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The Women of Color on the Front Lines of the Hollywood Strike

The Hollywood strikes are a reminder of the inequities endured by women of color in Hollywood.

A SAG-AFTRA member wearing a black hoodie and a button holding a black and yellow SAG AFTRA ON STRIKE! sign outside of the Netflix building.
Noma Vilane, SAG-AFTRA member, pickets outside of Netflix on Sunset Boulevard. She has been on strike for 90 days. October 2023. (Photo: Ben Camacho | Knock LA)

As the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and SAG-AFTRA, the actors union, have held strong on their fight for better wages for the past few months, and even gained a victory for the writers union recently, many prominent figures have been featured as the leading voices of the movement. However, it has been women of color who have been on the front lines of the strike, and for them, the stakes are high.

“There’s no way I would break the strike,” said Adargiza De Los Santos, a Dominican American actress living in Los Angeles, when interviewed during the labor struggle. Santos has been on popular shows such as Abbott Elementary, The Horror of Dolores Roach, Grey’s Anatomy, and This is Us, along with being on the board of a local theater. Even with such success and accomplishments, Santos still struggles to pay the rent. Despite having a recurring role on an award-winning television show, she has had to find work as a delivery driver to make ends meet.

After having the best year in her career in 2022, Santos finally qualified for health insurance through the union in 2022 when she met the $26,470 earnings requirement. “It’s the first time in 15 years and since I’ve been in LA that I qualified for insurance, but I couldn’t even take the offer because it required me to put $300 down and I ain’t got no money,” she said. This is the reality for many women of color in Hollywood who have found themselves struggling in the fight for fair wages and better rights against executives like Disney CEO Bob Iger, who infamously called their demands “unrealistic” during a CNBC interview in July.

Two SAG-AFTRA members smiling and holding a sign in front of them that reads SAG-AFTRA EN HUELGA!
Marlo Su and Iris Liu, SAG-AFTRA members and strike captains, stand for a photo outside of Paramout Pictures Studio. They have been on strike for 90 days. October 2023. (Photo: Ben Camacho | Knock LA)

“The amount these executives are making is just so much more ‘unrealistic’ than what we are asking for,” said up-and-coming Japanese American writer and director Yoko Okumura — and calling what they make “unrealistic”  is putting it generously. The salaries of the top earners among executives at companies like Netflix, Disney, Warner Brothers, and other networks in 2022 were many times those of entertainment artists. Okumura is kick-starting her career in the industry. She directed three episodes of the series 50 States of Fright in 2020 and, most recently, the film Unseen, which came out this March. And yet, taken together, her and Santos’ incomes equal less than 1% of Bob Iger’s $14 million earnings last year.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos had the highest incomes among entertainment executives, each making just over $50 million in 2022, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis. Warners Brothers CEO David Zaslav had the third-highest income, at just under $40 million. And at close to half a billion dollars over a five-year period, he grossed far more than any top executive on the list between 2018 and 2022. 

Three SAG-AFTRA members holding protest signs across the street from the Warner Brothers studio in Burbankl
Karen Brown, Melvina Starks, and Sharon Bremond, actresses, on the picket line outside of Warner Brothers studio in Burbank. October 2023. (Photo: Ben Camacho | Knock LA)

“I don’t get the term ‘unrealistic’ when this is the reality,” says Fiona Kida, who is a writer’s assistant and was a fierce supporter of the strike. “It [makes it] sound as if it’s a fantasy situation of what we’re asking for. It’s not! We need to buy groceries!” Kida is a Tanzanian immigrant and aspiring writer, producer, and director who graduated from USC in 2019. Since then, she has worked as a PA at the production company Annapurna and most recently as a writer’s assistant during season three of Bridgerton

Women of color are largely missing from Hollywood, on and off screen, due to a lack of access and opportunity. Kida was shocked when she left school, which to her felt like a very diverse environment, to experience the lack of diversity in Hollywood. She feels fortunate to now be working on Bridgerton, a show that feels much more inclusive. “This [industry] is stifling,” she says. “I do not come from a wealthy background,” said Kida, “and it seems you need to already have money to stick around and hold out until you can get these opportunities.” Kida had to work two service jobs to get by during the strike, which she was hopeful would be successful in the end, even if waiting it out meant sacrificing emotionally and economically. And now, with the writers strike coming to an end, she can hopefully get back to focusing on her work.

“The strike has revealed how inequitable things are,” said Okumura. “It really wasn’t clear to me how systemically broken things were until I started to learn about how the studios functioned and were squeezing writers out through ‘mini rooms,’ so through striking I’ve learned how important striking is.” Mini rooms are a budget-cutting technique networks use during the scripting and piloting process, cutting the writing staff down from a normal seven to 10 writers to around three. The writers in the Mini room could be working on a project for weeks at a time, often exclusively, with no promise they would work on the scripts if a show or film made it past the piloting stage. With the new deal, networks have to meet a minimum number of writers for every production.

SAG-AFTRA members holding protest signs picketing outside Paramount Picture studios.
Marlo Su, actress and SAG-AFTRA member, pickets outside of Paramount Pictures studios. October 2023. (Photo: Ben Camacho | Knock LA)

And this is not not the only budget-cutting technique studios use to keep budgets low and profits high. They are also trying to increase the use of AI, something the writers and actors alike fought to reduce. The agreement the writers reached guarantees these protections, but actors are still fighting for the same protections. “I do feel like if there’s certain functions for it that has parameters, it could be a tool that people who have jobs can use for what they’re doing already,” says Okumura. However, she acknowledges that may not be the goal for the networks. And for women of color, who are already underrepresented in the industry, the use of unregulated AI could be detrimental to their careers: “It’s not like AI would take the initiative to replace us creatives; it’s the executives and people who are trying to squeeze the budget for all its worth who are trying to replace us by using AI.”

Late this summer, major entertainment studios seemingly decided to go around union leadership by releasing details of their latest proposal, according to the New York Times, appearing to use a divide-and-conquer strategy in order to create pressure against the negotiating leaders of WGA. While that tactic didn’t appear to work, it put the pressure back on the studios to strike an equitable deal, which WGA managed to do after 146 days on strike this September. Notably, the Directors Guild of America voted to ratify a new labor contract back in June that guarantees pay increases, better residual payouts, and protections against the use of AI tools, according to The Verge. The new WGA contract contains similar provisions.

The effects of the strike and the inequities women of color in Hollywood experience are taking a toll on the their mental health. “It is soul-crushing,” said Adargiza, a member of SAG-AFTRA, a union that is still on strike. “It is detrimental to my mental health right now what is happening,” she said, though she remains adamant that there is no going back for her or wavering on the strike’s goal. “What happens a lot is that the Black and brown voices are the loudest,” she said. “I just hope when all this dies down they don’t forget our voices matter also.” For the writers, the battle has been won, but for the actors, the fight continues. This is especially true for the women of color we know and love on our screens, who are suffering the consequences of corporate Hollywood greed.