Hope for Diversity in Hollywood

Middlesex rounded out its observance of Black History Month on February 23 with an All-School Assembly on Zoom featuring writer and producer Peter Ray Saji, who shared his career path and reflected on diversity in Hollywood. Having been a lead writer for ABC’s hit show Black-ish for five seasons, Saji became a co-creator of the successful spinoff Mixed-ish and now writes for the show while also pursuing additional projects. His visit was arranged by Erika Prahl, dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, whose friendship with him goes back to their student days at Phillips Academy Andover.

A Born Storyteller

Departing from the usual format of delivering an address, Saji was interviewed ably by Olivia Clarke ’21, whose comprehensive questions covered everything from his early interests and influences to his thoughts on Hollywood to his advice for Middlesex students. “I always wanted to write,” he said, perhaps from the time he won the principal’s writing award in first grade. If being a Hollywood writer seemed like an impossible dream, his doubts were only confirmed by those who told him, “That’s crazy,” and by his father, who pressed him to go to law school. “My dad was from a different era,” he allowed. “Writing was a hobby, not a career.”

At Andover, however, Saji initially thought he would be a physicist – until his freshman physics course, that is. “I felt like everyone did their thing so well,” he said of his fellow students. “I was feeling like a fraud: I have no thing! Until I found it senior year.” Taking courses in photography and filmmaking that year, he remembered, “That was the hardest I ever worked in school; I was always either in the darkroom or the editing room.” And when his project was screened at Andover’s annual film festival, he recalled, “The first joke went over well. People were liking what I  did, and I thought, ‘I want this…forever.’”

Sitcom Start

While majoring in pre-law at the University of Virginia, Saji wrote a couple of screenplays and envisioned himself writing dramas. Instead, “I went to Hollywood and stumbled into comedy,” he said, working on scripts for TV shows like Cavemen and Cougar Town. “That I was getting paid to write was exciting,” he affirmed, even if the content was not quite what he had in mind, and he was the only person of color in the writers’ room.

At Black-ish, Saji found a more inclusive work environment. “I was in a room full of writers who had been ‘the only’ in the room, who had felt marginalized,” he related. “We could all exhale. The experience now is different; there are more opportunities for people telling different stories. It’s so different that it doesn’t feel real.”

Saji is credited with writing some of the most thought-provoking and important Black-ish scripts – the very ones that he is most proud of, particularly ‘Juneteenth,’ which commemorated June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in the U.S. were emancipated. “The idea of that episode was, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if that was a holiday?’” Saji explained. “Then, last year, banks were closed on that day. I never thought that would happen.”

His “Purple Rain” episode about Prince is another favorite, as is “Please, Baby, Please,” which ABC regarded as politically controversial and banned from being aired in 2018.  It was finally released on Hulu last August.

Learn from Failure

Whether or not Hollywood will continue to expand its openness to diverse stories is “too early to say,” cautions Saji, who is about to pitch a very personal show about his family. Asked for his parting advice, he stressed the value of failure and rejection. “My advice is: Go fail. So many kids are trying to be perfect. You need to try and make mistakes. That’s going to show you what you want to do. It’s going to show you what you want – like me: not physics. It’s also going to help you get better.”

Photo by Bjorn Iooss for Bonobos