When you look at the slate of programs Tara Duncan has been responsible for over the course of her career, you understand why she considers the best piece of advice she’s ever received to be, “Focus on what you like.”
Those words were spoken to Duncan when she was an assistant building a name for herself in television. The Southern California native is now the President of Freeform and Onyx Collective, and the successes of some of her earliest ventures since she joined Disney General Entertainment in 2020 demonstrate how true that sentiment still rings. Duncan oversaw the cable network’s biggest series debut with the launch of Cruel Summer in 2021—the same year Onyx Collective was launched, with the specific goal of providing a platform for creators of color and underrepresented communities. One year later, at the 94th Academy Awards, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for Summer of Soul, which streamed on Hulu, the main hub for Onyx content.
Having since added the legal drama Reasonable Doubt, the docuseries The Hair Tales and The 1619 Project to Onyx Collective’s program offerings, Duncan is proving narratives that center Black experiences are a sure bet in an industry where many still consider them a gamble. The former Netflix executive, who oversaw such hit series as Orange Is the New Black and Narcos, now says of her ability to pick a winning story, “The secret is there is no secret. I am very fortunate that I’ve been able to trust my instincts and not be too worried about the outcome. If there’s something that really connects with me emotionally and feels like it’s honest, I follow that feeling, and so far, it’s been working.”
Another power move? Duncan’s not afraid to take a loss, in the unlikely event that her gut proves wrong. “If we’re going to fail,” she says, “then let’s fail big.”
Here, the 2023 Black Women in Hollywood honoree shares her journey from intern to executive with ESSENCE.
In your own words, where does your journey as a Black woman in Hollywood begin?
Tara Duncan (TD): My journey as a Black women in Hollywood begins my senior year of high school. I met a woman named Sandra Dorsey Rice who worked for the Emma L. Bowen Foundation, which placed kids who are interested in media in careers, and so I started off as an intern at ABC Daytime because of Sandra Dorsey Rice. I started there on my first day of college and that’s really what put me on the path.
Were you already interested in a career in entertainment at that time?
TD: I was always really interested in film and TV. I was a kid who was writing scripts in elementary school and always trying to do plays. So when I met Sandra I stalked her for the summer and I knew that she was going to be my ticket, and she was.
There are a lot of conversations around the opportunities streaming platforms have created for Black talent, but can you speak to the opportunities they create for Black women such as yourself who want to call the shots behind the scenes?
TD: I think the opportunities that streaming has created are really because of the audience. When you’re in a situation like we are in the business where you’re really trying to diversify your slate and make sure you have something for everyone, instead of producing a few things that are just supposed to work broadly, the demands and the needs of audiences that want to see people and characters and stories that are reflective of their lives becomes more of a priority. So working in streaming there is just more of a global perspective and more of a demand for content for audiences of color.
Where do you draw inspiration from for the stories that you see get told?
TD: I draw inspiration from my family. My family watches a lot of movies. They watch a lot of TV shows. It’s something that we are always talking about every holiday, and so whether it’s my sister or my dad, my Auntie Netty who watches everything, I really draw inspiration from what they’re loving, what they are missing, the things that get them really excited.
Hair Tales and The 1619 Project are some of the latest Onyx Collective releases. Can you speak to how these series fit into the overall voice and goal of the brand?
TD: Hair Tales is a show that I’m so immensely proud of. It is one that was a personal passion project of mine, and to me it really speaks to the ethos of Onyx Collective because we really want to have content that is reflective of Black women, our experience, and that feels like it’s speaking directly to that audience and to me that show really encapsulates that.
The same thing with 1619. Nikole Hannah-Jones is such a force, and so for us to be able to get behind the true top-notch journalism that the New York Times was able to put forth in that project and give it new life as a docuseries just really amplified what we’re trying to do at Onyx.
The resounding message in Hollywood now is that everyone wants to be able to tell their own stories, and that’s true whether you’re still in school or you’re a Tracee Ellis Ross or Kerry Washington. What feedback have you gotten from some of the more established actresses about the opportunities that Onyx has created for them to be able to take the reigns at this stage in their careers?
TD: The feedback that I’ve received has been resoundingly positive. To build a brand from scratch takes so much work and we are truly only as good as our partners, and so there’s just been so much support and really people understanding the vision and the significance of us building a new brand for Disney at this moment in time. What I really love is everyone really sees the ambition of it, and so we are just continuing to plow ahead and make sure that we’re delivering on the support that we’ve received.
In your Vanity Fair profile, you talked about how the death of Trayvon Martin made you realize the power you have as a programmer and a gatekeeper. What does being a gatekeeper mean to you as a network exec?
TD: Being a gatekeeper to me is really about creating opportunity for not only audiences who look like me, but truly for everyone else. I think as Black people, wherever we go we are constantly changing the rules for the better and we’re also organically inclusive. So for me it’s not even just about Black people, it’s about everyone.
Did you see anyone else doing what you are doing before you were doing it?
TD: Absolutely. Some of the executives who have really inspired me are Channing Dungey, Pearlena Igbokwe, they’re constant mentors of mine. Dana Walden who I work for now, they are powerhouses and so I’m just trying to step into the footprints that they’ve already laid out on the path.
What are you most proud of over the course of your career so far?
TD: The thing that I’m most proud of in my career so far are the relationships that I have. Ultimately it’s about the people that let you in and that you are allowed to be your full self with, and that’s what breeds the most creativity, and I’m really proud of the community of people that I have surrounding me.
Photographed by Paul Mpagi Sepuya – @pagmi
Styled by Jason Rembert – @jasonrembert
Hair by Brandi Bradl at Push Braids, Inc – @p_u_s_h_braids
Makeup by Katherine Smith using Dior Beauty at Celestine Agency – @kaedoesmakeupp
Photography Studio Manager: Nico Dregni
Florals: Sebastian Jamal
Styling Assistants: Kirsten McGovern and Christina Arroyo
Tailor: Irina Tshartaryan
Production Coordinators: Gabriel Bruce, Benjamin Rigby, Alaura Wong
Production Assistant: Jordan Mack
Photography Direction by Michael Quinn – @_mq______
Production by The Morrison Group – @themorrisongroup
Special Thanks to Luxe Sprinter LA