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NPR Arts & Life

How Hollywood Landscape Changed For Black Creatives Over Time

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Hollywood, many streaming platforms are taking a critical look at the content they offer, elevating stories created by and about black people. Writer and producer Regina Hicks has been responsible for a lot of that content. That includes the show "Sister Sister," starring a pair of twins who are black. She told me that while working on the sitcom in the late '90s, she saw the showrunners go from being all white to being more diverse, and that had a big impact on the show.

REGINA HICKS: It became more about our stories that only we could tell as opposed to something that was interchangeable like had it been twins who weren't black.

SHAPIRO: More recently, Hicks was an executive producer on Issa Rae's "Insecure" and "The L Word: Generation Q." So I asked Hicks what's changed the most in her industry since the beginning of her career.

HICKS: The streaming, mostly. I've seen - you know, there are way more places, BET included - but there's way more places for diverse programming than just the networks that we had in the past. So I think it's just more of an ability to see yourself reflected somewhere. When places to put the programming opened up, we try to be there, so...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. For me as a viewer, it feels like right now there are shows telling black stories in ways that I never used to see on TV, whether it's "Atlanta" on FX or "Insecure," which you worked on, on HBO. What had to take place behind the scenes to create space for that kind of storytelling and those kinds of shows?

HICKS: Basically, the person who can make the decisions to trust and allow the creative voices to create. You know, you've got Donald Glover, Issa Rae. I mean, they have distinct voices telling stories of their experience as opposed to just someone coming into a room, saying, oh, I have this story about a family, and, you know, let's just make them black. When you can tap into somebody's personal experience, that's how you're going to feel. It's going to feel authentic. It's going to feel real.

SHAPIRO: From your perspective, what are the biggest areas that still need to be improved, whether it's - I don't know - writers rooms or issues of harassment or racism or - like, where do you see the biggest room for growth?

HICKS: (Laughter) Yeah, let's talk racism. But yeah, writers rooms still have, you know, some work to do. I mean, it's this whole trope that we can't write white stories, but whites can write our stories. And I think...

SHAPIRO: Still even now people are saying that?

HICKS: If you take a poll of shows and writers rooms, that's what you're going to find. Obviously, the majority of black writers are going to be on black shows, but it's not true the other way around. So the showrunners need to, you know, take a look at their rooms and see where they can improve and where they can bring in diverse voices and to listen to those voices.

SHAPIRO: I've heard people across a range of industries express one of two viewpoints about this moment. Either it's, well, right now it's cool to express solidarity with black people, but when it's no longer cool, things will go back to the way they were; or people say, this is a tectonic shift, and things will not be the same. Which of those camps do you fall into, or are you someplace else?

HICKS: You know, I'm in the camp that things won't be the same, and I'll tell you why. It's like, this is the first time when you've had this sort of - it is sort of a revolution. People are starting to educate themselves and read and really take a moment and step back and kind of, you know, look at how they have, you know, walked in this world. So I fall in the camp of things are changing.

SHAPIRO: So right now you're executive producer on a show called "The Upshaws," which is coming to Netflix, starring Mike Epps, Kim Fields and the comedian Wanda Sykes. Are there things you hope to do on that show or themes that you hope to tackle that you think might have been harder to get done a decade or two ago?

HICKS: Yes. Like, I mean, we've already, you know - we've already kind of bumped heads, you know, a few times with Netflix. But they have allowed us to, you know, push forward. Before, it's like, we have a black family on television, so it had - you know, they have to be, you know, somewhat cool. And everybody's likable, and everything's good. And our characters...

SHAPIRO: And they have to represent all black characters everywhere.

HICKS: Yeah. It's like, there's so much to represent, and our characters are so flawed. And that - you know, I just love it.

SHAPIRO: And specific. I feel like black characters on TV today don't have to be as all-encompassing and universal as when I was a kid.

HICKS: Exactly. And so, you know, if they would tell you something, we'd say, no. This is one particular family in Indianapolis, and they're not going to be like a family in LA or not going to be like that, you know, family in Atlanta. It's - this is this family, and this - these are the stories we're telling that are, you know, real to this family. Working on "Insecure," it's like, that also is an experience. It's like, that - you know, the character's flawed, but these are absolutely, you know, stories that everyone can relate to. It's like, they're true to them and real to them, but universally, you still go through these things. You know, every - you know, people have money problems. People have family problems. People have skeletons in the closet. They're universal, but only the Upshaws will be able to tell this particular story.

SHAPIRO: Regina Hicks, thank you so much for talking with us today.

HICKS: Of course. Thank you again. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: She's the executive producer of "The Upshaws," coming soon to Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUM SONG, "BLESSED BRAMBLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.