Empire, Lemonade and representation in Big Talk

Two sisters who write for Fox’s Empire, JaNeika and JaSheika James, participated in a panel discussion with Kinitra Brooks, an English professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. | Allison Williamson/The Cougar

University of Houston students had the opportunity to attend a Big Talk on race, gender and Hollywood Monday, when two writers from Fox’s show “Empire” and a professor from the University of Texas at San Antonio provided insight into the industry.

Sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James talked about diversity and the impact their show has had on the television industry. Kinitra Brooks, a horror scholar and professor of English at UTSA, also participated in the discussion.

“We’re probably, I would say, the most colorful writers’ room in Hollywood,” JaNeika James said.

The Big Talk was a free-flowing conversation on the racial and feminist issues in the entertainment industry.

Malcolm Farrell, a UH Alum, moderated the conversation by asking the writers about the influences “Empire has had on the perception of black America. JaNeika James said the show is successful because it resonates with everyone — not just black audiences.

The Big Talk panelists also discussed the recent Grammy Award incident where Adele acknowledged Beyonce’s “Lemonade” during her acceptance of Album of the Year. JaNeika James said that Beyonce did not really lose because “Lemonade” will be talked about for generations.

“Not only is she a black woman, but she’s a black southern woman,” said Brooks, who taught a course analyzing the album within the context of black feminist theory. “And there are those of us that are interested in the ideas of the contemporary South, of revising this idea of what is the South, what does the South look like, what does black womanhood in the South look like and that the South has existed beyond the Civil Rights Movement.”

One question Farrell posed asked the speakers about working in a field traditionally dominated by white men. Brooks emphasized the importance of recognizing this statistic and moving past it, while the James sisters noted they do not feel that pressure as much because they work in a diverse work setting.

“I got my first writing opportunity from a white male,” JaSheika said. “Mike Kelley created Revenge, and that was the first show I was staffed on. I think there is a problem in Hollywood, but you don’t let it permeate your thoughts.”

Farrell pointed out that out of the 41 pilots set to premiere in 2017,  only one director was female, but the panelists remained hopeful.

“It’s hard but not impossible,” JaSheika said.

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