The cast of Empire

Last night, the Hollywood trade publication Deadline convened a small group of concerned Studio City citizens to nibble on finger sandwiches, crudites, and ambrosia salad and have a frank discussion about the…*ahem*…changes in the neighborhood. Y’know, how the…um…tone of the television landscape has shifted in recent months. Okay fine, if we have to come out and say it, Hollywood is unsettled by the influx of “ethnic actors” on television. But it’s not about prejudice or anything like that. People are justifiably concerned about property values!

That’s more or less the thesis of Nellie Andreeva’s trend piece, Pilots 2015: The Year Of Ethnic Castings—About Time Or Too Much Of A Good Thing?, which is a reasonable headline since the clicks aren’t going to bait themselves. Andreeva discusses the television season’s triumphs of diversity—Empire, Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat, and How To Get Away With Murder—which alerted the television industry to the existence of minority actors and inspired network executives to hire more of them to star in 2015 pilots. (In case it’s unclear, the word “more” is intended to be read in the tone of Mr. Bumble from Oliver!) The scourge of non-white actors has become so severe, Andreeva writes, white actors are being crowded out of the field on which they’ve had a chokehold since the advent of television:

But, as is the case with any sea change, the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal. Many pilot characters this year were listed as open to all ethnicities, but when reps would call to inquire about an actor submission, they frequently have been told that only non-Caucasian actors would be considered.

According to the story, it’s one thing to do color-blind casting, as was the case with Jada Pinkett-Smith’s turn as Fish Mooney in Fox’s Gotham or Wesley Snipes being drafted for NBC’s forthcoming Endgame. But networks are actually designating parts for black actors, including pilot roles awarded to Morris Chestnut, Anika Noni Rose, Mike Epps, and Rockmond Dunbar.

What’s more, sometimes the ethnic casting doesn’t even make any sense, Andreeva says, as in the case of Rutina Wesley, who was hired to play one of the four female leads in ABC’s 1970s-set police drama Broad Squad. The show is based on the true story of the Boston Police Department’s first all-female patrol, which consisted of four white women. But Wesley is noticeably non-white, and that’s insane because if it was appropriate to cast actors to play characters of a different race, Othello wouldn’t be Shakespeare’s only unproduced play.

To be fair, Andreeva does call the increase in television diversity a long overdue change, but it’s way out of control, she says, especially considering there may not be that much of a financial upside for networks:

While they are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers, African-Americans still represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now, with shows as Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and HTGAWM on broadcast, Tyler Perry’s fare on OWN and Mara Brock Akil’s series on BET, they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience might have reached its peak.


Andreeva apparently believes there’s no good reason to designate roles for non-white actors once a quota is met or the market is saturated, especially when it leaves so few opportunities for white actors who can more reliably ensure a television show’s commercial success. And maybe to some, the systematic exclusion of white actors from television opportunities doesn’t seem like a big problem. But this is how it begins. First they came for the Ghostbusters, and I did not speak out because I’m more of a Goonies person. Then they came for the television pilots, and I did not speak out because my gritty Poochinski reboot didn’t get picked up. Then they came for me, and there were no white actors to speak up for me because they were too busy with their valet jobs.