Why TV Writer Angela Nissel, Black Females in Hollywood Need to be Heard

By Yesha Callahan, The Root

If you took a look at the writers’ room of some of your favorite television shows, you’d be hard-pressed to find a black person, and even harder pressed to find a black woman. But for the last decade, Angela Nissel has been leaving her mark behind the scenes on shows like Scrubs, The Boondocks and, now, The Jellies—Tyler, the Creator’s Adult Swim show, which premieres Oct. 22.

Before Nissel’s foray into scripted television, she was best-known as one of the creators of Okayplayer and for her two sidesplitting memoirs that captured the essence of her formative years, and of being broke and biracial. Both The Broke Diaries: The Completely True and Hilarious Misadventures of a Good Girl Gone Broke and Mixed: My Life in Black and Whitewere heralded by critics, as well as the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry, and Nissel became the “it” woman of literature in the early 2000s.

Angela Nissel, Scenes from ‘The Jellies’ (Adult Swim)

It was those books that set the University of Pennsylvania grad (she graduated with a degree in medical anthropology) on her way to a career in TV. But, of course, Nissel’s ascent into television writing wasn’t easy, especially as a black woman. After being in the game for 15 years, she is still fighting her way into writers’ rooms, and she made it into The Jellies’room even though she thought she hadn’t landed the gig.

“Me being old enough to be Tyler’s aunt, I said, ‘I’ve heard of him,’ but I don’t really know him. And then I researched him. I was nervous in the meeting, but when Tyler came in, he just wanted to get to know about me. Ten minutes later, the meeting was over. I called my agent and was like, ‘I’m pretty sure I didn’t get that job; they thought I was a total nerd,’” Nissel says.

As luck talent would have it, Nissel landed the consulting-producer-and-writing gig on the series, and so her work began. And, yes, she was once again the only black woman in the writers’ room. As Nissel segues back into animation (after lending her talents to The Boondocks), she notes that writing live action and books is totally different from writing for animation, especially when it comes to the fans.

“How many f—— black cartoon characters is it on TV right now?” Tyler responded. “Name five. I’ll give you time.”

Nissel shares similar sentiments about Cornell’s newfound blackness.

“If you don’t like Cornell being black, color him another color in your head. What is wrong with people wanting to see the representation of themselves on-screen?” Nissel asks. “That’s why I think their generation will do better, and hopefully build on what my old-ass generation wasn’t able to do. Tyler is an outsider coming into this industry and wants Cornell to look like him. I don’t understand how anyone can be upset with that.”

With the success of this summer’s blockbuster hit Girls Trip, the spotlight is now shining on funny black women in front of and behind the camera. And Nissel has some savory advice for the bigwigs in Hollywood.

“I wish more people realize that having one voice in the room sometimes isn’t enough because you’re only going to get one point of view. At the end of the day, I just wish people would go outside of the neighborhoods and make friends with people who aren’t exactly like them, so they can bring that to the room if they don’t have the budget to hire 25 women,” Nissel says.

“I really want to create shows that show that women over the age of 40 still have lives, and they can be messy,” she adds. “To talk about the imbalance of women and men, like my own personal story of paying alimony. I want to tell the richness of women of color over 40 because sometimes I look on TV and we’re all dead, except for Oprah.”

The Jellies premieres on Adult Swim at 12:15 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 22.

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Turning the Tables on Civil Rights: The 1970s and 1980s

Griot: Dawson Barrett

Photo and Copy Editor: Fran Kaplan

 

The Civil Rights Movement and Other Movements of the 50s and 60s

In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activists in cities all over the United States fought against racial discrimination.  They participated in sit-ins, marches, and protests.  They risked their lives.  Sometimes, they were even killed.  In response to this pressure, the US government passed many civil rights laws.

The Civil Rights Movement also influenced other activists.  Many of them protested for freedom and equality, as well.  They included the Women’s Rights Movement, the Peace Movement, and the Environmental Movement.

During this period, many new laws were passed in favor of women’s rights and the environment. However, not all Americans agreed with these movements.

The Counter-Movement Turns the Tables in the 70s and 80s

During the 1970s, opponents of these movements started a movement of their own.  To overturn the gains of the 1960s, they spent millions of dollars on advertising and political campaigns.  This movement, sometimes called “the New Right,” pushed for a different kind of freedom.  Instead of equality for blacks and women, they sought freedom for American businesses.

They had four main goals:

  1. To have complete freedom to make money through businesses.  This included the freedom to exploit their workers and pollute the environment.
  2. To get rid of public property, such as public parks and schools.
  3. To cut taxes for the richest Americans.
  4. To cut funding for public services, like education, housing, and food stamps.

The philosophy that combines these goals is called “neo-liberalism.” These policies moved the government away from helping the poor and protecting the environment.  Instead, the government worked to help the richest Americans get even richer.

A Turning Point: The Election of President Ronald Reagan 

In 1980, these groups united to support Ronald Reagan for President.  Reagan promised to undo the gains of the 1960s.  He even began his campaign with a speech against civil rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  This small town was famous because three civil rights activists in their twenties – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – were murdered there in 1964. (A fictionalized account of these murders and the subsequent FBI investigation is portrayed in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.)

Reagan was true to his word.  While he was President, the government became less concerned about racial discrimination. Reagan made William Rehnquist the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.  Rehnquist was a firm opponent of civil rights legislation.

President Reagan also worked against women’s rights.  He closed many government agencies, like the Office on Domestic Violence.  He also spoke out against changing the US Constitution to outlaw sexual discrimination.

Reagan also put some of the country’s worst polluters in charge of environmental programs. Anne Gorsuch, formerly a lawyer who represented mining and agricultural companies, became head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  James Watt, who had started a group devoted to fighting environmental protections, was made Secretary of the Interior.  As expected, they did very little to protect the Earth.

During the 1980s, over 1 million Americans became homeless.  At the same time, Reagan made massive cuts to federal housing assistance.  Reagan also cut taxes for the richest Americans by more than half.  The poor became poorer.  The rich became richer.

President Reagan also approved $1 trillion in military spending.  It was the largest peace-time military spending in history.

 

New Activists Speak Out Through the Arts

By the end of the Ronald Reagan’s presidency, many of the victories of 1960s activists had been overturned.

However, many new movements also started during this period.  They included hip hop and punk rock music.  Artists in these movements often spoke out against racial inequality, poverty, and police brutality.  Unlike the activists of the 1960s, though, these movements did not focus their efforts on changing US laws.

Sources:

Faludi, Susan. Backlash:  The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York:  Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1991.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Green Revolution. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.

Saloma III, John S. Ominous Politics:  The New Conservative Labyrinth. New York:  Hill and Wang, 1984.

 

Dawson Barrett is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  He recently taught a history course on American activism and countercultures in the post-1960s period.