Black History Month Feature: ShaRhonda Brown, Screenwriter and Filmmaker

The popularity of TV broadcasting in the 1950s tremendously changed the dynamic of American culture. Life before television involved an emphasis on reading and writing, gathering around the radio for daily talk shows, and unstructured outdoor play. What people didn’t realize was how much media was influencing their daily lives, and how television projected an entirely new system of mass communication.

A World War II study conducted by Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist, in the 1940s discovered the Gatekeeping Theory. The University of Twente states, “The gatekeeper is the person who decides what shall pass through each gate section, of which, in any process, there are several. The gating process can include a news item winding through communication channels in a group.” Gatekeeping in media is inevitable due to censorship, costs restraints, and government limitations. There became a distortion in reality for people because of how the media portrayed information, and how they would digest it and interpret it. Television would eventually lead to psychological factors of what was deemed important and entertaining to a larger audience. ad_tv.png

The Golden Age of Animation between the 1930s and 1950s also sparked development in film. ShaRhonda Brown has been able to use her drawing sills as a means of creating animated content for multiple television shows since 2007. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Brown has built a career as a screenwriter and filmmaker. She positioned herself to showcase her creativity as well as produce television shows for the public. Her work consists of script consulting, which is taking work from up and coming screenwriters and analyzing it. “I'm judging their writing and sometimes it can feel odd because I still feel like I have so much more to learn. So one thing I try to do is continue to learn as much as possible, and try to never be an expert that can't be taught. Because I realize we all can learn, and we all can teach.”

Putting out content for larger audiences has dramatically changed from generation to generation. Brown is able to contribute to this growing medium directly through the film industry, but her humble beginning started when she was very young. Brown wrote stories and began drawing with she was a child, and she even made comic book strips. She would eventually write a screenplay at the age of 16, and at the Columbus College of Art & Design she discovered her true passion. Writing and producing for film and television would be her ultimate goal.

Today we see the impact of television as America’s major communication medium as it influences the way people sees important social issues. However, it was in the late 1930s when Ethel Waters became the first African American to star in her own television show. According to Black Past, “In 1950, Ethel Waters was the first black American performer to star in her own regular television show, Beulah, but it was the 1961 role in the ‘Good Night, Sweet Blues’ episode of the television series Route 66 that earned her an Emmy award.  She was the first black so honored.”

It wasn’t until the late 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement when African Americans began to create their own narrative after years of negative representation portrayed in the media. “Heightened national consciousness, and media attention to the question of African-American race relations and the place of African-Americans in American society was initiated by media savvy civil rights leaders who effectively coordinated movement protests with television programming schedule to secure the widest coverage,” says Nadeem Fayaz in Academia. Soon enough, black public affairs television revolutionized the way audiences saw black people in media.

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Civil Rights March on Washington, DC, a Broadcast TV Crew

 

Thirteen.org states, “American producers, writers, and editors brought their news and views to programs like Black JournalSoul!, Say Brother, and many others... these new African-American journalists demanded more editorial control, increased funding, better broadcast times and a distinctly ‘Black’ aesthetic for their programs.” This was during a time when blacks had laws placed against them in regard to voting and the economic landscape, while also following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. African Americans began to take power into their hands and create programs that worked toward fighting against stereotypes and discrimination.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 8.35.02 AM.pngSoul! Host Ellis Haizlip interviews Melvin Van Peebles in 1971 as director Stan Lathan looks over a camera operator’s head.

 

As an African-American writer and coordinator for film, ShaRhonda Brown believes she is incorporating more representation into her work that impacts the black community. “On Black Dynamite at Adult Swim I was the ONLY woman in our writer's room. I represented the voice of women everywhere and my presence in the room kept the show from taking certain things too far,” she says. On another cartoon she produced she was able to stop the only black character in the cartoon from being associated with the word arrested. “They wanted to describe him as having an ‘arresting’ smile, and I changed it to say he has a ‘winning’ smile. The other non-black crewmembers didn't realize that having that word associated with the only black boy in the cast could be subliminally damaging.” 

Brown explains how there are small negative nuances in media that black people have to deal with everyday. She is happy knowing her presence helped stop one of these issues from occurring. However, she does say, “More conscious black people in more areas of media means an incident like a Sambo turtle neck at Gucci wouldn't make it to see the light of day.”

Sambo is a term stemming from slavery. The wool balaclava jumper from Gucci caused racial outrage because it resembled blackface. The Business Insider explains, “In 1899, a children's book, ‘The Story of Little Black Sambo,’ helped solidify the derogatory caricature of dark-skinned children. The resemblance of some of high fashion's hot items is striking.” It is clear that more African Americans need to be in a position to speak out against these decisions, and more white people that HAVE these positions must educate and advocate for their black counterparts. Still, this is easier said than done.

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Brown says it’s difficult coming into the film industry with zero connections. She says the film industry is based on nepotism, and quite often positions (especially with screenwriting) are filled based on referrals. People hire their friends and positions are rarely (or never) posted on job sites or are searchable to someone new. Brown says, “The saying in Hollywood is ‘It's not what you know, it's who you know,’ and that is the gospel truth. So if you don't know anyone, you can't get work. Because of this I've grown from being a shy girl who barely wants to talk, to a woman who commands the room and draws people to her.” Because of her hard work and dedication, Brown gets phone calls with countless offers for work that she has to turn down because she’s so busy with other various projects.

The statistics for black writers and producers are still staggering compared to whites. According to Colorlines, “Black writers make up only 4.8 percent of all writers’ rooms, while White people constitute 86.3 percent of the whole. About 69 percent of these showrunners’ programs feature no Black writers, and Two thirds (66.6 percent) of writers’ rooms hired by Black showrunners feature five or more Black writers.”

It’s unfortunate that even with black people within filmmaking, they often have their ideas shutdown or turned away. It wasn’t until 2017 at the 69th Grammy Awards where writer, producer and actress, Lena Waithe, became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, and Donald Glover became the first black man to win for directing a comedy series, as reported by Essence. Barriers are being broken and stigmas are slowly changing. It’s imperative that African Americans continue to show people their writing and acting talents to paint a bigger picture on screen.  

Brown has been able to improve representation as a black woman throughout her career. After moving to LA, she worked for networks like ABC, Adult Swim, TLC, NBC and more. She has also worked on such projects as America’s Got Talent, Miami Ink, and SpaceBalls! The Animated Series. Her favorite part of the job is the revolving creativity. “My life is constantly changing because the projects I'm involved in are constantly changing. I never know what's going to happen next in my line of work and for the past 10 years it's been mostly positive, fun, life-changing experiences.”

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You can visit ShaRhonda's Instagram here.