Steve Duncan does not want to be the diversity guy. But the veteran screenwriting professor can’t change that. “When I started teaching college students 20 years ago, just the fact that I was the teacher–a black man teaching–motivated students to want to explore stories that weren’t about themselves,” he says. That trend has motivated Duncan to talk about race in his classroom, and to ask his students deeper questions about the characters they are developing.
“Is that a black character,” he asks a student. “An Asian character?” “I don’t know,” comes the reply. “What do you mean you don’t know? But you have to know,” he says. “You can’t write generic people.”
Duncan grew up in the segregated south, his formative years spent in the midst of the civil rights movement. Despite an absence of diverse professional role models and a lack of diverse characters depicted in film or on TV, Duncan embraced his parents’ mantra–you can be whatever you want to be, just don’t think it’s impossible. Usher in the late 1960s and 1970s, when television executives began to change the complexion of network TV, a reflection of the social and legal movement pushing for the integration of civil rights.
“You started seeing people who looked like you on television. All of the 70s black exploitation movies I loved because there were a lot of strong black heroes, even though most were criminals, we didn’t care,” he says. “We thought it was great because let’s face it, police and the government weren’t treating black people all that well in the 60s and 70s. So Shaft and all those characters, we loved them, even though they were pimps.”
While comedy brought more diverse characters into American living rooms, Duncan says it was more or less a stereotypical view of black culture interpreted by white writers and leaned towards Vaudeville. A few shows, like Good Times and The Jeffersons, were more realistic. “George Jefferson said what we were thinking and it had an interracial marriage,” he says. “So it had the smart talking maid who wasn’t just shuffling and jiving, she was saying what all black maids were thinking.”
Black dramas were rare. The Emmy Award-winning Tour of Duty, created by Duncan and L. Travis Clark in 1987, was one of the first, and one of the first to show Americans in combat in Vietnam and to address complex issues of politics, racism, faith, suicide, terrorism, civilian deaths and drug addiction.
Inspired in part by his service in the Navy (he was drafted upon completion of his undergraduate degree in visual arts), Duncan developed the Tour of Duty pilot after earning his M.A. in Communications Arts in Film and Television at LMU. “I was stationed here for recruiting, I needed to get a master’s degree to be promoted in the Navy because I was on a fast-track in the Navy as an officer,” he says. “And then I discovered screenwriting here at Loyola and that was it. It was like OK I can’t stay in the Navy anymore.”
Fast forward to 2014. Shonda Rhimes is one of the most powerful showrunners in Hollywood, with credits including Scandal, Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy. And Wendy Calhoun is a producer on Empire, Justified and Nashville. How do these African-American women continue to advance diversity in Hollywood? “Success,” says Duncan. “It’s always about success.”
Steve Duncan’s new feature-length documentary film, The Hue, Tint and Shade of Words: Diverse Screenwriters in the Entertainment Industry, screens on SFTV’s Monday Nights Series on Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Mayer Theater. The film showcases diverse professional screenwriters in the entertainment industry sharing their views on the importance of diverse storytelling. For more information and to RSVP, click here.