Agent of Change

By Erin Aubry Kaplan

Nina Shaw in her Los Angeles law office.
Photos by Melissa Lyttle.

When I meet Nina Shaw, we’re in a luxurious conference room of her law office at Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano in Los Angeles’ Century City. Shaw is in the midst of doing a photo shoot for this story and steps out of the lights, shaking my hand without missing a beat. She apologizes sincerely for making me wait. Wiry and elegant with an open face and short, chic hair threaded with gray, she exudes an almost teenage youthfulness, expressing a warm, friendly but pointed curiosity about everyone in the room. As she dutifully poses for the camera, she chats with the photographer and I, asking questions and sharing stories about her work, including a yarn about meeting music icon Diana Ross.

When we are alone in the same conference room some time later, she talks as if we’re just picking up the thread of a conversation we’ve been having all along. The easy exchange confirms my initial impression of Shaw. A founding partner of a high-profile law firm, she is a mentor and celebrity in her own right who has championed racial and gender diversity in the rarefied ranks of entertainment’s legal and business side for 35 years. Much of her client list reads like a who’s who of rising black talent, from director Ava DuVernay to actors Lupita Nyong’o and Lena Waithe.

Yet all of it rests on her own core talent — a dogged work ethic fused to empathy and a sense of history, an obligation to honor the right of clients to be fully considered and fairly treated. That’s pretty much the definition of justice, and Shaw has been implementing it in her own way her entire career. Indeed, her latest effort is co-founding Time’s Up, a group of women, including some marquee Hollywood names, who came together in late 2017 to devise concrete ways to confront sexual harassment in workplaces of all kinds — not just in the upper echelon of the entertainment industry and in corporate offices, but also in fast-food restaurants and farmers’ fields.

A Challenge Accepted

Shaw’s commitment to justice was catalyzed in a very real way at Barnard. Born and raised in New York (her family is originally from Harlem), she says she always wanted to attend a women’s college, where she imagined “women were in charge of everything.” She arrived on campus in the early ’70s, when black students at the College were scarce. But it was a time of great political upheaval at colleges and universities, notably at nearby Columbia, and the lingering energy of the civil rights movement helped shore up her confidence and her sense of herself as a black woman. Barnard played a formative role in that, despite the College’s lack of diversity.

Nina Shaw“There was a lot of activism at Barnard, a lot of stuff going on — they weren’t exactly stuck in a time warp,” she recalls.  She cites many influential professors from her undergraduate days, including Quandra Prettyman, an African American literature specialist who gave her a list of must-read books (“I went to the library and went through the list, one by one”), and Inez Smith Reid, who taught political science and was a touchstone for Shaw and other women of color. Shaw felt empowered long before the term came into vogue. At a time when voices like hers were even more easily dismissed than they are now, “nobody at Barnard ever said, ‘What you say doesn’t matter,’ ” she notes. “Everywhere I went after that, I thought I should at least be listened to.”

That attitude served her well at Columbia Law School, which Shaw attended from 1976 to 1979; there were only a handful of female students at the time, and even fewer black people. That hardly daunted her. She recalls her clear indignation at not being chosen to answer a question in class, an answer she called out instead.

“The first time I raised my hand in class at Columbia, the professor called on a guy who said the same thing I’d said. I immediately clapped my hands and stomped the floor and said, ‘What I said was right, and I said it first!’ ” she recalls, laughing. “Other students, women and men, agreed with me. The professor apologized and said, ‘I’m sorry, Miss Shaw, I didn’t hear you.’ ” She shakes her head. “He didn’t hear me because he didn’t expect the right answer to come out of my mouth. I responded like that because I’d been in classrooms where everything I said mattered.”

Though she challenged the institution, Shaw accepted the fact that she was one of very few black students there to do the challenging; being the only person, or one of very few people, of color in the room, was familiar. Too familiar. It “seemed very normal to me,” Shaw says. “But I look back now and am kind of mad at myself for thinking that was normal.”

“Race people”

Fighting against the normalcy of oppression ran in her family. Her great-grandparents were from Charlottesville, Virginia, and were very active in church and in the civil rights causes of their time — “race people,” Shaw says admiringly. Her great-grandmother Mary Catlett Hardy, especially, was a striver who didn’t let Jim Crow laws stop her, not completely. She fervently wanted to pursue education, even though Charlottesville didn’t even have high schools for black people — they were closed after Reconstruction. “So after you learned everything you could, you just graduated,” Shaw says. Her great-grandmother “graduated” in 1910 and later went to Oberlin College, though she didn’t finish. In 1998, to honor her legacy of courage, Shaw started a scholarship at Barnard in her name.

Shaw’s curiosity and capacity for empathy come in part from her mother. An employee of the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles, she was an avid news reader who never shielded her daughter from the difficult realities of the world, starting with Harlem and the hard-drinking man in their neighborhood who presented an opportunity to talk about the real problems of alcoholism. Shaw vividly recalls after the 1963 bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls, her mother asking her grandmother: “Can you imagine that they would hate us so much they’d kill our children — in a church?” Seeing up close the individual hurt and pain wrought by violence rooted in systemic inequality stuck with Shaw.

From Theory to Practice

As a student, Shaw always knew what her proclivities were, even if she wasn’t entirely clear what her career path would be. “I’m not quite a planner” is how she puts it. “I wasn’t interested in math and science. I was always interested in history and politics and social science. It was a process of elimination.”

A political science major, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer but not a litigator. She loved the arts and music, especially jazz, a result of her frequenting museums and cultural events growing up in New York. Toward the end of law school she thought about going into the music business but decided it was “too exploitative.”

So she settled on movies and television. That proved to be a fortuitous move when Shaw landed her first job in the entertainment division of a major law firm. One of its many famous clients was the legendary television producer Norman Lear, who had many culturally groundbreaking sitcoms, including All in the Family and the spinoff Maude. “I was lucky — he was doing so many great shows at the time,” she says. “I cut my teeth with him. I had some great experiences.”

In the entertainment industry, her efforts are trailblazing, though she doesn’t make much of that. “I tend to have a closer and kind of advisory relationship with clients because I have more experience in the dynamics of the industry,” she says. “I am often seen as someone who envelops a client and makes them feel comfortable, like they have an insider.”

Part of Shaw’s vision from early in her practice has been to deepen the content of black projects and those of other historically marginalized groups. African American characters in film and television are often recycled, damaging stereotypes or avoid subtlety and specificity. Shaw seeks to break that pattern by advocating for her clientele of color, as working people and as artists.

She agrees with the notion that the relatively few people of color in her position have a special role. “We know that there’s duality to the work we do,” she says. “I can’t just focus on nuts and bolts of deals. I had to look at it in more holistic way. I had to be someone moving the industry forward.”

Clients’ praise of Shaw speaks to that; she’s seen not merely as an ace lawyer and deal broker but as a mentor, adviser, and often a friend. Ava DuVernay has called her a “consigliere.” Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem more recently described her as a curator, because “ ‘curator’ comes from the Latin ‘curare,’ which means ‘to care for.’ ” Shaw appears gratified by the comments but responds with typical evenhandedness: “I don’t think of myself that way. Just as the best lawyer possible.”

An imperative

Time’s Up officially got its start in January 2018, though it had been meeting some months before that. The sexual harassment and abuse revelations that began with film mogul Harvey Weinstein and cascaded from there made a collective response from women feel imperative. (It doesn’t feel like an accident that the group’s name, “Time’s Up,” is itself an imperative.)

Though she seems tailor-made for the organization, Shaw got involved somewhat by accident. In February 2016, she delivered a brief but memorable acceptance speech when receiving Essence magazine’s annual Lincoln Power Award. In the speech, she exhorted actors and other creative talent to raise their voices and demand diversity in the agents, managers, and others who represented them. The message: The oppressed have power — and a responsibility to use it. It was a flip-the-script moment that reverberated throughout Hollywood and the media and made her a natural recruit for the empowerment mission of Time’s Up.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Shaw, who confessed that when she made that Essence speech she was at a low point. “I had just gotten really, really tired,” she says. “All these years, all this work, and it didn’t look like things were going to substantially change. I came to realize it would only be different when we [women and people of color] forced the issue.”

Besides Shaw, the initial 40 women who came together included high-profile actors such as America Ferrera and Reese Witherspoon. Great inspiration came from women with zero visibility: an alliance of Latina farmworkers who sent a letter of solidarity to the many women and men in Hollywood battling a kind of oppression the farmworkers had experienced and had always organized around. The gap in life experience between these two groups of working women may seem considerable, almost surreal. But Shaw says that’s missing the point.

“At the end of the day, you can’t be safe in your work environment, whether that’s a soundstage or an office or a field,” she says. “And the people who abuse you don’t see any difference between us and them. They don’t say, ‘We won’t abuse you because you’re an actor or a writer.’ There’s no profession that women go into that makes them immune from harassment or abuse of power.”

Shaw says it’s time to let the wariness go when it comes to joining a cause with white women to push for change. If not, “we’ll be sitting outside the solution. Yes, black women have always been less safe than other women. But don’t we all want to get to the same place, which is totally safe? I want us all to get to the mountaintop together.”

She is sincere about that. The good news is that the mountaintop is more in view now than it was two years ago; women raising their voices and getting their grievances seriously addressed may not yet be the norm, but it’s getting there. “People are starting to understand a new reality,” says Shaw. “And that is, no one is too small to be heard, or too big to be held accountable.” Two truths Shaw learned well, and first, at Barnard.


Latest IssueSpring 2021