Updated: Jul 15, 2019
By Kauthar Abdulalim
As I sat there having binged three seasons of Oprah Winfrey’s Greenleaf on Netflix, I realised that one of the main reasons I was glued to the show from start to finish was because each of the characters felt real and authentic to me. I understood where they came from, why they did what they did, and what was at stake for them. In short, I empathised and related with these characters: no one character was an absolute angel, nor was any one of them purely evil (except Mac - he’s not nice. Trust me!).
Set in Memphis, Greenleaf explores the journey of protagonist Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) who returns home when her sister dies unexpectedly, which leads her to revisit the past and reveal secrets about the Greenleaf family and the fictional, black megachurch, Calvary Fellowship World Ministries.
It is important to note that a black church isn’t just a physical location for worshippers to attend religious ceremonies once a week, etc. - it is an integral part of people’s lives where their day-to-day activities and relationships are carried out and formed within the church - making the church more of a society and community rather than just a place of worship.
Upon some initial research on the background story of the show, I learned that the show’s creator (showrunner/executive producer) Craig Wright, is not black himself. However, the seed of the show grew from Craig’s personal experiences as a minister, as well as input from Oprah Winfrey herself, her team, and the other writers of the show who have lived experiences in black churches. All of these combined, provided a framework for an authentic representation and depiction of the characters and the world of the story.
I couldn’t help but think, Craig Wright wouldn’t have developed the stories and characters of Greenleaf as well as he did if it wasn’t for his own experiences, coupled with his consultation with other writers who had lived experiences in the story world he was writing about. And for him to be able to do justice to the authenticity and meaningful representation of the characters and the inner-world of a black church, he needed to have the right intentions in place as a writer/creator, and have the ability to get the right people in the room.
It’s no news that the media industry is under scrutiny and pressure to ensure more diversity and representation both on and off screen.
I personally have attended several industry events where the spokespeople of certain production companies/broadcasters/streaming giants have all spoken about the importance of “diversity”, “inclusion”, and “representation”.
State and federal screen agencies like Film Victoria and Screen Australia are leading the way and are actually ‘walking the talk’ by not only including a diversity quota for film projects that come through for funding, but are also providing some support in developing the skills of Australian filmmakers from diverse backgrounds; whether it’s through funding professional development programs like Cinespace Inc.’s StoryLab and AFTRS Talent Camp, or through professional paid internships like I received in 2017 (thanks Film Vic!) and writer/director attachments, and now more recently, through funding emerging creatives to develop their projects that inherently up-skill them and provide them with an opportunity to build on their credentials (see my project that was funded for development through the Generate development initiative - thanks Screen Aus!).
As a result of such efforts, more Australian film/TV content have stories that include or are about characters from diverse backgrounds (ie. Safe Harbour/Sunshine/The Family Law/Ali’s Wedding). And globally, films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have proved to producers and distributors that content with diverse characters do have an audience and they also do, make money (a lot of money!).
In analysing the successes of some of the projects (success in the form of recognised authenticity of depictions), one thing was evident: the writers of these films/series were from the particular cultural background of the characters/story worlds portrayed.
Cultural (and other) consultants were brought into the writer’s rooms for development
- and, Australian projects like Ali’s Wedding and The Family Law were both based on the writer’s (Osama Sami and Benjamin Law’s) own personal lived experiences (hence, authentic).
Which took me to another question, if the writers have not lived the actual experiences they are writing about or have no knowledge of the culture and story world they are depicting on screen, is cultural consultancy, the solution?
I began to have initial, informal conversations with a few Melbourne-based cultural consultants that have consulted for both factual and fictional screen content. The main discussion points revolved around:
How the consultants are generally approached and for what?
At what stage of development/production are they brought in?
How their commentary influenced the project?, and
Were they happy with the overall result or not?
Each answer to the question triggered more questions - questions that were especially targeted to producers and funding agencies - for example:
Why choose cultural consultants and not writers (from the specific diverse background in question)?
Where do we draw the line between “creative freedom” and “authentic representation”?
Is there such a thing as “authentic” representation? What makes it authentic?
What qualifies someone to be a cultural consultant? There is major diversity within diverse communities - ie. if you have a Muslim character in your screenplay and need a consultant to guide/verify the cultural nuances for your character, how do you choose the “right” Muslim consultant? Muslims are theologically, culturally, and linguistically diverse to say the least - what qualifies your “Muslim consultant” to be the right consultant?
Is there something similar like the working with Indigenous guideline for Pan African, Muslim and other minority communities (including for communities that are not just culturally and linguistically diverse)?
And the most important question for producers, broadcasters and funding agencies:
How do we measure, upon delivery, that the consultant was effective, impactful and “authentic”?
The issue of authenticity is important to explore because we are no longer discussing having characters from diverse backgrounds on screen just for the sake of it and for the sake of “ticking boxes” - that’s done (and hopefully) dusted! What we are discussing, now, is ensuring that these diverse characters that we are already starting to see on screen, have real and meaningful personalities (yes, they are far and fetched but they still exist) - see my fellow peers’ articles on ‘cultural appropriation’ by John Kassab and ‘intersectionality’ by Chloe Wong.
As a writer and filmmaker, one thing I realised very early on in my career is that firstly, my voice has impact, and secondly, the medium of screen content is extremely powerful.
And with great privilege and power, comes great responsibility.
A report published by Deakin & Charles Sturt University notes that “Evidence of discursive treatment of Muslims as an antagonistic ‘menacing other’ by the Australian media can, however, be found as early as 1912 with the so-called “Moslem menace” threatening Australian values” (Islamophobia in Australia, 2017). The report says of contemporary depictions of Muslims hasn’t changed much “Much of the popular Australian media characterisation of Muslims, whether in regard to asylum seekers, youth gangs or the ‘war on terror,’ is that of a group of non-members – alien, foreign and incompatible with Australian values”.
For decades, Muslims have been portrayed and constantly stereotyped as terrorists on screen, who only want nothing but to destroy the “West”. This constant negative depiction and stereotyping creates an illusion in audiences’ minds, and what was initially just a fictional character, becomes real in the minds of people who choose not to believe any different. Constant, negative portrayal gives people the right to assume, judge, and in the case of the recent attacks in Christchurch, the right to walk into a mosque and murder 51 innocent men, women and children - with real families, real jobs, and real lives - and feel no remorse about it.
Hence, it is crucial that, authenticity and meaningful representation should be of utmost importance for us as writers, filmmakers, producers, broadcasters and funding agencies. As writers, the layers and nuances with which we create characters make audiences more empathetic towards them. By humanising characters from diverse backgrounds in mainstream film and TV content, we can manage (if not erase), racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
So, is ‘cultural consultancy’ the answer to ‘authentic representation’ on our screens? The answer for me (for now), is “possibly, but not entirely”.
It is important that the bigger picture is taken into account when bringing a cultural consultant on board, and even more so, when thinking of developing a story about or with a character from diverse cultural backgrounds in mind - and the question should always revolve around authenticity, meaningful representation and impact of that representation on the community in question.
Cultural consultancy is a lot more complex than it seems. There definitely is a place and need for this practice in the industry, however, the processes need to be refined, the outcomes need to be clear, and there needs to be a sincere, underlying intention from key creatives, consultants and producers, when including characters from or writing stories about diverse communities.
We, as writers, producers and broadcasters firstly need to ask ourselves the following questions;
Why are we telling or enabling the telling of these stories?
Why are we the right people/platforms to tell this story?
What impact will our work have on the larger community in question?
How are we using our position of privilege?
Until then, I will re-watch the trailer for season four of Greenleaf for the gazillionth time, patiently waiting for it to drop on Netflix later this year!
Kauthar Abdulalim was a Fellow in the 2019 Cinespace Social Cohesion on Screen
Writer's Fellowship, funded by the Victorian Government.
Kauthar Abdulalim is a young, Australian writer-director with Kenyan, Indian and
Pakistani heritage. She is the winner of the BMW Short Film Competition at the 2018 Indian Film Festival of Melbourne for her film Found, and a graduate of Film Victoria’s StoryLab initiative. In 2019, Kauthar was awarded an AFTRS scholarship for their ‘Writing for TV’ course and received Screen Australia development funding for her comedy/drama web-series Salma and the City. Kauthar has a degree in Islamic Studies and has worked as an impact producer in social justice filmmaking.
This article was first published on https://medium.com/the-screenwriters-social-cohesion-toolkit