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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The Emmys were too white, so is UNC’s media production program

Michaela Coel attends the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards at L.A. LIVE on Sunday, September 19, 2021, in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Rich Fury/Getty Images/TNS.

The 2021 Primetime Emmys Awards were historic. 

Michaela Coel became the first Black woman to take home the Emmy for writing for a limited series for “I May Destroy You.” “Lovecraft Country” was the first drama series to earn nods for both a Black lead actor and a Black lead actress. 

But neither Jonathan Majors nor Jurnee Smollett, the two stars that helmed the HBO series, took home a trophy. 

In fact, out of five acting nominations for "Lovecraft Country" — including one for the late Michael K. Williams — only Courtney B. Vance won for outstanding guest actor in a drama series. This reflects a broader trend: white stories with white production staff continue to dominate the industry. 

In this year’s ceremony, only five of the acting trophies won went to Black actors — or any actors of color — and all were for guest roles or the short form category. Two of those awards were for hosting Saturday Night Live.

Programs housed here at UNC can play an important role in nurturing emerging artists of color, like the screenwriters and producers of the next generation. The support for student filmmakers of color on this campus is objectively lacking, and at the same time, it’s better than it’s ever been. Just like the industry itself, there is still much further to go.

Within UNC's media production program and the writing for the screen and stage program, every professor on the communication faculty is white. 

Professor Dana Coen, who serves as director of the writing for the screen and stage minor, said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel that, while the admissions process for the minor is blind, “we are keenly interested in attracting applications from students of color and have expanded our outreach efforts in recent years to include color-centric campus clubs and organizations.” 

He also noted the recent hiring of two adjunct professors of color under the writing for the screen and stage program: Professors Nizar Wattad and Skye Dent.

Professor Renée Alexander Craft, the interim chairperson of the department of communication where media production is housed, says that the department's process to work “thoughtfully and collectively (to address these issues) is helping us ensure that our values align with our methods and offerings." 

Professor Coen also provided a list of 13 films featuring characters of color that had recently been added to courses across the minor. While these films all add a new level of on-screen racial diversity, three of them were directed by white men and only one by a woman of color. Only one woman was credited with screenplay writing in any of the films named: Emily V. Gordon, a white woman who co-wrote “The Big Sick” based on her real-life romance with Kumail Nanjiani.

Unfortunately, these new films have barely made a dent in actual courses.

A fall 2021 syllabus for one section of COMM 131, Introduction to Writing for the Screen and Stage, includes two of the films Professor Coen referenced, but retains a lackluster breakdown of class screenings.

Among the 10 films the class will read or watch according to the syllabus, none were written or directed by women. Of the 23 male writers and directors represented in these films, all are white — except Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed “Moonlight.” This whiteness is reflected on-screen in the same films, with many of the characters played or voiced by white men.

This is unacceptable, both for students of color who deserve to work with stories that are like the ones they want to tell, and for white students who will require cultural competency to make the film and television industry more equitable.

While this syllabus breakdown is not reflective of every course, it points to a connection between what we see during the Emmys to what we see on campus. 

Universities cannot control which shows are produced in Hollywood today, but they play an important role in shaping the writers and producers of tomorrow. UNC must step up to support student artists of color on campus at the classroom level, the department level and the university level.

Syllabi need to be updated to include a broader range of films, perspectives, visual storytelling styles and themes. But beyond that, media production professors need to prepare students to enter an industry that is already talking about race. 

There are already a plethora of resources both at UNC and nationally to support professors in this effort. Professors can make the annual Diaspora Festival of Black and Independent Film an integral part of their lessons and encourage students to attend and engage in it. The festival, housed within the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, brings together filmmakers in conversation on industry trends and the Black cultural experience.

Some media production courses have also opted into the Student Learning to Advance Truth and Equity program. The program, an expansion of the College of Arts and Science’s “Reckoning” initiative, brings together a cohort of students from across 13 departments and schools to critically study race and the Black American experience. Professors build SLATE’s coursework into their syllabi, creating an accessible pathway to designing discussions around race into their lesson plans.

Additionally, Craft said the department of communication has begun an “anti-racist curriculum initiative” internally to create a space for professors to grapple with difficult questions about what an anti-racist curriculum can or could look like. Outside of the classroom, professors have advocated for establishing a writing contest for students that examines anti-racist themes. They want the contest to include a cash prize and a public reading of the winner's work, an award that would both bolster a winning writer’s career prospects as well as create a space to engage with race within the program.

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The biggest long-term need, however, is an investment in filmmakers of color to teach at UNC, and this responsibility cannot fall to the department of communication alone. The department must be supported with sustainable funding from the University to bring on new faculty in each of its programs. But this doesn’t mean that the department’s hands are tied in the meantime.

Even when the opportunity to hire new professors is limited, the department can invite established filmmakers of color to host workshops and film screenings at UNC. This isn’t a novel concept; professors have invited filmmakers like Miao Wang and Kalyanee Mam to hold dialogues and screen their work. But funding needs to be made available to bring these filmmakers to campus, even if over Zoom.

When we see issues of diversity in programs like the Emmys, the issue isn’t a lack of talent, but a lack of equity. The solution must be a change in how and where we invest. It is not enough to fund Arts Everywhere without investing in the long-term pedagogical growth of the programs that are expected to produce artists who aren’t just ready to join the television industry, but to shape it.

@hatcherade |