On Friday, February 22, 2019, just days before Old Hollywood’s biggest night, two hundred people gathered together in downtown Los Angeles to celebrate Shadow And Act’s inaugural RISING Awards. The brunch honored the Black excellence of 32 emerging industry people in four categories: performers, executives, creators and behind-the-scenes stars. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins received the Shadow And Act 2019 Game-Changer Award for his dedication to presenting revolutionary images of Black love on screen. In his keynote address, Jenkins encouraged the RISING Award winners to continue to use every tool at their disposal to create “conscious thought” that would move our culture forward.
But the celebration of these burgeoning talents was just the beginning. In tracing the history of photographic emulsion and the fact that film-based photography was originally only calibrated for white skin, Jenkins reminded the crowd that a Black Hollywood was never in the master plan. These RISING Award winners were honored for boldly creating their own plans. Joining them in celebration and community were financiers, producers, publicists, press, screenwriters, performers, stylists, directors, make-up artists, showrunners and more. In an industry that often shuts us out of the conversation, we were starting our own.
In October 2019, four of our 32 RISING Award winners returned to downtown LA to continue the conversation of how to find a place in this industry and build community in Black Hollywood. Dear White People star Logan Browning (performer award), Giants showrunner and creator James Bland (creator award), TBS’ Director of Development, Original Scripted Programming Olivia Morris (executive award), and 3 Arts Entertainment manager and producer Jermaine Johnson (executive award) are featured on Shadow And Act’s first digital cover and the next episode of S&A’s video series UpNEXT.
“There is something going on,” Bland remarked on the palpable cultural shift taking place in Black Hollywood right now. “There does seem to be more of a Renaissance of sorts happening amongst the Black artists in town. I’ve experienced it. I feel it when I go out,” he said. “Even on social media, the amount of support and the amount of just celebration that exists when one of us gets a victory, it really does feel like a rising tide is lifting all of our ships.”
But before these four RISING Award winners could ride the wave they’re on now, they first had to build a ship.
A major part of Browning’s foundation has been a consistently supportive family and a manager who became a dear mentor. In an industry known for tokenizing Black people, her manager steered her away from the short-term gain of a role in an ensemble cast and towards the long-term goal of being proud of each role.
“He’s like, ‘Logan, I really don’t think you should go in on this [role],'” she said of her manager’s advice. At first, she was dismayed because the show she would be testing for was “a big deal.”
But “he said, ‘I think you’re worth more than a Black face on a white show.’ And it went ‘pow,’ to the heart. Never heard anyone say anything like that to me,” she said. “He stood to also gain money from this, but he always saw the bigger picture.”
With her mentor’s loving guidance echoing in her heart, Browning has redefined what success means to her in an industry that often ignores Black talent. “I think that a lot of times actors come to LA and when they get a little bit of success, they forget Ebony and Essence and the people who have always supported them from the beginning,” she said. “Shadow and Act since literally I can remember, has always really supported me,” she said. “And I think that for me, success is remembering where we come from and remembering the people who have always cheered us on.”
One moment where Morris had to trust in a greater plan was when she chose family over business and decided to leave Hollywood early in her career to help take care of her family members back home in Ohio.
“I was talking to one of my former bosses and they basically said the dramatic version of, ‘Well, if you leave, you will not be able to come back. You’re an assistant, you don’t have any clout in the town. No one’s going to try to hire you back from Ohio,'” Morris recalled. But she was determined to help her family. As it turned out, she had made such a great impression on one of her early mentors that she’d met when she was still in high school at 17 years old, that when a job opened up, he tracked her down, half-way across the country.
“It’s that same guy that I’d known all of those years who called me and was like, ‘I heard you’re in Ohio. Why are you there?'” After she explained how choosing family over business was the right move at the time, he was anxious to get her back to L.A. “He was like, ‘Okay, so can you come here for an interview?” And I was like, “Yes I can. There’s still an airport here [in Ohio].” A few days later, she was on a plane, nailing her interview and landing that job.
Now, she’s in position to greenlight the projects of those who inspired her journey.
“Whoopi Goldberg was always my North Star. There weren’t a lot of dark skin performers and she was everything to me. And about three years ago she came in for a pitch and just sitting across the table from her was so incredible–and realizing that I had the buying power, I was in the position of authority, I could say yes or no to what her current dream was at the time,” Morris said.
“We developed a relationship and I went to The View and spent some time with her and she was telling me that she was feeling, at her age, she was feeling left behind in the business. She felt like she wasn’t currently able to do the kinds of projects that she wanted to do and she had all these original ideas and she was looking to me to be able to take those and run with them. And that was a really humbling and exciting and just really awe-inspiring moment of something coming full circle.”
Bland’s full-circle moment came about 10 years after he heard a hard “no,” from an industry veteran with whom he had hoped to connect.
“I don’t know how to help you,” was the executive’s honest response, when she learned that Bland had no intention of sticking to one strict path in the industry. The creator, showrunner, actor and director had big plans to do it all.
“That left me in a place of feeling I didn’t belong in just this setup of Hollywood and the system and the structure of way things work. And so as a result, I felt like I had to go the indie route if I was going to be a multi-hyphenate, if I was going to be the writer, the director and the actor,” Bland said. “Fast forward to after [Giants] got those 11 Daytime Emmys,, she reached out to me and she said, ‘I didn’t know how to help you because you didn’t exist yet.’ Sometimes, we got to find our own path. And oftentimes people don’t see it until you do it until you show them,” Bland said. “You really just have to show and prove before people believe that you are who you say you are.”
Just as Bland sees a renaissance for Black creatives, Johnson sees an imperative to build a sustainable infrastructure of power in Black Hollywood.
“We all remember great nineties Black television,” Johnson said. “We had a plethora of it and then it disappeared. And it’s because there was no infrastructure, there was no level of executives of color that were actually growing and matriculating along with the great talent to make sure that they continue to thrive–not only in shows that that were funny and entertaining, but shows that were authentic and fulfilled a purpose.
“I think that’s where we fell off the cliff a little bit in the ’90s, where the people in the decision-making positions were just saying, ‘Well what kind of shows do white people want to watch about Black people?” And that’s how we ended up with some bad shows that didn’t do well. And they said, “Well okay, Black TV doesn’t work anymore.’ They moved on. Now we’re in a position where we can really start building with each other,” Johnson said.
“Years later, when there is a 20-something year-old intern that says, ‘I got to go home and take care of some family shit,” you can call me, you can call Olivia, and say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll have a job when you get back,'” he said. That’s the most success that I can dream for for us in this business. I don’t need statues and trophies. Infrastructure and longevity and legacy.”
With minds towards the future, these RISING Award winners are blazing paths forward and leaving the doors wide open behind them. A part of that means not heeding the signs or the history that says Black folks don’t belong.
“I don’t think that I’ve had anyone actually say that I don’t belong,” Browning shared about finding her footing in entertainment. “And if they did, I probably didn’t take the time to listen to them saying that to me because if someone did, I just would consistently disagree,” Browning said.
The key for Johnson is not to dwell on the “nos” and the naysayers.
“Well, the funny thing is,” said Johnson, “I think if any of us would have harbored it, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Brooke C. Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.
For practical tips on breaking into the industry, how to find a mentor and how to get your work noticed, watch the full UpNext conversation in the video above.