Producer Olivia Charmaine Morris has a goal – to elevate the stories of glass breakers who are imagining a new narrative for people of color, especially those behind the scenes in Hollywood. With her production company Black Monarch Entertainment, she’s doing just that. Though we’re making strides slowly but surely regarding the representation of Black women on camera, what about what’s happening in camera, operations, scriptwriting and everything else that puts a production together?
According to a recent UCLA study, only 25% of all director/writer roles in films last year were reflective of minorities. Now Morris, who was the 2019 recipient of Shadow & Act’s Executive Rising Award, is doing the work to shift the Black and queer perspective in America starting in the writers’ room on out. “Emerging womxn, with the inclusive “x,” are early in their careers and are building confidence for their skills and abilities while working hard to establish themselves as potential leaders in the field,” Morris told ESSENCE.
“Hollywood was built by and designed for white men, yet with support, marginalized voices can and have flourished in this town,” she continued to explain about her dedication to womxn in the entertainment industry. “As a Black woman, it’s important for me to be a mirror and megaphone for my peers so that more people that look like me can have a seat at the table and the ability to shape the direction of the industry.”
Check out ESSENCE’s conversation below with Morris about her commitment to voices of emerging womxn, the importance of Black and queer intersectionality in entertainment, and the cultural relevance of her Instagram live series “The Tea.” See ahead:
ESSENCE: When did you first become interested in production?
Olivia Charmaine Morris: I’ve had an affinity with the entertainment industry from a very young age. Some of my earliest memories are performing on stage, taking singing lessons, or learning to play an instrument. One day, I was on set of a television commercial, and in between takes I started talking to the cameraman and boom operator. It was the first time I had ever thought about the other behind-the-scenes roles on set, and my interest was immediately sparked for production. I decided to apply to film schools around the country, and fell in love with New York University and living in the City.
ESSENCE: Where do you believe the industry has fallen short, and where can it improve regarding the proper representation of the stories of women?
Morris: The media portrays that girl’s and women’s value lies in youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in our capacity as leaders. These gendered stereotypes lead to the real-life underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence. For example, women make up only around 20% of directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top-grossing films of last year. As with most facets of the industry, the real shift in the cultural narrative regarding women comes from the top down.
ESSENCE: What steps can the industry take to address and tackle gender equality, especially for women?
Morris: An inclusion rider is a provision in an actor’s or filmmaker’s contract that provides for a certain level of diversity in casting and staff, and it’s a start towards a more inclusive production. Implementing these riders on all productions as a required industry standard could help to achieve more equality across the board. From executives to actors, the gender pay disparity has always been an issue in Hollywood. The average female member of the Screen Actors Guild earned 38% less than her average male counterpart last year, and the numbers are worse for performers over 40. Making salaries transparent would help ensure that men and women are being paid equitably.
ESSENCE: As a queer creative, what does “Pride” mean to you and what’s the importance of intersectionality of Black and queer in entertainment?
Morris: Pride is a radical act of self-love and inclusion in response to societal shame and social stigma that can come with being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s a self-affirming celebration of our colorful differences. In my opinion, intersectionality is the key to programming nuanced content. Being Black impacts your experience in LGBTQIA+ spaces, as does being queer in Black spaces. For people who hold multiple marginalized identities, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to explore the layers of these experiences with others. Mass media has the power to frame, bolster, and amplify diverse stories by humanizing these experiences into meaningful conversation.
ESSENCE: How can diversity in the writer’s room help shift the black and queer perspective in America?
Morris: According to Color of Change’s “Race in the Writer’s Room” report, 90% of showrunners are white, two-thirds of all television shows had no Black writers at all, and another 17% of shows had just one Black writer on staff. Many shows exist in universes without Black characters, and others rely on Black stereotypes to shape Black character portrayals.
Diversity in any writer’s room allows for writers to draw from personal experiences when shaping the characters that occupy each fictitious world, and hiring queer Black writers would account for more queer Black narratives. Just as media can amplify experiences into meaningful conversation, it can also shape our attitudes and perceptions of social issues, like race, gender, and sexual orientation. Our stories told from our perspective have the power of creating more awareness, empathy, and understanding.
ESSENCE: How are you helping to foster lasting inclusion in Hollywood?
Morris: I’m a film and television producer that recently started my own production company, Black Monarch Entertainment. From development to full-service production, Black Monarch is an artist collective that supports people of color and what I like to call “colorful people” – anyone from a marginalized community with a story to tell. Our artists, crews, and stories are inclusive, and we have an exciting slate of film and television projects underway. I consider myself a champion for artists that sit at intersections of “otherness,” and am honored to be able to build a safe space for content creators that drive social change.
ESSENCE: What is the cultural relevance of your IGTV show, “The Tea,” and how does it provide an all-inclusive safe space for Black people and people of color?
Morris: As an artist and media executive, I talk a lot with other artists and entertainment industry professionals working today in an effort to glean information about their career journeys, what inspires them, and insider business information that the audience might not know. The majority of my guests have been women and people of color, and the show is centered on amplifying their voices and personal experiences. I prepare for the show by intentionally setting the space – lighting sage and candles, pouring my tea in front of the audience and playing “The Tea” by Riah Dawn, which is an uplifting song about self-confidence. My goal in every show is to make the space feel warm, inviting, and intimate for each guest and member of the audience.