Lessons on building an inclusive culture from the writers’ room of HBO’s “Watchmen”

Sister Night in HBO’s Watchmen.
Sister Night in HBO’s Watchmen.
Image: HBO
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Countless organizations are newly engaging with the question of how to have meaningful conversations about race. But for Cord Jefferson, a TV writer on HBO’s critically-acclaimed superhero series Watchmen, lengthy discussions about topics like police brutality and the history of Black Wall Street were all in a day’s work.

“We had a lot of third-rail issues like reparations, racial violence, sexual violence,” Jefferson says. “These are things people have strong opinions about, for good reason.”

In general, TV writers’ rooms are overwhelmingly white: As of 2017, two-thirds of shows had no Black writers at all, according to a report by the racial justice advocacy group Color of Change. But Jefferson says he’s been fortunate to work in several highly diverse writers’ rooms: at Watchmen, HBO’s Succession, NBC’s metaphysical sitcom The Good Place, and Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.

The fact that the majority of Watchmen writers were Black meant that their conversations brought much-needed perspective and nuance to the show’s core focus on America’s horrifying legacy of racism—a departure from the original Alan Moore comics. (One episode co-written by Jefferson, called “The Extraordinary Being,” examines the transgenerational trauma passed on from a grandparent who lost his family in the 1921 Tulsa massacre and survives a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan.) Jefferson says that diversity makes any conversation better. “From a place of quality and wanting to put out the best product, it’s always better when you have a roomful of different voices.”

Unfortunately, as many Black people and others from marginalized communities have discovered firsthand, simply being in the room doesn’t guarantee that their voices get heard.

“Meetings tend to be a microcosm for what happens in the macro,” says Vanessa Tanicien, a leadership trainer and facilitator at LifeLabs Learning. “Who gets the most airtime, who’s listened to at the table?” Often, it’s white men who claim the spotlight. She suggests that monitoring who’s speaking in meetings, and taking steps to include everyone with round-robin structures or ritual questions like “Who haven’t we heard from,” are ways to counteract common power dynamics.

Another, more out-of-the-box option? Try running your meetings like the best version of a writers’ room.

Don’t shoot down ideas; build on them

Even when showrunners populate their writers’ rooms with women, people of color, and queer people, Jefferson says, many make the mistake of prioritizing their own ideas over their writers’.

“If you bring a Black woman into your room and she’s in there, but you constantly ignore what she’s saying and you neglect to try and understand her point of view and belittle and demean her, you haven’t really done anything to promote diversity or to promote diversity of thought in the room,” he points out.

The most valuable thing a showrunner—or any manager—can do to create an inclusive workplace is to listen carefully and respectfully to what their employees have to say, while checking their own defensiveness.

“The work we do in writers’ rooms, it’s easy to say nothing is personal,” Jefferson says. “But it’s difficult to put your ideas out there and have a roomful of people critique them and decide if they’re good ideas or bad ideas. It feels personal, and your feelings can easily get hurt.”

As a newly minted showrunner himself, Jefferson says that he tries to use every idea that gets tossed out in a writers’ room as a launch pad, whether or not he likes a particular storyline or character reveal. “There are very few bad ideas,” he says. “It’s a dialectical practice.” When leaders know how to keep the brainstorming going without shutting anyone down, they create an environment of psychological safety—one where all participants can feel assured that they’re respected.

Know your blind spots—and hire people who can see what you can’t

Jefferson is currently making his debut as a co-showrunner on a TV series based on the real-life exploits of the gadfly news website Gawker, where he once worked. He and his fellow showrunner, Max Read, are both men. In creating the show, they were well aware that Gawker “was infamously a place that could be a difficult work environment because of misogyny and sexism,” Jefferson says.

So they made a conscious decision to hire exclusively women writers. “We knew that could be a blind spot for us, and we knew that we wanted to have a show that depicted things accurately,” he says.

Similarly, when Jefferson’s former boss, Damon Lindelof, was hiring writers for Watchmen, he deliberately sought out a majority-Black staff. Lindelof, who is white, summarized his thinking to the Hollywood Reporter: “I have to reject tokenism and create a balance where I can literally be overwhelmed by the consensus.”

Remember that Blackness is not a monolith

Even in 2020, Jefferson says that it’s still difficult for many people to understand that “getting one Black person in a room does not get you the Black perspective on America.”

The Watchmen writers room was able to have meaty, productive conversations about race because the people at the table came from distinct cultural backgrounds, from Christal Henry, a black woman who is also an ex-cop in Chicago, to Stacy Osei-Kuffour, the child of immigrants. “Despite the fact that we were all Black, we also had incredibly different opinions about race and policing in America,” Jefferson says.

That’s why organizations need to make it a priority to have multiple Black perspectives in the room when big decisions are being made. At the same time, Jefferson says, it’s important to check the instinct to ask Black people to weigh in only on Black issues.

“When you bring Black people in just to talk about Black people, it’s sort of an erosion of their humanity, a suggestion that Black people don’t understand the full spectrum of emotions of being a human being,” Jefferson says. “Just because I’m Black doesn’t mean I don’t understand how white people feel.”

Give center stage to people who aren’t big stars—yet

While many TV shows continue to center whiteness, the medium is building a reputation as a place where people of color, particularly Black women, can find more opportunities for interesting and nuanced roles than are typically available in the film industry.

Jefferson hypothesizes that there’s a business reason for that. Whereas Hollywood remains concerned with putting huge celebrities behind the camera (ideally ones who will play well overseas), television is less stuck on the idea of casting people who are already famous. And because, for reasons related to structural racism, “Black people tend to be less famous than white people,” TV is where lesser-known actors like Watchmen’s Regina King can land career-defining parts.

“TV is a place for people who become movie stars,” Jefferson says. “It allows you to take chances on people and use shows as an incubator to grow people’s talent.” There’s a lesson in that for every organization that has justified sidelining people of color by saying they don’t yet have a track record of success: The best way to fix that problem is to give someone their big break.