Nina Shaw and Lena Waithe
Nina Shaw and Ava DuVernay
Entertainment attorney Nina Shaw recalls that, when she was a girl in the 1960s, there were so few African Americans on TV that "in the back of Jet Magazine, there was a listing of Black people who were going to be on that week." Years later, as a young lawyer, she joined a firm whose clients included Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin's production company, which was creating popular sitcoms that featured diverse casts.
Shaw's lifelong commitment to diversity and inclusion is seen in her legal work as well as her personal advocacy for civil rights. "My work is what drives me," she says. "But first and foremost, I've often had to fight for diversity and inclusion to get to the work."
In 2019, Shaw received the National Equal Justice Award from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as well as the Medal for Excellence Award from Columbia Law School, her alma mater. She is a member of the board of directors of the Motion Picture & Television Fund and was also a founding organizer for Time's Up.
She was interviewed in May 2018 by Jenni Matz, director of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: Your family has quite a history....
A: Yes. I'm second-generation Harlem, born and raised, but my family is originally from Charlottesville, Virginia. I spent summers in the South, like many of the offspring of those who were part of the Great Migration. My family had been in Charlottesville, Richmond and the surrounding communities for many generations.
At the end of the Civil War, my three times great-grandfather walked from the plantation where he was enslaved to Richmond. He became a day laborer. He would tell the story about how he learned to read. He was working and found a piece of a book in some debris. He saved his money and got a young white girl to teach him a word every day. He ultimately was able to attend seminary college, then he received an honorary Ph.D. He was the Reverend Dr. Evans Payne, and he was a contemporary of Booker T. Washington.
So I come from a storied family; we were very well known, very respected people. I had this tremendous sense of my own place and self, which has carried me through the years.
Q: What were some of your interests as a girl?
A: I loved to read. And like a lot of city kids, I loved to go outside and play.
And I loved Saturday morning television, though in those days there were very few people of color on TV. So whenever an African American was on TV, even in a commercial, you would start yelling and everyone would run into the room to see.
Q: I read that you used to watch The Defenders, the 1960s CBS courtroom drama.
A: Yes, I loved all of those shows — Perry Mason, East Side/West Side — the procedural dramas with lawyers. My legal career must have been preordained!
Q: After college at Barnard, you went on to Columbia Law School. Were there many women studying law in your class?
A: No, at that time law schools were probably 15 to 20 percent women; now they're 50 percent and more. But there were not many women while I was there, and not many African-American women.
Q: When you joined O'Melveny & Myers in 1979, an African-American attorney had just made partner for the first time. How many other Black lawyers were in the firm?
A: There were maybe six or seven of us. At that time the messengers, who were primarily Black and Latino, wore blue blazers. So the running joke was, "Don't wear a blue blazer to work because people will be asking you for packages."
In a weird way, you get used to there not being a lot of people like you. You could go all day long and not see another person who looked like you, which is not something I would want for anyone.
Q: In the '70s and '80s Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin were making shows with diverse casts — the kind you didn't see when you were growing up. And their production company, Tandem, was one of your early clients....
A: Yes, Tandem/T.A.T. [Productions] was an O'Melveny client. I have tremendous regard for what they accomplished. To see those faces on television at the time was revolutionary.
The other amazing thing about Norman's company was how many women had substantial jobs. The head of business affairs was a woman; many people in creative were women. They were for the most part white women, mind you, but they were women, nonetheless. But in retrospect, these shows — no matter who they were about — were run for the most part by white men.
Q: What legal matters did you work on?
A: Contracts. I spent a lot of time with the Guild agreements. I learned so much about the law, the unions, and that laid the foundation for my current practice.
Q: Did you encounter any novel legal issues?
A: Absolutely. Now we take spinoff shows for granted. But Norman and Bud pioneered that format, spinning off The Jeffersons and Maude from All in the Family. Also, Sanford and Son was based on an English show, Steptoe and Son.
How do you credit the creators of a show when it gets spun off into a new show? And what if you take pieces of a show and create a compilation episode? How do you compensate the writers? The actors? Those were all questions of first impression, authorship issues, rights issues. These have been made clearer now because of the work we did on those shows.
Q: When negotiating talent deals, did gender and diversity play a role in salaries?
A: Of course. Men made more money than women. There were exceptions for shows with notable female leads. One of the things that influenced my desire to be a talent representative is that I knew what everyone was making, and I knew how much the studio was willing to pay. I often felt that women and people of color were underrepresented, because I knew what was available.
Q: And how did these issues affect your own career?
A: In 1981, I joined Dern, Mason, Swerdlow & Floum as an associate, and I became a partner in 1986. It's a tried-and-true path — being an associate at a large, prestigious firm and then moving into the boutique firm community. Except for me, it didn't work as smoothly.
I was still so naïve in many ways. I didn't understand that it was really about relationships. Being good at what I did, being smart and coming from a great school and a great firm — I thought that made me a great candidate and people would be eager to hire me. That wasn't even remotely the case. There were a number of firms that basically didn't hire women. They didn't say they didn't hire women, but they wouldn't have more than one or two.
Q: What was different about Dern, Mason, Swerdlow & Floum?
A: Dixon Dern and Ernie Del — they focused entirely on my skills and experience. I came from a firm that did a lot of the kind of work that Dern Mason was starting to do. My experience was a big plus. I can say without reservation, my race and gender were meaningless to them.
Q: Any particularly memorable clients?
A: I owe so much to Robert Guillaume, the star of Benson, a big ABC hit. I became his lawyer because Robert's wife Donna had gone to Vassar, and we were in this group of Black women from the Seven Sister schools. When Robert hired me — I'll never forget it — his previous lawyer delayed sending me his files. He basically said, "You're going to be fired in about six months, and then you'd have to pack up the files and send them back to me."
He sent them eventually, because he saw that Robert wasn't coming back. So Robert became my first big client. That led to me becoming better known and landing other prominent clients.
Q: The firm dissolved in 1989....
A: Yes, Ernie Del and I, along with Jean Tanaka and Michael Rubel, had this dream of having a transactional entertainment firm. So we started this firm [now Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein Lezcano Bobb & Dang].
Q: Was diversity a factor in building your team?
A: Yes, it's everything. We were diverse from the day we opened our doors with a Black woman and an Asian-American woman as name partners. I would not be in an environment that wasn't open to people who looked like me. It's the air I breathe. I come here every day, and I can be comfortable because I'm in a place that I want to be — and it looks like my world outside the firm. How can people breathe in those other rooms?
Q: Is diversity a factor in choosing your clientele, too?
A: My diverse clients choose me. My work is what drives me. But first and foremost, I've often had to fight the battles for diversity and inclusion because they are part of the work.
I heard the incomparable Sidney Poitier say in an interview that some days he wanted to just be an actor. But he couldn't just be an actor — he had to also be a civil rights advocate. I am proud of my advocacy. But I do think sometimes, "What if I could be like my peers and just get up every day and be the best lawyer possible?" I strive to do that, but I have to make room for all of these other things.
Q: Let's talk about a few of your clients. How did you meet Ava DuVernay?
A: Before she became a producing directing powerhouse, Ava was working as a publicist with many of my clients. And I'm always interested in other people; I'm always asking people about themselves. So the idea that I could meet Ava and not ask her who she was, what she was doing, what her aspirations were — that just wasn't going to happen. So she and I became friends.
Q: On her OWN series Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay is known for hiring female directors....
A: Exclusively. I think Queen Sugar is interesting for several reasons from the deal-making perspective. [When she went to work on the series] Ava had done [her 2014 feature] Selma. She and Oprah [Winfrey] have a close relationship. Queen Sugar was a book optioned by [Winfrey's production company] Harpo.
Ava's larger vision of the book, if you think this through, is so obvious. But like many obvious things, it's not what's depicted in the media. For centuries, African Americans in this country lived and worked the land — whether they were farming as property, farming as sharecroppers or farming on their own. But you never see a Black farming family depicted as the protagonists in television. It's a big part of the American story that goes untold. Queen Sugar is a quintessential American story of a farming family, and all the complications that arise from their ancestors having once been property that farmed the land they now own.
Q: Many women directors tell us in interviews that they get one shot to make an impression. If they screw up, they don't get a second shot. Do you see that?
A: It's worse than that. Because first they have to get the one shot to screw up.
Women must be taught to do something — men learn by doing. I'll look at credits and see that, clearly, men who've been mentored by other men get incredible opportunities to direct, especially in episodic television. And if they don't do such a great job, they get another opportunity. As they should. As we all should. Because you learn by your mistakes, and if this is what you're meant to do, you get better.
So when some people say, "Ava's hired a bunch of female directors," you can think of it as, "Ava has hired a number of very experienced filmmakers." Some people may have felt that their experience as filmmakers didn't translate to their being able to direct television. But Ava believes that moving from one medium to another is doable, so she hires directors based on their artistic integrity as filmmakers. They do wonderful work. And then the rest of the business embraces them.
Q: You represent Lena Waithe, who had a historic Emmy win [in 2017] as a writer of Master of None. How does an Emmy, or another major award, impact negotiations for a contract renewal?
A: I would look at it from another perspective. One of the biggest impacts on negotiations has been the legislation passed recently in California, New York and some other states that prevents employers from asking about pay history.
Typically, you presented your pay history to an employer and then you negotiated as best you could, based on your leverage. Often someone would say, "I'm not going to pay you more because I don't pay X percent over someone's last deal." Or [to a lead actress], "You might be the star of this; he might be clearly second to you, but he was paid more than you in the past, so I'm going to pay him more now."
Now we are able to argue merit and value to determine pay. This meant tremendous gains in the deals that I negotiated this pilot season.
Q: Why did you choose to participate in The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program?
A: I was mentored. I would not be where I am today if people hadn't stood up for me. There's no honor in being the first of anything if you're the last of it. I don't want to have had this great career and then the door closes. That would break my heart.
I came in during the second year of the mentorship program. I told [program founder] Stephen Galloway, "You can't perpetuate the notion that the only way up is through white women. In a program that mentors young women of color, they must see women of color as their mentors. They need to look at me and know that they can be me. They need to look at Pearlena [Igbokwe, chairperson, Universal Studio Group] or any of the other women who have been in the program and see us as tangible proof that they can succeed."
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As someone who really wanted to make a difference — and did. Someone who approached life with a great sense of humor and joy. And someone who, more than anything else, cared about their family.
The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace
To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #1, 2022
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