The 25-year-old screenwriting mastermind, Stefani Robinson, aims to create narratives and opportunities for those of color.
Stefani Robinson has a boundless gift for storytelling. The brilliant television writer-producer is magnifying her aims to create imaginative and layered narratives for characters, especially those of color. As a writer on FX’s comedies like Man Seeking Woman, Atlanta, and FXX’s action series Deadpool — which has since been canned by the network — the 25-year-old mastermind has shown her ability to successfully present witty and thoughtful narratives that traverse audiences.
In 2016, Robinson left her job as an agency assistant when she was asked by Donald Glover to come on board for the now award-winning series, Atlanta. In the writers’ room for the show, she’s the only woman at the table. It’s a singular existence but one that pushes Robinson to champion voices like hers while offering integral insight and perspective to the script. Atlanta’s cast is also mostly made up of men, except for Vanessa, a complex and blooming character played by thriving actor Zazie Beetz. Throughout seasons one and two of Atlanta, the nuances of Van’s identity are unearthed through scenes that Robinson regards as important to challenge the ways in which audiences typically engage with black women on screen.
“Screenwriting has traditionally been a boy’s club, race aside,” Robinson said. “Although it’s created notions about women — women who are writers, comedians, and content creators are challenging that idea, slowly but surely.”
But instead of viewing the male-dominated industry as a daunting feat, Robinson is maximizing her access and using it to dream outside of the limits that Hollywood often places on black creatives to only produce content specifically for and about black people.
Okayplayer spoke with Robinson about her early love for film and television; the importance of well-rounded portrayals of women; and how she navigates using her voice and advocating for those that go unheard.
Okayplayer: What’s your first memory of wanting to work in film and television?
Stefani Robinson: When I was a kid, I think I remember watching something like Willy Wonka and I was so excited by the set he used, the characters, and the fun of it. It was this idea of being able to create your subjects in a different world, and I was inspired by storytelling and thought of film and TV as a way to escape and I always wanted to be a part of it.
OKP: Before you went into TV writing, you were an assistant at an agency. But what type of practice did you commit to in order to prepare for the moment when you’d land such major TV writing roles?
SR: I actually went to school for screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston and I knew it was something that I wanted to do. When I was at school, I was doing it all the time and if I wasn’t doing it for projects or classes, I was doing it for fun and helping out friends with their film projects. I was writing comedy sketches for performances and things like that, so it had been something I was doing all the time. So when I was an assistant, it was something that I was always doing and writing was getting me ready to send out scripts and things like that.
OKP: When you first went into the writers’ room for Atlanta and learned about the concept and narrative, what’d you have in mind about how you wanted to bring your perspectives and or identity to the script? Or were those politics sort’ve second nature in the way they showed up?
SR: Donald was very specific when we first got to the writers’ room. He had a really good idea of what he wanted to hear because he and the other writers had talked about the show for a long time. A big portion of the show was already kind of laid out, but my role was helping to fill in the blanks and shading in the characters and really going into the minds of who they were going to be. A lot of that came from just my experience as a woman or a young person in the world. I was 23 at the time when I started writing for the show and I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. Donald was very open to just hearing about people’s lives and what they find interesting, weird, and what has affected us in interesting ways. Just being myself was super helpful.
OKP: In the first season of Atlanta, episodes like “Value” and “Juneteenth,” Vanessa’s identity had a real chance to shine and play out while still showing her navigate her relationship with Earn. But we also started to see her deal with conflict and situations outside of their dynamic. How important was it for you to explore Vanessa’s identity independent of her relationship with a man?
That’s usually one of the most important things to me, even outside of this show. Specifically with Van and Earn, and her relationship with him and how unconventional it is. But at the same time, it’s super important to me to make sure that the audience understands that she has a life, and she’s not just her relationship with Earn or even just her relationship with her daughter. She has friends, a job, and she gets frustrated and excited. She’s not just there to support the men on the show. Even within the “Juneteenth” episode where it was about her and Earn. You could see her relationship with an older woman and understand what she values and what’s important to her, or what she thinks she needs to do to be a great mom and successful human being in the world. It’s great to find what’s going on in her life or any other woman’s life outside of a romantic relationship.
OKP: The “Helen” episode from season two was all about Van. Taofik Kolade wrote that one, but can you speak to what it meant to have Van have this self-reckoning in a space that is pretty far out from some of the identity roles that we’ve associated her with?
SR: It was totally layered for her and Taofik did a really good job in juggling all of those things. In the writers’ room, we’re talking about Helen, which is this weird German town in the mountains of Georgia. It’s a strange, weird place and it feels out of place for Van but it’s also important for us to see that she’s surprised. She does have a backstory and a history and it was an interesting move for us and felt like the less sitcom-like version of what was expected. And that’s something that we were excited by. It’s an interesting metaphor for what’s going on in her head.
The festival was so chaotic, strange, and out of left field and it’s so much of what Van is dealing with. Her relationship with Earn is super chaotic and strange and there’s nothing really definitive about it. And her relationship with her friend who isn’t really her friend, who’s putting all of these weird racial politics on her. The episode did a really good job in encapsulating the randomness of Van’s life or just a person’s life. With television characters, we often think that we fully understand them and want them to be cookie cutter and easy to digest. But this episode did a really good job [in showing] that Van has a very complex rich life that exists in the universe we’ve created.
OKP: Do you ever feel some added pressure and responsibility being the only woman or one of a few black women in a writing room? Not just for Atlanta but for other projects series you’re working on or have done in the past? How do you navigate that?
SR: Totally, and even with Atlanta specifically, I’m working with men who are in tune with women and their relationships and experiences. But when you are the only one you can’t help but feel pressure. When I am the only woman, woman of color or person of color, it’s tough because you do feel an added responsibility. I can’t help it when I’m looking at a room full of people who are different than me. I can’t help but want to fight and champion people who don’t have voices. It’s not lost on me how lucky and fortunate I am to be in these positions with a lot of women of color.
We typically don’t have access to these type of careers or opportunities. So part of that is always playing in my mind, and navigating is hard because I don’t want to speak for all black people, people of color, or women because I think that’s also unfair. It’s a weird sort of feeling of being in the middle and it’s a hard balancing act. It just depends on the room and the people, and for me, it’s been about picking my battles. If I really feel that a story needs to be told, or be told a certain kind of way or by a woman I will fight for those opportunities. But at the same time, you have to be diplomatic.
OKP: There’s also often this notion that black writers and creatives can only create “black content” for black people. How do you challenge that idea and those limitations?
SR: I don’t think it’s true at all and it’s so unfair to say. Steven Spielberg directed The Color Purple, which is insane to me and it’s this idea that white filmmakers and creators are able to do so much. They’re able to pick whatever stories that they want and the ways they want to tell them. So I challenge the notion that black people can only write “black things” with that idea. The same logic could be applied to any creator. If they’re a smart creator, director, writer, or whatever role, they have no limits.
They’re unbound by race and those boundaries are unfortunately pressed upon writers of color by the industry. It’s frustrating for someone like me because I’m interested in so many things. So many different things inspire me and it didn’t necessarily spawn out of the black culture that I grew up knowing. I’m ready to tackle everything, I just like telling stories. I object to the idea that black filmmakers can only do that. Now, if black creatives want to only tell stories that’s totally fine. But I don’t like the idea that that’s what we’re allowed to do or only have the tools to do.
OKP: You wrote this week’s “Barbershop” episode of Atlanta. What can you share about it?
SR: It’s a goofier Atlanta episode and less heavy than most of the season already has been. It’s a moment of levity in the middle of the season that breaks up the intense things that characters have been going through so far.
OKP: What do you envision your impact to be?
SR: Being in this space, invited to the party and having a seat at the table is important. I hope that because of me, other women of color can do it and that it’s not impossible and instead it’s something that is attainable. Because it’s what a lot of women and black women deserve. There’s so much space for our voices not only with comedy but also in the entertainment industry, we can all have a go at it.
Lakin Starling is a New York-based freelance writer who formerly wrote for Fader. Follow her on Twitter @lakinimani.