Last year gave viewers some of the most interesting, daring, and diverting television shows and movies, with Black screenwriters creating some of the best stories of the year.
Writers have always been essential to the success of Hollywood, entertainment, and media, considering that, without them, there would be nothing to produce. Writers create the blueprints for story and are integral in imagining the worlds, characters, and stories that make audiences experience ranges of emotions from joy to sadness and fear to delight.
To celebrate the hard work and imaginations of those who take the fanciful ideas of their minds to paper and ultimately to the television screens in households around the globe, we rounded up nine up-and-coming Black screenwriters working in television and film that should be on your radar.
Writer Inspirations: Issa Rae, Ryan Murphy, Aaron Sorkin, and Michaela Coel
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: I May Destroy You, Shameless, Fleabag, Insecure, Barry
Best advice received as a writer: “Keep writing!”
Mike Gauyo is currently experiencing a full-circle moment. Having just completed the writers’ room for the fifth and final season of Insecure, he recalls how he got his very first paid writing gig – a job on the narrative podcast Fruit.
“Issa gave me my first writing job,” Gauyo told Okayplayer. “That was around the time Serial and drama podcasts were jumping off. She had just started the writers’ room for season one of Insecure, but all the support staff positions were filled. But she called me a couple of months later to hire me for Fruit.”
Five years later, Gauyo found himself working as a story editor for Insecure, an experience he describes as a “dream come true.” At a young age, he fell in love with TV and wondered how it all happened, but didn’t see the pathway from writing as a hobby to writing as a career. Growing up in a Haitian immigrant household it was drilled into him that he should become a doctor or a lawyer, although ultimately it was his mother who encouraged him to take a leap of faith and move from his hometown of Boston to Los Angeles.
After writing on two seasons of Fruit, Gauyo was hired as a writers’ assistant for Claws and worked on the show for three seasons. His boss, Janine Sherman Barrois, helped him find his manager, who then helped him snag his first staff writer job on the Netflix show Ginny & Georgia, which premieres on February 24th.
Writer Inspirations: Jordan Peele, Kenny Ortega, Michaela Coel, and Issa Rae.
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: Highschool Musical The Series, The Boys, I May Destroy You
Best advice received as a writer: “My friend Ashley Nicole Black once told me, ‘If you’re in a show, and you don’t like the sketch you’re in just write something better.’ As a writer I know I can always just write something better that makes them not want to do what I don’t like.”
Dewayne Perkins’ first writing job was on the Netflix show The Break with Michelle Wolf. Since then he has worked in narrative shows like MTV’s Undressed and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He’s found his way back to late night writing on The Amber Ruffin Show.
“With Michelle Wolf I had to tailer my writing to a certain audience,” Perkins said. “But with Amber Ruffin I can write closer to self. It’s more cathartic, like oh maybe she can actually say the thing that I’m thinking and it doesn’t come off too weird.”
Although he feels more comfortable sharing his political and social commentary jokes with Amber Ruffin’s audience, his unique perspective helped him write a joke for Michelle Wolf to use during The 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner that was named one of the best jokes of 2018 by The New Yorker. It was the first time he was able to see how comedy could translate through identities. Wolf had written 99% of the speech, but asked her writers to pitch her some ideas, and, fortunately, his caught her attention.
“Nobody else in that room could’ve wrote an Uncle Tom joke,” Perkins, one of the only Black writers in the room, said. “It made me feel like my voice is needed. My perspective is a superpower.”
Growing up, Perkins loved to watch cartoons and went to school to study animation. While in school, he realized he ultimately loved story and the concept of creating characters, worlds, and fantasy. As a writer, his transition from late night to narrative wasn’t very difficult.
“I don’t know why people don’t talk about this more, narrative is significantly easier than late night,” Perkins said, “With late night, writers depend heavily on working with the news cycle, whereas narrative is heavily predicated on imagination and creating endless scenarios. All I do is sit and think about things that could happen.”
Before he started writing jokes of the year and getting paid for his overactive imagination, Perkins worked with sketch comedy collective called 3Peat at Second City in Chicago. His opening sketch for the Black sketch review, called Afro-Futurism, and another show called Black Side of the Moon became a digital short when 3Peat was approached by Comedy Central to create online content. The sketch became The Blackening, a digital short lampooning horror tropes with a story of Black friends stuck in a cabin with a murderer. The short caught the attention of television writer and producer Tracy Oliver (Survivor’s Remorse, First Wives Club, Little) who approached Perkins to co-write a feature film adaptation of the short film, which is now in development with MRC Film and The Story Company.
Writer Inspirations: Marcus Gardley, Tarell Alvin McCraney, August Wilson, and Lorraine Hansberry
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: I May Destroy You, Fleabag, Ozark, Watchmen
Best advice received as a writer: “Marcus Gardley once said, and I’ll probably butcher this quote, ‘The answer to your problem is inherent in the storytelling and world you’ve created.'”
For York Walker, being a writer was never something he imagined for himself. His passion was always in acting, specifically theatre acting. He stumbled into writing during an actors apprenticeship at the Actor Studio in Louisville, Kentucky. For the apprenticeship, participants were required to write and perform a solo show.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Walker said. “But my show got a lot of laughs and people seemed to enjoy it. So that was new.”
It wasn’t until Walker was in graduate school at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco that he turned to writing as a way to navigate the process of coming out.
“In acting you learn how to play other people honestly and truthfully,” Walker said. “And here I was trying to play other people honestly and lying to myself. I realized this isn’t working.”
He started working on a play about a man becoming a preacher in the ‘60s. The man was gay, and he had a past lover come to town. Walker asked some friends to participate in a table read at his apartment. “It was almost as if I hadn’t written it,” Walker said. “Of course it was a mess, but there was something in there that made me think, ‘Oh, this can work.”
Currently, Walker is an artist in residence at the Vineyard Theatre as the inaugural recipient of the theatre’s Colman Domingo Award. Walker had never heard of the award and didn’t apply, but has been a long admirer of Domingo and met him when the Euphoria star came to visit a rehearsal for a play Walker was involved in. When the literary manager for the Vineyard theatre reached out to him on Facebook asking if he had any plays to share, he wasn’t expecting a surprise phone call from Domingo offering him the residency.
“After my general meeting with them I was a little sad because they didn’t offer me a full production even though it went really well,” Walker said. “But I did mention Colman was on my vision board during our conversation, and five minutes after the call [the literary manager] Facetimes me with Colman on the line. And he says, ‘Hey York, do you remember me?’”
Since then, Domingo has helped Walker acquire representation, which has opened another layer of access for him.
Writer Inspirations: Pamela Adlon, Jenna Bans, Donald Glover, and Christopher Nolan
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: Succession, Atlanta, and Lovecraft Country
Best advice received as a writer: This career in this industry is a marathon, not a sprint. Writing is rewriting.
Bri Belser has always been a performer. At age five she was starring in commercials and participating in pageants. She loved the idea of entertaining and enjoyed the energy of being on stage, but there came a time when she no longer wanted her success to depend on the generosity of others.
“As I got older I realized I couldn’t perform until I booked the gig,” Belser said. “And there is no gig until it’s written.”
After college, she snagged a job at WME, one of the big four Hollywood agencies. Part of her responsibilities was completing weekly script coverage, and the more scripts she read the more she thought she could do it.
While she worked on learning to write she continued to audition for roles but didn’t find anything that she really felt she could dig into. “All of the roles were for the Black friend who tells the white girl that she can get the guy,” Belser said. “I didn’t see anything, so I decided I needed to make it myself.”
Trying to get her first movie off the ground was a challenge. Each feature is like a startup, and there were several hoops to go through including financing, packaging, and attachments that made it difficult for her to get the ball rolling. She submitted her feature script to every screenwriting competition she could think of and won the Athena Film Festival screenwriting competition where the prize was a trip to New York City to workshop her script. It was during that process where she networked her way into her first television job as a writers’ PA on Snowfall.
From there she interviewed a showrunner’s assistant job offer on Jane The Virgin. Less than 24 hours later she received a call informing her there was an opening in the writers’ room for Dietland and she took that job instead.
“It was my first time getting staffed, and it was from a feature. I worked on another writing sample during those 10 weeks in the room, so when the second season of Dietland got canceled I started passing around that second sample,” Belser said. “Literally two months later I was interviewing for [Netflix’s] Ginny & Georgia.”
Her first time watching an episode of television she wrote air was “The Perils of the Plea” on CBS’ show All Rise this past December. Seeing her name in the writer credits on screen for the first time was such a celebratory moment, even with all of the challenges to create the episode.
“TV is so fast-paced, it’s already a lot of pressure,” Belser said. “The air date is set before episodes are conceived sometimes, but adding in COVID[-19], writing so that production can obey our COVID protocols, and have the subject matter be relevant… was an interesting challenge.”
Writer Inspirations: Issa Rae, Kenya Barris, Ryan Coogler, Dee Rees, Mara Brock Akil, and Spike Lee
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: This Is Us, Queen’s Gambit, Insecure
Best advice received as a writer: “Don’t let anyone read your first draft until it’s done.”
Nekala Alexander remembers seeing the credits for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a kid and asking her dad what a screenwriter was. “He basically said they tell people what to say,” she said. “It was a watered-down version, but it got me interested.”
Alexander wrote plays for church and her friends, but when it was time to choose a major in college she decided to study journalism. (“There was no film studies at my school so I decided to stick as close to storytelling as possible.”) At the time, the landscape of journalism was changing drastically, shifting from print to digital. Alexander was more interested in print journalism, so she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay in the field.
She started writing scripts for friends again, and in 2016, she wrote her first script for an anthology series a friend of hers was creating. She joined the screenwriting collective Damn Write Originals, which helped her produce her first short film, Lavender. Her second short film with the collective, called The Ride, was based on a true story from an experience she had with an Uber driver.
Her third short film, the heartwarming, family-fun comedy Arms and Legs Go Here, recently premiered on AspireTV. The network has a partnership with Damn Write Originals and reached out to the collective for short film ideas.
Writer Inspirations: Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: The Crown, Bridgerton, Big Mouth, The Flight Attendant, Great British Baking Show
Best advice received as a writer: “Write!”
It was a six-week study abroad experience in Paris that made Cynthia Adarkwa want to pursue writing full time.
“In the class, African-Americans in the City of Lights, we studied Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin,” Adarkwa said. “The greats. And that’s when it clicked that I could be a writer and still survive.”
At the time Adarkwa was a business major, but she switched to study screenwriting and ultimately moved to LA to pursue the craft. Initially, she thought she would only write features, but when she arrived in LA she realized television was huge and that was how many people made their careers in writing.
She started out as a production assistant on shows like American Idol and The Real and worked on her scripts at night. It was Twitter that helped her get her “big break.”
“A group of female writers were looking to boost up and coming or aspiring writers in the industry,” Adarkwa said. “They had trivia questions every Wednesday and I answered one of the questions correctly.”
Her prize was notes from a working TV writer on one of her scripts. She sent in her pilot and received great, anonymous notes. “Seeing as how I didn’t know anyone in television I knew I needed to find out who this writer was,” Adarkwa said. “I emailed them back, essentially shooting my shot and asked if they needed an assistant.”
Fortunately, the writer did and Cynthia began working with her. The writer was working with another writer who became the showrunner on Sweet Vicious, and Adarkwa was hired as a writers’ assistant. The second season for the show was canceled, but Adarkwa went on to work on two smaller digital shows before landing a staff writer gig on Legacies where she now serves as story editor.
In 2018, Adarkwa was featured alongside 62 Black women television writers in The Hollywood Reporter’s write-up on Black Women Brunch, a collective started by Lena Waithe, Nkechi Okoro Carroll, and Erika L. Johnson. Adarkwa says the group of women has an open-door policy for writers invited to their meetups. It serves as support systems for Black women navigating a predominantly white and male industry.
Richard “Byrd” Wilson and Lucien Christian Adderley
Writer Inspirations: Tarell Alvin McCraney, Misha Green, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, and Guillermo del Toro
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: Lovecraft Country, I May Destroy You, Into the Badlands, Mindhunters, Succession, Black Monday
Best advice received as a writer: “The writing is in the rewriting. Fall in love with the process.”
Lucien and Byrd became writing partners in college when they met at Florida State University. They were both spoken word artists and ended up in a poetry competition together.
“Lucien and I had a way of talking through our imaginations together,” Wilson said.
After graduating, Adderley went on to receive his master’s degree in screenwriting at Full Sail University. While studying, he would bounce his ideas off of Byrd and would share his lessons from class with Byrd.
“Everything I was learning I would pass those lessons to him,” Adderley said. “From there we started writing scripts together and entering competitions.”
They entered both Sundance and NBC’s Writers on the Verge screenwriting competitions and made it to the second round of both, so they knew they had something but still worked on creating opportunities for themselves. In 2017, a short film they wrote and worked on with director Jon Lesane called Woe was featured on Issa Rae Presents Short Film Sundays.
“We filmed that in our garage in LA,” Adderley said. “Lesane had established a good relationship with Rae’s team, so we got the film to them and they loved it.”
But it wasn’t anyone in Hollywood who helped Adderley and Byrd get staffed for their first television show.
“We met with my middle school theatre teacher Tanisha Cidel, a legend in South Florida, and showed her what we had been working on,” Adderley said. “At the time Tarell Alvin McCraney was looking for writers from Florida for his show David Makes Man, and she asked if we minded her sending our materials over to him.”
The writing pair didn’t expect anything to come of it. But a couple of weeks later Adderley received a phone call from Cidel saying the team was holding the last of their interviews that week and asked if they would be available to meet in two days. The next two days were chaotic, as the writing team broke down the script, listened to podcasts about writer meetings, and collected money to buy Wilson a flight out to LA.
“We were so over-prepared,” Wilson said. “But we had never been in a writers meeting for a show before, so we didn’t know what to expect. We showed up in full suits with binders full of notes on the script… We knew we did well when one of the producers in the room started crying.”
Their work on the show earned OWN network their first Peabody award. The most surreal moment for them after being hired was learning that they’d be writing the second episode of the season with McCraney. Adderley loves theatre, a passion he shares with McCraney, and the three writers refer to themselves as The Florida Boys.
“We all understand South Florida culture, so telling a story where we are all from makes it even more special, Adderley said.
Writer Inspirations: Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: I May Destroy You, The Undoing, Normal People, P-Valley, Little Fires Everywhere
Best advice received as a writer: “Writers write!”
Ugandan filmmaker Kemiyondo Coutinho’s aspirations in entertainment did not include writing; she wanted to be an actor. And when she was 17 she wanted to act in a one-woman show about an African woman.
“I couldn’t find any one-woman shows,” Coutinho said. She then decided to find a play about African women that she could adapt into a one-woman show. And, again, her search left her empty-handed. “Here I am in Africa and there is nothing. So I decided to just write it.”
She wrote Jabulile, which translates to happiness, about street market women in South Africa, and toured internationally with the show. In college she still wasn’t getting cast in anything, so she wrote another one-woman show about HIV-positive women in Uganda, which also toured internationally and was invited to the Gates Foundation.
At the end of her graduate school studies at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, she had to do another showcase, and she found herself in the same position of not getting roles. So she wrote another scene.
“If I was a white guy who had content to act in, I wouldn’t write. But I wrote and performed the showcase and received overwhelming feedback from agents, managers, and studios. And I didn’t book anything!”
Coutinho realized that people were reacting more to her writing than her acting.
“Now I understand that with anything I write there is probably another actor who can do just as good a job of me or better playing the role,” Coutinho said. “But there are only certain stories that only I can tell.”
Her short film, Kyenvu, won the Pan-African Film Festival and the Harness Social Award at NBC Short Film Festival.
“I shot that for $3,300 in three days,” says Coutinho. “I only cast Ugandan actors and hired Ugandan crew. I wanted to show that Ugandans can make world-class films.”
Coutinho admits she was one of those naïve writers who thought you just go to Hollywood and sell a show. She never considered being in a TV room until her first general meeting at MTV/VH1, which she got from the executives watching Kyenvu. Two months passed before she got a call informing her she was being hired for the mini room for MTV’s Undressed. From there she was staffed on Step Up: High Water and is currently staffed on the second season of Qatori Hall’s P-Valley.
Writer Inspirations: Bong Joon Ho and Alice in Borderland writers Yoshiki Watabe, Yasuko Kuramitsu, and Shinsuke Sato
Favorite shows on air/streaming right now: Alice in Borderland, What We Do In The Shadows, I May Destroy You, Undone, Monster (anime), One Punch Man (anime)
Best advice received as a writer: “It’s just writing, don’t think too hard. Don’t take yourself too seriously.”
Vanessa Benton admits she doesn’t have the typical “I’ve wanted to do this my entire life.” On the contrary, Benton had no idea what she wanted to do when she first went to college. Although she grew up in a creative household — her mom being a teacher and having a band — she cycled through eight different majors.
“I’m the oldest, so at the time my only goal was to make money for my family,” Benton said. “First I wanted to be a lawyer, then I switched to political science. At one point I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian.”
When she discovered studying television and film was an actual major, everything seemed to make sense.
“I’ve always been a writer. And I was like, ‘I love TV. So this could work.’”
After her freshman year, she transferred to NYU Tisch School of the Arts and studied screenwriting. In her last year of school, she flew out West to test LA and hated it. However, she took as many meetings as she could possibly schedule with people she met from her internships and from connections she made from asking her teachers for guidance on getting a job in Hollywood.
“At Tisch people are like, ‘We’re the artists, we don’t look for jobs. You write your script, it gets made at Sundance and you become rich,’” Benton said. “I was like that’s cool and all but I need a job.”
From her meetings during her time in LA she received a call to be a showrunner’s assistant at BET in the show In Contempt. After that, she was hired to be a showrunner’s assistant for How To Get Away With Murder, worked on the series from season three to season six, and was able to write an episode for the last season.
As a fan of anime and experimental storytelling, Benton created an immersive narrative that can sign up to play at http://pldls.com/.
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