Marvin Lemus hated the skin he was in when, as a child, he didn't see himself represented on TV or in the movies. So when he was 8 years old, he decided to become a filmmaker.
Lemus is the Mexican-Guatemalan director, creator and co-writer of Gente-Fied, a dramatic comedy that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The web series tackles the housing crisis and gentrification of Boyle Heights in East L.A. It follows seven Latino characters as they grapple with identity and change, including the paradox of being both gentrifiers and the gentrified.
"I was trying to create something that I wished I could have seen growing up," Lemus, who is still shopping his show around, said. "I grew up with such a huge identity issue. Basically, I was whitewashed. I wanted to be white my entire life because I never saw myself on screen. The people that did look like me were cholos or gardeners. It made me reject my culture."
Today, platforms like YouTube, Vimeo and Netflix allow a new generation of millennial creatives to produce original digital shows with people of color both in front of and behind the camera. For some of these writers and directors, the traditional entertainment-industry gatekeepers are irrelevant.
For Lemus, having a seat at the head of the table allows him to make critical decisions, like shooting Gente-Fied in Boyle Heights, a historically Latino neighborhood. The cast and crew are predominantly Latino, and Lemus says they provide fresh, authentic perspectives with the characters they create. There's the Mariachi band member just trying to get by, and the queer Latina social worker straddling the class and ethnicity line. Lemus uses comedy to spotlight such difficult issues.
"Our people are funny," he said. "We talk so much sh*t and we clown on each other. Because our lives are hard we have to. We can't be morose about it; we have to keep pushing forward and laugh with it. And I wanted that to be represented."
Hollywood has struggled with diversity. And though the entertainment industry has recognized more people of color lately with Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, it isn't enough, said Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Hunt heads an initiative called the Hollywood Diversity Report.
The latest report revealed that 90 percent of scripted cable shows in 2014 were directed by white people, and white actors claimed close to 87 percent of lead roles in films.
"Hollywood is not providing diverse audiences what they want," Hunt said. "So people are going elsewhere, i.e. the internet. Let's face it; audiences now are becoming overwhelmingly diverse." Young and ambitious people of color bursting with creativity don't tend to wait, says Fatimah Asghar, a South Asian Muslim poet. She wants to see herself reflected in the media, so she's writing herself in.
Asghar, a first-time screenwriter, is following a path similar to Issa Rae, creator of HBO's Insecure. Asghar wrote a script, called up some artist friends, and created Brown Girls, a web series she'll release later this month on Vimeo.
Brown Girls is a drama focused on the friendship between Leila, a queer South Asian writer, and Patricia, who Asghar describes as a "sex positive" black musician. Set on the south side of Chicago, the story follows their personal and financial struggles.
The majority of the cast and crew are women, queer, and racially diverse. Asghar felt the need to tell her own story because, "sometimes you literally don't see an extra who's a person of color and a lot of that goes unchallenged and unquestioned.
She said of her characters: "They are struggling and they are messy. They can't get a grip on their lives sometimes. But at the end of the day, their love for each other and the joy in their lives and communities keeps them going." Asghar said that such close relationships and complex characters are especially necessary right now. "I think that joy can be a real savior and real weapon."
If the success of show creators like Issa Rae is any indication, independent producers who start out on the internet can often find a way into more established network. Rae started her web show, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, on YouTube in January 2011 while at a temporary office job and with zero budget. By the fourth episode, she had more than 60,000 viewers and had raised $50,000 on Kickstarter to finish the season. Fast-forward six years: In December, Rae earned a Golden Globe nomination for Insecure, which airs on HBO.
But as more artists see the internet as fertile ground for launching shows, Hunt said, the issue of net neutrality presents both promise and possible obstacles.
Currently, internet service providers have to give content providers the same level of access, whether the content is coming from a network like ABC or a streaming service like Vimeo. As long as that is the case, Hunt said, writers and directors like Lemus and Asghar will thrive. "If net neutrality is protected," he said, "I predict there will be more independent production on the internet, and I think Hollywood will have to respond, because they will be losing market share to millennials and other groups.
"We've been fed for so long [a] white point of view, basically. I want to be able to speak to my experience, and it's something I don't get to see often. ... That's why it's important to be in the room, at the table, and push back."
But if net neutrality disappears, small-budget and independent shows may find it difficult to compete with industry giants. "And the mainstream will be allowed to continue to dominate the way that things are made," Hunt said.