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Coffee Talks with Commissioner Wallace | James Bland

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Coffee Talks with Commissioner Wallace is an intersectional platform that encourages people from all walks of life to push past the wins and losses and examine the crucial foundation that built them up to #BeGreater. Thought-partners are invited to dissect cultural, social and economical issues within their industries to provide viewers with tangible and applicable gems.


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"The advice I would give my younger self is don't doubt the vision and be patient, because the vision has an appointed time.

James Bland is an Emmy Nominated writer, director, actor, and producer. He's most known for creating and starring in the Daytime Emmy Award Winning drama series "Giants", currently streaming on BET Plus. As a creative professional, he's worked in front of and behind the camera on TV shows, films, and digital content for HBO, Peacock, ABC, Netflix, BET, TV Land, Columbia Pictures and Sony Screen Gems. Most recently, he directed the NAACP Image Award Nominated documentary special "Insecure: The End" for HBO and co-wrote the final episode of "The Best Man: The Final Chapters", which became Peacock's biggest ever original series debut.


Bland is a proud graduate of Florida A&M University and is passionate about providing career development and industry access to underrepresented students. He volunteers as a directing mentor for the Nate Parker Foundation Summer Film Institute. In addition, he leads the HBCU in LA Summer Showcase in partnership with the Entertainment Industry College Outreach Program.


 


Jeffery Wallace

We are here for another Commissioner Coffee Talk. And I am so blessed to be in the presence of one of my dear friends and brothers, James Bland. Tell us more about yourself.


James Bland

I'm a multi-hyphenate creative, writer, director, producer, actor. More specifically, I'm the creator of Giants, the series. It's a drama, Emmy winning drama series that originally premiered on Issa Rae's YouTube channel. I was a writer on The Best Man, The Final Chapter on Peacock and the director of Insecure, the End documentary.


Jeffery Wallace

So, James, you've done a spectrum of work across digital streaming. Tell us more about what's going on with the Writers Strike.


James Bland

Yeah, man. So the writers across the country this is Writers Guild West and Writers Guild East. We are on strike because the AMPTP, which is the body that represents all of the studios, Netflix, Amazon, Warner have denied our request. Essentially, what the writers are asking for is more pay. We want residuals for streaming. We want to preserve the writers rooms, and we want to eliminate this new system that the producers and studios have implemented called mini rooms, which essentially, they're working to pay less writers. And they want less writers in the room crafting these stories. And so we're trying to ensure that these things are preserved and we get a bigger piece of the pie.


Jeffery Wallace

Yeah, it's interesting. As you were telling me about this, as we were prepping for our talk today, what struck me as we think about ownership and creativity, what came to my mind was like, now they're just scaling "creative sharecropping." And I'm just going to call a thing a thing. We come from a historical past where we've done the work on the land, brought products from the land, but never owned it. And when we think about ownership and what the writers are actually demanding right now, it's like we want our fair share and we want our royalties, right?


James Bland

Most definitely.


Jeffery Wallace

And when you think about wealth creation in the past, format of production, television, more of your traditional movies, et cetera, that's where the money is made, right? So talk to us about that, like, from the wealth creation side. James, why this is so important for writers.


James Bland

You know, most definitely because, like, we're in a time where having a career as a writer in this industry, it's changed from back in the day when you used to watch television. You had 22, 24 episodes. If it was on ABC, if it was on NBC, that's like a standard network run of the show. Now with streaming, we have eight episodes, ten episodes. And so if you're a writer on a streaming service, you're doing sometimes 14 weeks. That's a 14 week job. And so you're working for maybe three months. And then the rest of the time of the year, you're trying to find another job or you're having to outsource. And so essentially, it's becoming a gig economy. And we're in a situation where there used to be a time where writers could sustain themselves via residuals, where the time that you spent writing on a show, you wrote an episode of television, when that episode would re-air, you would get your residuals and you would get money from those episodes that no longer exists. And so there was a time when we had a piece of the pot, a bigger piece of that ownership that just no longer exists.


Jeffery Wallace

It's like B said, pay me in equity and watch me reverse out of debt. That's what we're asking for right now, is the equity in the creative content because that's your IP. You guys pour so much into the storyline, the characters, it pulls from your own lived experience. Hence why you were so successful on the best men. Talk to us about how you wove in some of your perspective lived experience in The Best Man's last piece on Peacock.


James Bland

Yeah, the really cool thing about The Best Man was there was a character named LJ, and he was the son of Morris Chestnut's character on the show. And LJ was nonbinary. He was a queer character, and he was dealing with a father who didn't necessarily accept who he was. And so for me, he was able to bring a lot of my experience of coming out to my own dad and the difficulties of just trying to get a black man who comes from a certain generation to understand just my experience and who I am. And the really cool thing about Morris Chestnut's character is he's a religious man. He was Christian. And so I was able to speak to that because it was also my dad and able to really get to the heart of the matter and be able to speak to just ultimately, the love of Christ and how the love of Christ reflects the love that a father should have for his child. So it was incredibly special to be able to sprinkle in parts of myself and parts of just my lived experience into the show.


Jeffery Wallace

And throughout, James, your career as a writer, producer, actor, director, you not just sprinkled in elements of the LGBTQ lifestyle and narrative into your work, but it's kind of been an overtone. When we think about Giants, when we think about some of the indie stuff that you've done and produced, and in the spirit of we're moving into pride month, what have you, how is it important for us to continue to share narratives that, one, invite the world into the queer world of color?


James Bland

Yeah, brother. It's really important because if you think about television is a space that gives us permission a lot of the times to be who we are. It also informs the rest of the world who may not have, let's say, a queer person in their family in terms of somebody that they've actually been able to have conversations with. Because the reality is we all have queer people around us exactly. In our family. Coworkers, your barista, you don't know who you're encountering on a day to day. But oftentimes we're not having those conversations, and so we're not really getting to know and getting to understand and ultimately get into the humanity of a person. And the cool thing about television is it kind of invites people in. When you watch TV, you start to feel like, oh, I know that person. It's like a show like Modern Family really pushed and progressed even gay marriage and acceptance of gay and queer people because of the two gay characters on that show. People in Middle America were able to watch and really love these characters, and they became more tolerant and more acceptance. And so we have a really great responsibility.


James Bland

Being writers and creatives really help to shift and just shape the way people view and accept and ultimately just have more love and tolerance for people who don't necessarily look or love like them.


Jeffery Wallace

It's amazing, brother, that we can take the art of storytelling and start to build proximity between communities. Right. And I think that's what's most powerful thing about the creative force, whether that's streaming movies, television, songwriting, poetry, et cetera, is that you're given a piece of yourself as you share that art with individuals and with our broader community. And it's all about, for me, that intellectual property. What made the narrative of Best Man even stronger is that you were able to saturate that character with your own lived experience and shape it in a way that it would create a bond and a connection with the audience. The audience that might not have any LGBTQ folks in their community that they know of, so this would be exposure for them, but also the audience, like you said, that needed to be seen, heard, respected. And I think that's what writers are asking for right now. It's like as we're investing our all, our blood, sweat, and tears our creative genius into these storylines, we deserve to have equity, because at the end of the day, what we do know is streaming in itself in the technological intersection between creative creativity and technology has really advanced.


Jeffery Wallace

Who can consume? You don't have to go to a movie theater anymore and buy a ticket. You don't have to have cable anymore. You can actually stream for your phone. So if we're reaching more folks, that means the royalties should be a lot more higher.


James Bland

For sure. Yeah. And that's the beauty of being able to be a multi hyphenate, being able to be someone who I've been on the producer side like you and I have been in a position where we collectively have come together to create content with Giants.


Jeffery Wallace

Exactly.


James Bland

And so I've been able to experience not only the pains, because it can be incredibly challenging in terms of not only being the creator, but also being the producer and the person who's responsible. Not only for what's going on the screen, but how you're actually going to distribute it and get it out to the world and the marketing and all those things. So I understand the folks who choose not to be on that side, but for those who can just the benefit of owning your content because you have the say so in terms of where it goes and where it lives. And we put so much of our blood, sweat and tears into this work. And my Giants was so much of my life, my life story into that show. And then the idea of someone else owning my life story and me putting so much of myself into that and not being able to eat off that in perpetuity.


Jeffery Wallace

Exactly.


James Bland

But in a situation like Giants down with BET Plus, it's a licensing deal. And so when that licensing deal is up, I can then take that show wherever I want to take it. I'm now in a situation where just signed with an international distributor and we're working to get the show in Africa and in Europe and in South America. And so, I will say having that experience of doing Giants and then now being on the other side where I'm just a worker, I'm just a work for hire as a writer on a television show. Although I appreciate the experience and the growth and the ability to get that paycheck because it is a nice check. But just thinking about longevity and we know in particular as people of color, that oftentimes we don't have the ownership. And it goes back to the sharecropping thing that you said, well, we do the work, we do the labor and empires are being built off of our backs, but we're not being able to see it from a generational wealth perspective. We're not able to pass that down to our children and our children's children. And so I'm actually really appreciative for this strike because it's also waking me up and it's encouraging me to get back to the Giants and getting back to ownership and creating content that I have just more control over.


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Jeffery Wallace

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