Black writers call for accountability, revamped hiring in open letter to Hollywood

Anousha Sakoui
Writers Guild of America West's Committee of Black Writers' vice chair, Bianca Sams, left, and co-chairs Hilliard Guess and Michelle Amor.  (WGAW)

Black writers are calling for Hollywood to revamp its hiring and to show accountability for the lack of progress among creators of color in film and television.

The Writers Guild of America West, in the first move of its kind by the union, published an open letter Friday from its Committee of Black Writers (CBW). The "Letter to Hollywood" calls for a wholesale change in the way the film and TV industry hires writers and for studios to partner with schools to prepare Black creators for entry into the industry. It also demands accountability in the industry for pledges made in recent days — by studios, networks and production companies — to support the Black Lives Matter movement with resources and operational changes.

"Either you commit to a new, institutionalized system of accountability with and to Black writers, or you prove that you’re putting on just another strategic, virtue-signaling performance deemed necessary to survive the times," the writers said in the letter, signed by Michelle Amor and Hilliard Guess, co-chairs of the CBW, and Bianca Sams, its vice chair.

This is the first time the union has released a letter from one of its committees; the Writers Guild of America West Board of Directors said in a statement that "[we] felt strongly that we wanted to amplify [the CBW's] message."

Hollywood companies, led by Netflix and followed by others including Walt Disney's Hulu, CBS and Warner Bros., have shared messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd. But the writers said more needs to be done to address financial inequities and lack of access that prevent Black creators not only from stepping onto the ladder in Hollywood but progressing through the ranks.

"We Black writers who have 'made it' in Hollywood have still been denied jobs at all levels, passed over for opportunities we were qualified for, rejected from writers’ rooms because of a 'lack of experience,' unsupported when seeking to create content specifically for Black audiences, critically underpaid and mistreated compared to white counterparts, and historically ignored during awards season," the CBW wrote in the letter.

The letter describes the long legacy of Hollywood productions and systems that exclude Black writers and other creators of color, recalling how contemporary cinema was launched a century ago with the film "The Birth of a Nation." The D.W. Griffith movie, written by two white men, "validated violently racist stereotypes of Black people," the CBW wrote, as well as glorified the Ku Klux Klan and spread racist propaganda. The 1915 silent epic is widely acknowledged as having fueled the rebirth of the Klan in the early 1920s.

The committee cited the union's recent 2020 Inclusion Report, which found that “systemic discrimination against writers from underrepresented groups remains pervasive,” with white writers scoring 80% of all film jobs in 2019 while Black writers only got 5.6% of writing jobs, according to UCLA's 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report. "Some have tried to blame this on a shortage of Black writers, yet there are at least 808 self-identified Black writers in the Guild; we have been here, ready to work," the writers said. (WGAW membership overall is around 10,000.)

"When you need us (and you will need us), you now know where to find us," the letter concluded.

"Have your people call our people."