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'Something you've never seen before': Netflix diversity chief on Bridgerton's casting

Netflix’s diversity and inclusion chief has said the colour-conscious casting in Bridgerton was a result of the company supporting diverse show-runners and encouraging an “inclusion lens” to be applied to decisions.

Vernā Myers, Netflix’s vice-president of inclusion strategy, told the Guardian that the hit costume drama, which reimagines Regency-era England as a place where black people existed as equals with whites, was the result of Netflix backing the show’s executive producer, Shonda Rhimes.

“We’ve got to get folks in front of the camera and behind the camera. [When that happens] you’re going to get something you’ve never seen before. Bridgerton is something we have never seen before.”

“It’s exciting. It’s interesting, it brings up a lot of conversation, and some controversy,” she said.

Myers said her team encourages programme makers to ensure shows are diverse, although she emphasised that ultimately casting was a creative decision.

She said: “We help out all of our creative folks in content and marketing with what we call, an ‘inclusion lens’, when they’re casting and when they’re green lighting: see who’s there, see who isn’t.”

Last week Myers, who joined the company in 2018, presented Netflix’s inaugural inclusion report, which shows the company has a US workforce comprised of 47% women and 46% black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees.

The study said the company has more than doubled the number of black employees it has hired since 2017, with 8% of its workforce now identifying as black, compared with just under 25% who identify as Asian.

‘We’ve got to get folks in front of the camera and behind the camera. [When that happens] you’re going to get something you’ve never seen before. Bridgerton is something we have never seen before,’ says Vernā Myers.
‘We’ve got to get folks in front of the camera and behind the camera. [When that happens] you’re going to get something you’ve never seen before. Bridgerton is something we have never seen before,’ says Vernā Myers. Photograph: Laurie Bishop/c/o Netflix

Myers, who studied law at Harvard before going on to have a career in diversity and inclusion, put the historical dearth of black employees down to industry trends.

She said tech and entertainment have “excluded people of colour for a very long time”, and that Netflix had put special emphasis on recruiting black employees.

Myers said: “We had a special person to think about recruitment, specifically for underrepresented groups, and we started with people of colour, and we really emphasised black.”

“I don’t feel like there was a unique problem that Netflix had, I think that was a function of the industry and the status quo,” she added.

Myers said companies needed to back up diversity talk with action, such as Netflix’s new £350,000 investment in schemes that help develop black creative talent. But she admitted that when she did some consulting work with Netflix before joining them she told staff that “you’re basically not as good as you think” on diversity.

“One of the things that I heard a lot is that the leaders need to understand, and be more fluent in inclusion,” she said. “They need to be more willing to have the difficult conversations, and they need to know the language. Some did, some didn’t.”

Black Lives Matter made it easier for Myers to make employees embrace concepts such as white privilege and acknowledge that “just being a good person” was not enough to support anti-racism, she says.

“People used to just be like, ‘well, I’m a good person’, ‘I don’t think I’m racist’, and they thought that was enough. I think what Black Lives Matter has opened our eyes to across the world, not just in the United States, is that there is a system. There’s a hierarchy, a social hierarchy,” she said.

Myers said the biggest challenge for her at the company, which has surpassed 200m subscribers after adding millions of new customers during the Covid-19 pandemic, is ensuring that diversity standards do not plateau.

“Progress is so tenuous,” she said.

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