‘Queen Sugar’ and ‘Atlanta’ lead television toward diverse depictions of the South

Originally Published on The Daily Texan.

Television shows such as “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Walking Dead,” and Season 1 of “True Detective” are set in the South, where minority population is about 43.9 percent. But in all of these shows, the cast and crew are disproportionately white and male.

“Queen Sugar” and “Atlanta,” two shows which premiered last week, look to break this norm. They find their identity in a Southern setting like so many shows before them, but feature a surprisingly unique trait: a cast and crew predominately made up of women and people of color.

Last year, Hollywood director Ava DuVernay saw the lack of diversity in Southern television, and began working with Oprah Winfrey to develop a television show based off the book “Queen Sugar.” Her idea focused on women and people of color not just in front of the camera, but also behind. While at South By Southwest that year, she made a call to fellow director and then-UT professor Kat Candler.

“She asked if I would like to direct an episode and I said, ‘Hell yes!’” Candler said. “I had been trying to break down the door of TV directing for about a year before that.”

DuVernay hired women to direct every episode of Queen Sugar. The crew is half African-American and the show’s characters range from the black leads to white boyfriends to Latina teachers, all in an encouragingly diverse and close-knit society.

Business senior Juan Fuentes found “Queen Sugar” both refreshing and hopeful. As a Latino, he said he enjoyed the show’s across-the-board representation.

“It was wonderful to see so many communities, including mine, represented on screens across the nation,” Fuentes said.

“Atlanta,” Donald Glover’s passion project since August 2014, features a directing crew and writer’s room consisting only of minorities and two women. It focuses on a black rapper and his two friends as they try to handle their growing fame and life in the South. The show addresses a variety of political topics, including mass incarceration, gun rights and police brutality.

Though a promising step forward, Candler said she believes the root of the problem with underrepresentation lies with those in power.

“The people who have the money and the power and the control are white males,” Candler said. “But just now we’re slowly seeing more women and more people of color come into positions with the opportunity to reflect their world.”

The UT Moody College of Communication held 2016’s Flow Conference this past week where television experts, professors and industry insiders from across the U.S. came together to discuss ideas, opinions and questions about television and new forms of media.

Radio-television-film professor Mary Beltran held a panel at the conference discussing diversity. Beltran conducted recent research on the state of the entertainment industry, and found that executives were not hiring people of color because their educations had often not adequately prepared them.

Beltran said she took issue with the way universities are handling the preparation of radio-television-film students, particularly those of color.

“Why aren’t we putting pressure on our universities?” Beltran asked. “[We should] push our universities to create scholarship programs and internships just for students of color. Our University should try to level the playing field.”

Al Martin, a panelist and University of Colorado at Denver professor, said the problems lie not just with the amount of jobs given to people of minority, but with the quality as well.

“We’re asking for the wrong thing,” Martin said. “You’ll ask for something, they’ll give you just enough to satisfy those needs and then just move on. Hollywood is going to do whatever it takes to shut us up.”

In the end, Kat Candler said she believes the solution is simple.

“It’s not as hard as some folks make it out to be,” Candler said. “Just hire.”

Austin Police make arrest in rock throwing case

The Austin Police Department arrested a man they believe responsible for the “lion’s share” of Austin rock throwing attacks in the past few years.

The man charged is Patrick Eugene Johnson, a 59-year-old self-identified “Texas Towing Guru.” Police arrested him in a still-ongoing child sexual abuse case last August. Police said they plan to charge Johnson with attempted murder and end the rock throwing.

Local citizens are shocked by the consistent rock throwing combined with the “incompetence” of the police. An Austin-based Facebook group titled “Stop the Rock Throwing!” has 27 members, and calls for more safety in the city.

“We must continue with our efforts to make our city officials accountable. WE NEED FENCES,” the group’s description reads.

A rock struck the window of Texas State student Jillian Lueders as recently as June 14. The hunt for a suspect was still ongoing, and Lueders was simply passing through Austin, taking Interstate 35 back to her home in Colorado.

“I hear a loud bang on top of my car as if a rock was thrown at it. I was keeping my eyes open but I couldn’t see where they were throwing from,” Lueders said in Facebook posts.

The members of the Stop the Rock Throwing! Facebook group are clear that their anger stems from the length of time it took the police to make an arrest. Lueders said she “can’t believe” someone is doing it.

“We were facing a tough set of circumstances. Looking for a needle in a haystack,” said an APD spokesperson.

“Driving in fear” is not the only cost of rock throwing incidents in Austin, as replacing a windshield can have quite a cost. Don’s Paint and Body shop in Austin has not had to fix any of these damages, but they are prepared.

“It could cost as low as $250 but it could go up to way higher than that,” they said.

Some citizens are not fazed by these incidents, and opt to “keep their head up,” and not live in fear. Joel Deeter, an Austin resident who uses the lower level of I-35 to commute to work, says he will not let Johnson or any other criminal make him afraid.

“I just don’t see the point in being afraid. There’s so little chance of actually being hit, it just isn’t worth worrying about. I do feel safer now they have made an arrest, but it doesn’t make too much of a difference,” said Deeter.

Johnson, the man arrested for the crime, already faces up to 60 years in prison for his pending sexual abuse of a child case. The case has made little to no progress over two years, but he now faces a $200,000 bail and probable attempted murder charge.

Going forward, the police said they are hoping to put together a strong case with strong evidence against Johnson, and will move to prosecute soon. In spite of this, some citizens are still in disbelief.

“What is this world coming to. Keep Austin weird is an understatement at this point,” said Lueders.

City Council Approves East Austin Affordable Housing Development

The Austin City Council voted to apply for multi-family housing units on Oak Springs Drive last Thursday.

The application had seven votes in favor, with only Council Member Don Zimmerman voting against and Council Members Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen absent. The applica- tion will now go to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Zimmerman was the voice of dissent in the discussion of the development. He pressed Betsy Spencer, director of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development. He asked about the apartments’ square footage, the cost, and whether they will be new.

In the end the council outvoted Zimmerman, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair deliv- ering closing statements. She responded to Zimmerman but pressed forward.

“If we do affordable housing it’s really important that we do it in smart places. I am con- cerned about the cost but in this case it seemed like a really smart location,” Troxclair said.

The city plans to work with Austin Travis County Integral Care for the development. David Evans, CEO of the organization, argued the merits to the Council in an open fo- rum.

“Permanent supported housing is a critical component to solving homelessness. This is an area that has enjoyed the support of the surrounding citizens, and new construction is long past due on that location,” he said.

Austin Travis County Integral Care has worked with the city in the past for care services. The organization provides many programs for citizens of all ages, including what are called “integrated care” clinics. The clinics combine physical health services with mental health services. These create convenient one-stop locations for citizens across Austin.

Council Member Sabino Renteria discussed the utility of new housing in the Oak Springs Drive location. His previous familiarity with the area helped him know the condi- tions are “in pretty bad shape.” Although in this type of location, the proposed area is just blocks from Oak Springs Elementary School and the Willie Mae Kirk Branch Library.

Council Member Ora Houston took delight in the development, moving to adopt the project “with glee.” She cited the city’s past success partnering with Evans and his com- pany, as well as citizens in the area supporting the development.

“Everybody is welcoming the new development and the services. We welcome them into the neighborhood,” Houston said.

Zimmerman’s concerns about the development’s financial needs led him to continue his questioning.

“When I do the math, I come up with nearly $400,000 per unit,” he said.

Spencer immediately responded.

“The number is misleading because this project, in addition to 50 efficiency units, has common space, an integrated healthcare clinic, and a supported employment space,” Spencer said.

Despite the expense, the rest of the City Council voted to move forward with the request. If the Texas Department of Housing approves, the development will be officially titled Housing First Oak Springs Apartments at 3000 Oak Springs Drive.

Austin Outdoor Industry Booms

Many business owners in the growing outdoor industry are choosing Austin to expand and open new businesses due to its location and enthusiastic outdoor- loving communities.

A panel last Tuesday brought together a group of industry executives downtown to discuss Austin’s prosperity in the area. The group included the leaders of Yeti Coolers, who make high-quality steel coolers and cups, and Austin B-Cycle, public bicycle stations. They discussed what makes Austin a great place for the outdoor products business, and listed the city’s climate, culture, and age among its benefits.

“When you’re in the outdoor space you have the ability to build an experience as opposed to a brand,” said Ravi Parikh, co-founder and CEO of RoverPass, an Austin-based camping mobile app.

In recent years, America’s entire outdoor recreation economy has shown strong signs of growth and prosperity. Outdoor retailer REI reported record profits last year, and their competitor Cabela’s shows a five-year increase in profits, according to marketwatch.com. The Outdoor Industry Association reports $646 billion in yearly outdoor recreation spending.

Corey Maynard, vice president of Yeti Coolers, explained the industry’s appeal through his personal experience in the field.

“Being in an environment where people love and believe in what they are doing is pretty special and unique to the outdoor space,” Maynard said.

The outdoor space has many appeals to companies, among them the passion they inspire within their customers. With the opportunity to create such a uniquely positive experience, businesses are creating brand ambassadors. Brand ambassadors are customers who have such a strong love for a company that they advertise the products to the people around them.

However, reliance on brand ambassadors doesn’t crowd out online advertisement. Peter Li, CEO of Atlas Wearables, an Austin-based fitness electronics company, merges online advertisement with their brand ambassadors.

“Our experience is a little bit of a different experience because it’s digital,” Li said. “This company can lead and grow the community through online and social media.”

Not all companies based in Austin in the outdoor industry have experienced

immediate growth. Investors have bases in larger cities and aim their spending toward larger markets. Parikh addressed that most of the capital is located on the West Coast.

Li and Parikh both experienced significant difficulties finding funding. Parikh said Austin is “a smaller market compared to San Francisco and New York. Funding is difficult, but requires more hustle.”

One of the most important elements of these companies is their location in Austin. The panelists listed the location, the community, and the culture as benefits of basing their business in Austin.

The city has not only allowed the growth of the outdoor industry, but cultivated it as well. Elliott McFadden, CEO and founder of Austin B-Cycle, listed Austin’s “laid back culture,” the fact that it’s a pretty location and the University of Texas. Austin B-Cycle, a private company, partnered with the City of Austin to allow citizens rent bicycles for a short period of time.

Ally Davidson, CEO of Camp Gladiator, noted the “great attitude and accepting culture” of Austinites as the reason for the city’s outdoor development. When asked for his opinion, Mark, a San Diego native who attended the panel, said he believes the city has “a lot of passion. Really what it takes.”

All of the executives who attended the panel remain confident about the future of Austin’s outdoor industry, but unsure where it will go.

“Innovation comes from something that is broken,” Davidson said. “24 Hour Fitness, Lifetime Fitness is boring. Whoever can disrupt this, look out for them.”