinned Afro-Latinx performers. Instead of the film being a celebration of Latino representation, Miranda wound up apologizing for not being more inclusive — setting the table for even closer examination of Steven Spielberg’s modernized update of “West Side Story.”

Of course, the most vociferous backlash to diversity efforts came from opponents of multiculturalism, including the vocal and increasingly dangerous white nationalist forces whose violence culminated with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Former President Trump and conservative politicians, as well as Fox News commentators, consistently trashed critical race theory, an academic legal framework that views American history through a prism of systemic racism.

Many of the same figures also attacked “The 1619 Project,” New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning project exploring chattel slavery’s foundational influence on what would become the United States. The controversy shows no signs of abeyance, with “The 1619 Project” published as a book in November and currently in the works as a Hulu docuseries.

For supporters of the multicultural project, then, the challenge in 2021 was both beating back the forces of white supremacy and advancing the conversation about diversity and inclusion beyond checking a box by adding more nonwhite faces to the mix. In order to succeed, we learned in 2021, inclusion has to be organic and meaningful, and the support and endorsement of those efforts have to be front and center. Otherwise, the efforts can come off as empty and shallow.

Matt James, left, with a woman in a red dress
Matt James was the first Black lead to star in ABC’s “The Bachelor.”
(Craig Sjodin / ABC )

That scenario was vividly illustrated during the most recent season of ABC’s popular, long-running dating show “The Bachelor” when Matt James was named as the franchise’s first Black lead. The producers for years had resisted casting a Black “Bachelor,” including amid a contentious legal battle. But James was quickly swept into the role in the wake of the explosion of support in the summer of 2020 for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Soon, though, James’ milestone season unraveled: In a television interview, veteran host Chris Harrison strongly defended a contestant who was accused of insensitive racial behavior in her past, causing a backlash that ultimately led Harrison to depart the franchise altogether. Yet neither ABC nor its parent company, Disney, officially acknowledged the reasons for Harrison’s exit or the problems with “The Bachelor.”

The most recent season of “The Bachelorette” featuring Black lead Michelle Young made history when the four finalists were all Black. The upcoming landmark season of “The Bachelor” will feature a new host — Jesse Palmer — and a new lead — Clayton Echard.

Both are white.

Despite numerous pledges and programs by entertainment companies designed to improve multiculturalism, many advocates contend that the playing field is still far from being level, and that lasting change is not happening fast enough.

As Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, told The Times in an analysis of the progress Hollywood has made on its 2020 diversity pledges, the system won’t be reformed until there is increased representation for people of color in the executive branches of entertainment companies, “where the real power lies.”

With the entertainment industry already gearing up for the holiday season, it might be 2022 before the efforts toward achieving meaningful diversity and inclusion are boosted with fresh energy and focus.

Coel has helped pave the way forward. Whether others will follow her remains an open question.


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