Celebrity Ethnicity & Hollywood Diversity: Finding New Voice on TV

The hot button issue in Hollywood right now is diversity in celebrity ethnicity and the lack thereof in film and on television.

According to the University of Oregon’s definition, diversity is: “Understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences. These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs or other ideologies.”

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That’s a mouthful and it certainly covers a lot of ground and people.

But there are those individuals who think the word “diversity” only refers to Black people, but like the definition spells out, “diversity” includes different “ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, ages and physical abilities.”

So, if Hollywood truly wants their projects to reflect a diverse cast then they’re going to have to cast leading roles for people from a variety of different races, genders and physical make-ups, including: Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Middle Eastern, African American, Indian, disabled, women, gay and transgender.

In other words, Hollywood needs to tell stories reflective of the people that actually represent the beautiful diversity, not to mention the current celebrity ethnicity diversity, of our great nation.

While a lack of celebrity ethnicity diversity in certain areas of Hollywood has always been an issue, the conversation was reignited after this year’s Oscar nominations revealed that no people of color were among those in the top awards categories.

A lot of the controversy swirled around the across-the-board, critically-acclaimed film Creed and its stars Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, and director Ryan Coogler.

The question of fairness and celebrity ethnicity diversity was raised when Sylvester Stallone seemed to be the lone person from the cast being nominated during awards season.

The argument was never directed toward Stallone’s contribution to or performance in the film because everyone, including myself, agreed that his reprisal of the beloved “Rocky” character was an acting tour de force and it reinvigorated—and to some extent—reintroduced “Rocky” to a millennial audience who weren’t familiar with his iconic role.

Fans were perplexed by the Creed snubs because more than 90% of the critics who reviewed the film placed it on numerous “Top 10” favorite films lists and also hailed Michael B. Jordan’s searing performance as “Adonis Creed”; as well as the finely-tuned directing and deftly written screenplay of 27-year-old Ryan Coogler.

Jordan and Coogler are both African American, so to many observers, the Oscars nomination snub was not only a major oversight, but more pointedly a result of a systemic, biased awards system that overlooks the contributions of people of color—even those who deliver at the top cinematic level like Jordan and Coogler.

Then there was the biopic sports drama Concussion starring Will Smith who gave a strong and convincing portrayal of Nigerian forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu; the doctor responsible for making the correlation between NFL players repeated blows to the head resulting in a deadly disorder called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.

Many fans and critics alike praised Smith’s performance as one of his best in years and other than a few naysayers who thought his Nigerian accent was ineffective, the majority of reviews were stellar. It appeared that Smith was headed for an Academy Award nomination because early on, he was nominated for a Golden Globe, Satellite Award and NAACP Image Award; but in the end, he was shut out of the Oscars.

It was at that moment that his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith released a viral grenade expressing her disdain and disappointment that diverse celebrity ethnicity was rejected, since her husband Will was not included in the Academy Award nominations.

Even with the hilarious Chris Rock at the helm as this past year’s Oscar host, the protests and boycotts surrounding the lack of minority nominees affected the Academy Awards viewership, down by 7.6% or around 3 million viewers.

The Academy Awards are like the Super Bowl of entertainment, so many minority actors who consistently deliver winning plays onscreen, but never get invited to the big game, quite naturally, feels slighted and somewhat discouraged.

But having said all of this, I still believe that Hollywood has made several great strides toward offering more inclusive programming, especially on the small screen, which brings me to the heart of this blog.

Here are several noteworthy TV shows that have not only risen to the occasion, but excel in setting the pace for celebrity ethnicity diversity and multi-ethnic casting, plus their predecessors who helped pave the way.

Hollywood Diversity in Television – Then & Now

Jane the Virgin (CW | Sitcom)
Creator: Jennie Snyder Urman
Stars: Anthony Mendez, Gina Rodriguez, Andrea Navedo

Why We Love It: Jane the Virgin chronicles the life of a young Latino woman who is by accident, artificially inseminated. The show is a loose adaptation of the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen created by Perla Farías.

The episodes are set in Miami and details Jane’s life, as a member of a hard-working, traditionally religious Latino family. As this country becomes more diverse, the stories of all races and backgrounds need to be shared and Jane the Virgin is a great example of a look into the rich cultural heritage of Latino Americans.

The show’s writing is rooted in classic telenovela tropes that have always been a part of Latino programming.

What Paved the Way: There are numerous shows that featured Hispanic leads and families, but there are a few that stand out as groundbreaking and that first honorable mention must go to I Love Lucy starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.

In Desi Arnaz’s first attempts to bring I Love Lucy to the small screen, he was rejected because the programming naysayers at the time didn’t believe a Cuban-born leading man would be received in America.

Of course, the naysayers were completely wrong and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s chemistry was so electric that the show was finally produced and it quickly became the #1 series in 4 of its 6 seasons; and I Love Lucy is still in syndication today.

The other two honorable mentions go to sitcom George Lopez (2002-2007) starring comedian George Lopez; and comedy-drama Ugly Betty (2006-2010) starring America Ferrera.

Both of these great shows raised the comedic bar and set the standard for tackling real-life topics and showing that all families are basically the same and deal with similar problems. The beauty of our differences is what makes shows like these so important and wonderful to watch.

Fresh off the Boat (ABC | Sitcom)
Creator: Nahnatchka Khan
Stars: Constance Wu, Randall Park, Hudson Yang

Why We Love It: Fresh Off the Boat has the honor of being the first sitcom on primetime television starring Asian Americans in over 20 years.

This fish-out-of-water story that we can all relate to and it revolves around a Taiwanese family who make their way to America in the 1990’s. The family is chasing the American dream, while struggling with the culture clash of being in a Florida neighborhood that doesn’t have a large Asian population.

In many ways this family’s story is the “American Story.” The episode “Boy II Man” is a perfect example of the show’s charm. Eddie, who is the oldest son of the family’s three children, falls in love and ultimately has his heart broken. He resorts to repeatedly playing Boyz II Men songs to ease the pain. The storyline of this episode demonstrates that even though people may look different on the outside, on the inside we all go through the same struggles at critical stages in our lives.

What Paved the Way: All-American Girl was a short-lived (September 14, 1994 to March 15, 1995), but groundbreaking primetime sitcom starring Korean American actress Margaret Cho. The series was loosely based on Cho’s stand-up comedy and life and it dealt with everything from her culture clashes with her family to looking for a job post grad school.

The show made history and it was the very first sitcom featuring an Asian American cast, but unfortunately the series itself never caught on with critics or audiences and after only one season, it was canceled due to low ratings.

We also have to mention the October 2, 2015 arrival of Dr. Ken, a new sitcom starring Korean-American comedic actor Ken Jeong. This series is also loosely based on Jeong’s life and in the series, he plays a doctor—which he can totally identify with because in addition to being one of the funniest comedic actors out there, he is also a practicing physician.

Black-ish (ABC | Sitcom)
Creator: Kenya Barris
Stars: Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross

Why We Love It: Black-ish is a great sitcom that features an African-American couple (Anderson & Ross) who are raising their three children in a predominately white, affluent lifestyle, while attempting to preserve the family’s culture and identity.

The show deals with lots of hot button issues, one example of which is a recent episode on the use of the “N” word and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. While there were certainly other racially charged issues in society at the time this episode aired, the subject matter is important and the issues, like many others this show has approached, was treated in a serious, yet hysterically comedic way to allow us to have these difficult conversations, while laughing at the somewhat absurdity of it all.

What Paved the Way: Despite Bill Cosby’s personal, legal battles, The Cosby Show starring Bill Cosby, Phylicia Rashad and the other crop of talented then-young actors represented primetime Hollywood celebrity ethnicity diversity at its finest and the show set the standard for not only showing an affluent, two-parent African American household where both parents are educated and working in high paying jobs; but the venerable series also tackled serious issues like death, teen pregnancy, racism and many other real world problems. The Cosby Show was in the Top 10 for the entirety of its 8 seasons—from its debut on September 20, 1984 to its final episode on April 30, 1992.

These are just a few of the series (and their predecessors) that are getting the diversity conversation right. And even though Hollywood still has a ways to go in the area of  diversity, we believe that the climate is slowly beginning to shift for the benefit of Hollywood celebrity ethnicity diversity.  We celebrate all the efforts of show runners, casting directors, studio executives and producers who are leading the way—in film and on television—to present a world that more accurately depicts the diverse society that we see with our very own eyes everyday.

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