Canada’s Black Screen Office Head Talks Tackling Industry Racism: “Black Creators Aren’t Seen by Decision-Makers”

·10 min read

An industry reckoning has the Canadian entertainment sector striving for racial parity to ensure early gains in diversity and inclusion are meaningful and sustainable.

And Joan Jenkinson, the inaugural executive director of the Black Screen Office, is working to chip away at historical systemic racism to get more authentic, diverse stories told worldwide by Black Canadian creators.

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“There have been many very public statements and commitments for the last several years. I think we’re at a point now where we need to look more closely at measurable changes — to what extent have these commitments been fulfilled? What impacts have these changes had and for whom?” Jenkinson asked in a sit-down with The Hollywood Reporter.

The BSO has done a raft of studies — from Being Seen: Directives for Creating Authentic and Inclusive Content to Being Counted: Canadian Race-Based Audience Survey and the upcoming Being Heard: Black Canadians Working Within the Canadian Screen Industries, to be released in September — to track how well Black creators are represented in the ranks of Canadian actors, producers, writers and directors.

During a wide-ranging interview, Jenkinson touched on how to get more Black Canadian creators into the industry’s inner circles, the importance of equity over diversity, and how to remove roadblocks to visibility and success for underrepresented filmmakers.

BSO was formed to encourage the emergence, visibility and celebration of Black creators and content. Is that translating into access, money and support to develop and produce Canadian Black content?

It is for some. A unique aspect of BSO’s offerings is its hybrid nature: We are community-based and at the same time working within the industry to create systemic interventions to move Black creators into positions of access. We are placing accountability on industry gatekeepers to make enduring changes. For example, the BSO designed a pre-development program, funded by [broadcaster] BellMedia to create an anthology series — Festivale — with Black Francophone and Anglophone writers and experienced showrunners.

The deliverable was pitch-ready outlines and a series overview and a development order from BellMedia. The initiative gave new writers direct access to BellMedia executives, [BellMedia’s] first-ever Canadian Black-led show and the first ever bilingual initiative between [BellMedia’s streaming service] Crave English and French. They were accountable for the funding program, have access to development executives and are invested in seeing the show move forward.

Black Canadian creators say getting the same opportunities as white people in the industry requires becoming known to decision-makers and gatekeepers to access development and production funding. Is that happening?

For some it is. Many of the pathways that claim to facilitate participants becoming known to gatekeepers — like participating in industry-led development programs — fail to deliver on the promise of connections and credibility. For Black creators, becoming known takes more than simply being put in contact. It’s about being ‘seen’ and recognized as creative talent, which requires a change in mindset from current decision-makers.

Our research highlights the ways Black content is not understood by non-Black decision-makers who are using their own experiences and preferences to evaluate a project’s relevance to audiences. Lack of cultural understanding among those decision-makers means Black content is being evaluated using criteria that do not include them — criteria based on audience research that doesn’t represent Black, indigenous and people of color audiences. This is a way bias is embedded into the system and Black creators aren’t seen by decision-makers and gatekeepers.

What’s been done to remove those roadblocks?

There is some indication this is changing, due in large part to organizations like the BSO and BIPOC TV & Film. Programs led by Black industry leaders [and] instructors create spaces in which Black creativity and artistic voices are understood and nurtured. These are more productive spaces for Black creators who, in other programs, are pressured to change their work for white instructors, adjudicators and audiences. In other words, for Black talent to be recognized in [some] programs, they need to adopt white ways of storytelling and let go of creating authentic and representative content. This isn’t truly being seen as creators.

The industry is rolling out databases and directories for Black Canadian talent. Are Black Canadian creators going beyond raising their profile to reaching that inner circle of development and production?

The databases and directories seem to be most helpful to non-Black organizations who have difficulty “finding” Black talent. Participants in our research shared that being part of these databases has led to work for some. When we talk about getting into the inner circle, however, we’re talking about equity — not just diversity.

Databases help increase numbers, which can increase diversity — who is present in a space. Equity focuses on quality: what are they doing in those spaces? That requires systemic change from gatekeepers and employers. Databases alone cannot change the processes and organizational behaviors of gatekeepers that mediate access to that inner circle — not to mention equity within that inner circle.

The Canadian industry has committed to more investment and promotion of Black Canadian talent, in front and behind the camera. Is that investment flowing?

There has been a tangible increase in the number of Black creators accessing specialized funds and programs that move projects forward and build critical relationships. And industry organizations are keen to follow through on hiring commitments to increase the diversity of their workforce.

You’re confident the funding tap will keep running?

The sustainability of these changes remains to be seen, especially given the broader industry processes, forces that remain largely unchanged. Our research revealed trends in the way Black projects are marketed and managed by broadcasters — an example: On alternative platforms with less viewership, versus mainstream broadcasters evaluating projects against the preferences of mostly white audiences, reduced marketing and lacking knowledge on how to market Black projects leads to sub-par performance.

And they lack audience data that makes Black-led productions seem “higher risk” — because the data is not collected, making it difficult to predict success.

So the challenge Black creators face is bigger than collecting data and getting seen?

This is why it’s so important we are addressing changes at the individual and industry levels at the same time. We need more Black creators in front of and behind the camera, and audiences need to view those productions, and audience research needs to be redesigned so it measures the full spectrum of Canadian audiences and collects reliable data about Black content.

Are Black Canadian creators able to retain the IP rights to content they develop and produce, the better to control distribution, marketing and monetization?

This was a major point of concern that emerged in our research. Black creators are challenged to retain the IP rights of their content. There are a few forces at work here. One is a lack of understanding about the business side of the industry, which includes distribution.

Another factor is the anti-Black racism persisting in the industry. More than half the participants in our most recent study shared at least one experience in which more senior, powerful, often white stakeholders took credit for — and the financial benefits from — ideas, development and other work completed by Black creators. Many expressed concerns about the ways non-Black creators access specialized funds by leveraging Black creators they work with, while retaining majority ownership of those projects.

Numeris and the industry as a whole has pledged to collect, for the first time, data on Black Canadian TV audiences, to better sell ads around Black Canadian-created series and sustain BIPOC creators. What progress is being made in measuring black Canadian TV audiences?

This is really good news. Our study, Being Counted: Canadian Race-Based Audience Survey, was the first to disaggregate Black, indigenous, and people of color audiences from general population datasets. This research revealed ways traditional audience methodologies exclude Black audiences. We made significant changes to our methodology to make sure these issues were not being reproduced.

We’ll be sharing those lessons in the near-future as a means of supporting the development of inclusive, representative audience research methodologies that capture the experiences and viewing preferences of all Canadian audiences.

The Canadian industry has committed to addressing anti-Black biases and removing barriers to Black Canadian talent and producers. Do you and the industry know where the bottlenecks are?

There have been many very public statements and commitments for the last several years. I think we’re at a point now where we need to look more closely at measurable changes — to what extent have these commitments been fulfilled? What impacts have these changes had and for whom? Some of the bottlenecks our research continues to reveal includes the need for standardized measures that will let us track changes over time and systems of accountability that will help the industry move forward together.

Also, a lack of data collection hides the actual impacts of programs and interventions, some of which are becoming visible through other research. An example is the progress of white women into positions of power as a proxy for satisfying diversity commitments.

And there’s a focus on diversity over equity, which brings Black professionals into largely unsafe spaces that, themselves, have not changed, nor have actionable plans for change.

Does removing bottlenecks get more Black creators through the door, to the inner circle?

Do these commitments increase numbers? Yes. But there’s more to the question about getting people in the door. The difference between diversity and equity that I referred to earlier is relevant here. What are people doing once they’re through the door? What are their experiences in these workplaces?

Our most recent research highlights a significant lack of representation of Black creators in senior decision-making roles and a dearth of support available for mid-career professionals to improve representation.

Our research also continues to underscore the urgent need to address anti-Black racism present in many industry spaces. That means industry stakeholders, gatekeepers and employers need to take steps to change the culture and environments of their workplaces. Without these changes, moving more Black creators into these spaces is both dangerous and unsustainable.

Is the Canadian industry doing more to help Black creators make their second and third projects to advance and sustain their careers?

In the Being Heard research, we found it takes an average time frame of nine to 13 years for a second project to get made. I don’t think the changes have been in place long enough to see a shift. And I think the lack of support for mid-career talent means that second and third and fourth projects aren’t being expedited. A lot of the support focuses on getting the first thing made.

CBC/Radio Canada has been given a 30 percent to 35 percent diversity content quota for its program investment over the life of its upcoming broadcast license. How will this investment close the equity gap in the Canadian film and TV industry when it comes to Black Canadian talent?

This still goes back to diversity versus equity and the quality of the roles Black talent will occupy. Has the CBC also made commitments about the actions around the quota? What are they changing about their internal processes and infrastructure? How are they supporting changes in attitude and mindset in the leadership? How are they holding people accountable — both within CBC and creators and projects they support?

Canadians have access to a slew of U.S. TV shows from Black creators like Scandal, Empire, Dear White People and Black-ish. Yet local TV dramas and movies written by and starring Black Canadians are rare. Among exceptions currently on Canadian TV are CBC dramas like Diggstown and The Porter, both picked up stateside by BET+.

Is progress being made to create Black Canadian TV series that can thrive in the global market?

I think it’s getting better, but I don’t have information on all that is in the pipeline. Anthony Q. Farrell has a new comedy series in production called Shelved, with BellMedia, and he recently did Overlord and the Underwoods for CBC Gem. Corus has commissioned Robyn Hood, created by Director X for Global. Clement Virgo has a new feature film being released this fall called Brother. I’ve heard anecdotally about development orders but don’t have the details.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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