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As the AT&T x REVOLT Summit descended upon Los Angeles, a wave deja vu washed over the weekend as creators, artists, and industry leaders gathered to echo the same energy that overtook Atlanta in September.
This time around, the Summit hosted names such as Issa Rae, Kehlani, Snoop Dogg, Ava DuVernay to curate a lineup of thought-provoking panels and discussions that would serve to inspire and drive necessary disruption across the entertainment industry. Among those was the potent combination of actress China Anne McClain, showrunners Kenya Barris and Nkechi Okoro Carroll, and actor and producer Chadwick Boseman. Led by moderator Terrence J, the quartet of talent took to the stage to discuss their strides in Hollywood as black people, particularly highlighting the strength and pride attached to such a combination. This theme stood on the solid ground of AT&T’s “Dream In Black” motto, one that cloaked the event over the course of three days.
“I don’t know another way to dream,” Boseman affirmed at one point in the conversation in response to the prompt.
It’s a hefty endorsement of the conversation that took place onstage for the hour-long discussion—one rooted in humble origins and a noted responsibility to represent black bodies across every pocket of the industry.
“I gravitate towards really strong female characters because we don’t see a lot of that especially being black,” McClain would express at the outset, referring to her role as Jennifer Pierce and her superhero alter ego Lightning in CW’s “Black Lightning.” “In the writing, I fought to keep her that way and I feel good about that.”
Kenya Barris echoed this same sense of gratitude for the ability to address the black community. Overall, it’d make a case for this gratitude as the root of the overwhelming initiative we’ve seen taken by black creators to craft authentic stories that speak to the balancing beauty of black life. It is one that heralds its greatest accomplishment and ugly shortcomings.
“It’s a blessing,” said Barris. “I’m overwhelmed and appreciative to be able to talk to my people.”
For Nkechi Carroll, well-known or her work on FX’s “All American” television series, such a privilege came attached to her will to seek out success in the industry despite pursuing other ambitions. The Nigerian-American writer and director would make note of her family’s roots dictating her initial career as an economist. It was in balancing a 9-to-5 with her dreams that she eventually cracked the code to success.
“I’m a little girl from Nigeria who had big dreams,” she recalled. “As my Nigerian brethren know my career options were doctor, banker, lawyer. I went the banking route…but never gave up on my dream and I was lucky enough eight years ago to get my first break and I’ve been hustling ever since.”
As for Boseman, the road toward the passion found in film and television was always very apparent.
“The funny thing for me has always been that I never wanted a job,” he began. “I never wanted to work for somebody else. It’s always been about always trying to do this work even if you’re not getting paid for it. You gotta do it for the love. It’s not about even people seeing me. What am I learning in the process? I did a lot of stuff for free. I did a lot of stage readings in New York where they paid you $50, $100, at best $200… Everybody has questions and doubts about whether they should be doing what they’re doing or not. Your humble beginnings are always when you’re questioning whether this is your path or not and I definitely had those moments where I was like, ‘This ain’t for me.’ …But, I did my best to always stay in it.”
McClain would later double down on such experiences, dishing out a strong word of advice to the audience: “Make sure you love what it is that you’re doing. Do not do it to get famous because it’s not going to sustain you. Get in it because you love it…because somedays the love for it is all that carries you through.”
Boseman added on to his own words by delivering on a strong test when deciding if your chosen path is one that is truly calling for you or one rooted in clout, as McClain highlighted.
“Can I live with myself if I do anything else?” Chadwick questioned. “If that’s what was put in you and you don’t live up to it, you’re always going to feel like you slighted yourself.”
For Carroll, the answer arrives in her character at work, citing sustained joy that accompanies her every day.
“Everyday that I drive on to a lot, I am dancing. I am skipping. I am cartwheeling because I can’t believe that I get to do this for living,” she said.
The ability to manifest such joy and fulfillment would bring in the question of accessibility in the industry, as each of the panelists discussed the necessary building blocks to actually reaching these end goals.
The overwhelming consensus would settle on the fact that the industry has become a much larger playing field for creators of color. That paired with an abundance of self-serve outlets has made it easier than ever for aspiring artists, actors, executives, and writers to get their work in front of audiences. It also doesn’t hurt that social media as created an ecosystem where black stories are heralded more than ever, making traditional gatekeepers much more available to marginalized voices. Terrence J referred back to the previous panel between Issa Rae and Melina Matsoukas to make the case for there being no greater time to be a black woman in entertainment.
While Carroll would co-sign the statement, she also added a stern condition to the clause.
“I do think it’s a good time to be a black woman in the industry, but listen it is always a good time to be a black woman,” she declared to a sea of applause. “Don’t ever let the industry determine when it’s a good time for you to do you. Do you all the time.”
It would prompt Barris to reflect on his own vision of what the entertainment industry has offered black creators, referring to Tyler Perry’s history-making studios in Atlanta.
“We are at a point right now where we’re having an important voice in what the shaping of what the world is going to be,” he stated. “To see what Tyler has done and the level that he’s doing it, I think it should be in the same conversation as Barack as president. To have an opportunity to tell our stories without filter from others—that’s shaping the way little black boys and little black girls start to see themselves.”
Once again, such words would highlight the responsibility that creators have adopted ensuring that their communities are represented well. Boseman would illustrate this responsibility as one that lies on the showrunners, and the actors and actresses tasked with the portrayal of black characters.
“It’s important as an actor that you’re not just a person who says a line.” His words are a strong example of practicing what you preach as Boseman was memorably booted from ABC’s “All My Children” soap opera in 2003 after voicing his objections for the racial stereotypes placed upon his character (who would later be played by Michael B. Jordan).
“You have to be ready to fight for the things that you want,” he declared.
But, such initiatives are not meant to be taken on alone. The final part of the conversation was dominated by the importance of collaboration among black creators and turning away from seeking validation from outside institutions. Terrence J roped in the “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy that plagued the Academy Awards in past years, making way for Barris to accent the idea of validation within our own communities as most important.
“F-ck the Oscars,” he said. “We won five straight [NAACP] Image awards. To me that matters. That’s my people. I want to be there, but I also feel like we need to believe in ourselves and double down on our stuff. We need to make sure that we honor our own and make sure that we value those honors. Don’t just call those black awards… We have our own stuff and we need to get behind each other.”
It would open the door for the age-old technique of networking across, with each panelist agreeing that collaboration among peers proves to be more effective than attempting to network your way up the ladder. The general idea lies in the fact that such practices promote an air of collaboration that can permeate throughout the industry and make for lasting diversity and representation. Naturally, the REVOLT Summit was among the list of examples in spaces that can help foster the relationships and lead to what Boseman would describe as a “renaissance” of ideas.
“You have creative minds that can create and bounce off of each other,” he remarked. “Iron sharpens iron.”
“Don’t just dream big for yourself,” Carroll would appropriately add to this sentiment. “I dream and pray just as hard for my village as I do for my own dreams.”