'All American' showrunner is a rarity in Hollywood: A Black woman in charge
Hanging on the wall above the computer monitor in Nkechi Okoro Carroll's office, next to photos of and artwork by her kids, is a framed print of a message which holds a lot of meaning.
"Take a deep breath and remember who the f--- you are."
"I was having a very, very rough day," explains Carroll, sitting back in her office at the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles. "I saw it on Twitter and I posted, 'Oh my gosh, this is what I need in my office.' And literally one of my actors ran out, got one printed, framed and within an hour was, like, 'Here!'...Now it's up there permanently."
That saying above her desk makes sense, because so much of Carroll's success seems rooted in who she is: a child of Nigerian parents that fell in love with American TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and General Hospital.
Carroll has become something of a pioneer, as a Black woman who is the showrunner — or top creative authority and manager — for three different network television shows: The CW's All American, its spinoff All American: Homecoming and a new series debuting on NBC this fall, Found.
Excelling in a job typically dominated by white males, Carroll oversees the budgets, production and writing for all three shows. She says her unique background and education turned out to be the perfect training for the roles she inhabits now.
"For a very long time, I was working as an economist at the Federal Reserve, while also at night doing theater, while also teaching myself how to write TV," she says. "You sort of challenge yourself in your 20s to multitask...Now, I just get to do it all in the same medium."
Showing different sides to Black youth on All American
When it comes to the plots on shows like All American — a drama aimed at young adults loosely based on the life of former NFL player Spencer Paysinger — Carroll uses real-life issues as inspiration, featuring her mostly Black cast navigating issues that have particular resonance for people of color, like the tension during police stops, gentrification, the struggle to pay for quality health care and more.
In recent episodes of All American's fifth season, star Taye Diggs, who plays a high school football coach and principal who also serves as a surrogate father to lead character Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), is leaving the show in an emotional storyline. Carroll says she always saw the series as a way to inspire kids to dream at excellence in "whatever that looks like for them."
She adds, "I just saw a real opportunity to make a show that I would have loved to watch growing up. A show that I would be proud to sit down and watch with my kids that also put hopes and dreams back into our community."
The CW network got new owners last year, as media company Nexstar bought a 75 percent ownership interest from co-owners Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount Global. Amid layoffs and cancellations that led some industry watchers to believe Nexstar was pulling back from scripted shows, Carroll got the call that All American was picked up for a sixth season.
During the changeover to Nexstar, Carroll says she told staffers, "Our job is to keep our heads down and keep making the show we believe in. It has worked out very well for us."
Chasing the dream while working for the bank
Born in New York, Carroll grew up in several countries, including Nigeria and a boarding school in England. Watching videotapes of U.S. shows fed her love of American television — she remembers devouring series like The Cosby Show and Growing Pains — teaching her that words and writing could move people in important ways.
But when she told her mother about her love for writing "[she] was like, 'That's amazing. Doctor. Banker. Lawyer. Those are your three choices and this is a great conversation.' And she moved on," she recalls.
In high school, Carroll loved both writing and economics. So, while she was earning a master's degree in international economics from New York University — and later, while working for the Federal Reserve — she would write and direct plays on the side. She recalls getting to work at the Federal Reserve at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., working on stock trades and economic analysis through the day and then leaving at 6 p.m. to help put up a play at a small experimental theater.
Eventually, Carroll decided to learn how to write TV, downloading scripts for series off the Internet and watching the finished episodes to learn structure. She used her vacation time to work as a background actor, or "extra," on shows shooting in New York City, watching how production worked and hitting up crew members to work on her short films.
"Everyone [else at the Federal Reserve] was like, 'We're going [on holiday] to Jamaica,'" and I'm like, 'I'm going to do background work for four days,'" Carroll says, laughing. "By the time I got my first writing gig, I had spent considerable time on sets."
Carroll told her husband she had to move to Los Angeles and try writing for television one year after surviving an event which shook everyone's world: the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
"9/11 was a real wake up call; that tomorrow's not promised," Carroll says, noting that she wound up barricaded under the Federal Reserve in Manhattan with coworkers after the two airliners hit the World Trade Center. "There was a significant portion of that day, where my family was convinced they would never see me again...It was one of those things [afterward] where it's like, 'Okay, you're getting a second chance at life. What are you doing with it?'"
Co-Founding Black Women Who Brunch
After Carroll moved to Los Angeles she eventually met performer/writer/show creator Lena Waithe and writer/producer Erika Johnson. Waithe says she was working on the pilot script for her drama The Chi — which would eventually land at Showtime. Carroll saw a read-through of the script and raved about it to her bosses at the series where she working, the Fox drama Bones, until they hired Waithe to work there, too.
Inspired by a Facebook post from a collection of Black male TV writers who were meeting for a meal, Waithe says she joined Johnson and Carroll in 2014 to try forming their own group, gathering Black women trying to advance as writers in television. And starting with 12 people meeting in Carroll's home, the group Black Women Who Brunch was born.
"We were still trying to find our voice and trying to figure out what we were going to work on and who we were going to be in the business," adds Waithe, who eventually became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing in 2017 for an episode of Netflix's Master of None. "It was really about, 'How do we get in these [writers'] rooms? How do we make sure we're constantly working on our craft?'"
Wendy Calhoun, a co-executive producer on ABC's The Rookie: Feds, has also worked on shows like ABC's Station 19, Fox's Empire and FX's Justified. She says the Black Women Who Brunch group provides a sounding board for potential ideas and much-needed information on the working environment at different productions.
"Hollywood is still a very exclusive club and in a lot of ways, it's still a place where we have not been included," Calhoun adds. "This, for me, personally, has filled a much-needed void of just a community I can feel respected and celebrated in."
The situation still remains challenging, with women who are Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) filling the smallest share of TV showrunners' positions, at 6.9 percent in 2020, according to figures from the Writers Guild of America West. In contrast, white men filled nearly 60 percent of showrunner jobs in 2020.
Carroll says the Black Women Who Brunch have now reached nearly 200 members, connecting via Zoom calls and in person. "We kept hearing we [capable Black female TV writers] were unicorns and I thought, 'That's impossible,'" she adds. "I know there are more voices than mine out there. We were determined to find them and...help each other get more jobs."
These days, Carroll is juggling her duties on the All American series while filming Found, a TV show about a Black woman who leads a team focused on finding missing people who are forgotten — often people of color.
What excites her most about the job, even now, is the rapid, wide-ranging impact of TV.
"The thing I love most about TV is the immediacy of it," Carroll says. "If I have something I want to say about the world, I can put it in a script and in six weeks it will be on the air. [Whether] it's what I want to say to my son, or what I want to say to the wider world."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.