High-profile exits spark fears that Hollywood diversity pledges are just ‘PR’
Her message was cheerful and comforting: “PEOPLE!!! I got you!”
Last fall, veteran Hollywood diversity executive Karen Horne sought to reassure aspiring artists who were shaken by the elimination of the Warner Bros. Television Workshop, which for decades stood as a beacon for the development of emerging talent of color.
But Horne’s celebration was short-lived. Last month she was laid off, becoming the fourth high-level diversity, equity and inclusion executive in Hollywood to leave during a 10-day stretch in late June.
Diversity chiefs at Walt Disney Co., Netflix and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, all Black women, also resigned or were forced out of their jobs. The startling string of exits comes in the midst of attacks by conservative politicians and pundits on “wokeness” in entertainment, education and other areas of American life.
For many, the Hollywood departures were unnerving.
“I wake up every day trying not to be a cynic, but this is frightening,” said Vic Bullock, the founding executive director of the NAACP Hollywood bureau. “Hollywood seems to be sending a message that these programs that were designed to give more access to African Americans are no longer needed.”
When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 by police in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter demonstrations electrified the country with forceful demands for equality. Major studios, networks and music companies tried to meet the moment by pronouncing solidarity and pledging millions of dollars to support social justice programs.
Numerous diversity-centered initiatives were established. More transparency around issues of race was assured.
But companies have since begun to scale back such commitments and, in some cases, employees dedicated to diversity initiatives, leading some insiders and advocates to fear that the doors to more opportunities once again have been slammed shut.
Some question whether companies were sincere in their commitments to racial equality. Many are angry, accusing corporations of hypocrisy in making promises that they never worked hard enough to honor.
“2020 was the year that we were definitely making strides — but there wasn’t any strategy, there wasn’t any plan,” said Kim Crayton, a business strategist and author of the book “Profit Without Oppression.” “It was a PR moment — corporate blackface … I told people at the time: ‘White guilt isn’t going to last.’”
Paula Madison, a former chief diversity officer of NBCUniversal, pointed to a lack of follow-through on commitments made after Floyd’s death.
“Billions of dollars were committed,” Madison said. “What have been the actual accomplishments? Very little, if anything. So here we are. Now these companies say they’re ‘reorganizing, rethinking and taking a hard look.’ They say they are not pulling away from their commitments. No, they’re not — but they didn’t really have much of a commitment in the first place.”
Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery disagree, saying their commitments to diversity and inclusion are genuine and have not wavered. They point to diverse high-level executives who remain, saying the spate of DEI exits were unrelated, largely due to personal circumstances or corporate restructurings.
In addition to Horne, top diversity heads departing their jobs include Latondra Newton at Disney, Vernā Myers at Netflix and Jeanell English at the film academy. Horne, English and Myers declined to comment for this story. Newton did not respond to messages seeking comment.
A fifth DEI executive, Joanna Abeyie, also left her job as creative diversity director at the BBC.
Both Abeyie and Myers are returning to their consultancy businesses, which they launched before joining their respective companies. In a message on LinkedIn, Myers said it was difficult to leave Netflix, “but for a while now I have been feeling the call to work across different industries and address the polarization I see in the world and to apply more of a spiritual lens as a way of helping bridge the divide.”
Netflix appointed Wade Davis, a former NFL player who previously consulted at Google, Procter & Gamble and Viacom, to head its diversity efforts. “Wade is a strong and well-respected leader at Netflix — so a great person to build on our commitment, taking our inclusion work to the next level,” Netflix Chief Talent Officer Sergio Ezama said in a statement.
Disney said that it would appoint a new executive to replace Newton, who led the company’s efforts for nearly six years.
Warner Bros. Discovery said it would soon name a replacement for Horne, who has for decades focused on diversity in the industry, but noted her replacement would have a different role that would not include Hollywood pipeline programs like those Horne worked on.
“We will now have designated leads who are tasked solely with employee-related initiatives in each region,” Asif Sadiq, WBD chief global diversity, equity and inclusion officer, wrote in a staff memo, noting the new structure would give the company “a truly global perspective when developing opportunities for diverse talent and increasing representation on screen and behind the camera.”
Warner Bros. Discovery defended its record, saying that it has broadened pipeline programs, held a global town hall and created a Business Diversity Council and a Creative Diversity Council, which includes senior executives such as Channing Dungey, head of Warner Bros. Television; Casey Bloys, chairman of HBO; and Pamela Abdy and Mike DeLuca, who jointly run the Warner Bros. Film Group. The company is also a co-sponsor of LGBTQ+ film festival Outfest L.A., set to kick off Thursday.
The company said the exits of three other high-profile DEI executives during the last year — Christy Haubegger, MyKhanh Shelton and Samata Narra — were due to Discovery’s integration of WarnerMedia as it winnows two staffs from the two companies into one.
The DEI exits come amid a wider retrenchment by entertainment companies, which are shedding thousands of workers to help offset billion-dollar losses to build video streaming services. Challenging economics, heavy debt, a possible recession, a strike by the Writers Guild of America and a potential walkout by actors have led to daily headlines about high-level layoffs and restructuring.
“All of these companies are going through a major catastrophe right now,” said one executive who was granted anonymity in order to discuss the fiscal picture candidly. “Programs dedicated to diversity are always the first to get cut.”
Alongside these formidable economic difficulties, prominent conservatives have taken aim at inclusion efforts for diverse groups, including LGBTQ+ members.
Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is waging war with Disney, needling it for being too “woke” after the Burbank giant objected to a measure forbidding discussions of gender identity in Florida public schools. Pundits have piled on, disparaging Disney’s efforts to showcase people of color in its movies and TV shows, such as casting Halle Bailey, a young Black singer-songwriter, as “The Little Mermaid.”
“It is indeed troubling to see these things happening in Hollywood and in the country at the same time. Environment definitely plays a role,” said UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt, specifically citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down race-based affirmative action in college admissions. “There has been these two Americas ever since Donald Trump was elected president.”
Diversity and inclusion chiefs have acknowledged struggling with burnout in their efforts to transform their organizations’ culture.
English, who joined the film academy in 2020 to serve as its executive vice president of impact and inclusion, wrote in an Instagram post that she was stepping away from her post to take time to recharge.
“Despite my successes, this work has not been easy,” English wrote. “These paths are often lonely, uphill battles. Leaders in these positions need the support, love, and advocacy while they are in the roles, not only when their departures make headlines… I ask you to shift your focus to uplifting those who are still in institutions working so hard for you, often without being truly valued or respected.”
So what’s gone wrong? The view from the trenches is mixed.
“I don’t think the entertainment industry was prepared for George Floyd or the pandemic,” said one senior diversity executive, who was not authorized to comment. “The top people are not well versed in culture. They said they would get better, read the books, see the movies. But those books stayed on the shelves. When they were told what they should be doing, they didn’t really want to do it.”
Diversity executives, according to Madison, typically don’t have the power to greenlight shows or movies. Few report directly to the company’s chief executive. Instead they are clustered with human resources honchos. That allows the boss “to distance himself or herself from the responsibility of making sure their workforce is representative,” Madison said.
“In many instances, the person in those roles has no power,” Madison said. “These DEI officers are just treading water — and sometimes they are drowning. These things were never designed to be successful.”
“Profit Without Oppression” author Crayton agreed.
“If you don’t have the autonomy, the resources or the authority to make changes, it won’t work,” she said. “Many of these women spend the majority of their time navigating white people’s feelings — and you cannot do the work if you have to do that.”
Another highly-placed executive said that Hollywood companies who say they support diversity have to be held accountable: “There’s no real call to action. It requires collective action as opposed to relying on one singular voice. In these jobs, the criticism outweighs the praise.”
Some worry that the rollbacks might be related to the nation’s widening political divisions.
“Some of the companies I fear are taking advantage of that cultural backlash, riding that wave to either abandon DEI or lessen its importance in their companies’ strategies,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who has been outspoken about Hollywood’s ongoing lack of diversity.
The issue, Castro said, is one that encompasses much more than the complexion of a workforce.
“The media and entertainment industry has an impact that goes beyond that of other industries,” Castro said. “They set the cultural table for America. And that matters because it affects how Americans see people of color, how they see themselves — and how the world sees them.”
Plus, Hunt said, diversity in the executive ranks and by extension in the stories that Hollywood chooses could be a boon to the bottom line — but only with sustained effort: “Audiences have clearly shown that there is an appetite for diverse stories. These companies put DEI aside at their own peril. It’s a long-term investment that cannot be ignored.”