Hollywood Must Not Settle for the Comfortable Response to Fight Systemic Racism (Guest Column)

Black Lives Matter protest Black Lives
Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutters

Images have immense power. As the currency of Hollywood, they can be potent weapons against the ugly realities of racism, hate and intolerance in America. They have the power to inspire, to humanize and to dehumanize, as we saw in the video of George Floyd’s slow, violent death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

Images have historically played a leading role in galvanizing America to fight for racial justice and equality. In the 1800s, when ugly caricatures of Black people filled the pages of newspapers and popular magazines, Frederick Douglass sat for more than 100 photographic portraits — a purposeful strategy to show the world images of a serious, dignified Black man. In 1915, the six-year-old NAACP launched a national campaign against the racist film “The Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed Black characters as violent criminals and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Recognizing the power of cinema, the NAACP feared the movie would incite additional violence against Black people — and indeed, both the number of lynchings and the membership of the Klan reportedly rose the year the film was released.

In the 1960s, images of vicious attack dogs and other brutality unleashed by police upon nonviolent Black demonstrators were broadcast into American living rooms and helped turn public opinion in favor of the civil rights movement, leading to transformative changes in our civil rights laws and Hollywood programming.

Yet today, in its response to this unprecedented moment in history sparked by the public murder of George Floyd, Hollywood — which is literally in the business of creating, producing, marketing and exploiting images approved and greenlit by a handful of C-suite executives who shape American culture — is again resorting to the same old social justice playbook.

Studios, networks and other entertainment companies led by this insular group of executives have rushed to make the usual symbolic gestures of support for the Black community. They pledge financial support for activists, hire the proverbial one Black writer, produce a Black television show or greenlight one low-budget Black film, even execute 180-degree reversals on long-running legal battles they would never have contemplated conceding absent the current climate.

These are “the comfortable give.” And frankly, these isolated gestures simply contribute to preserving the status quo.

In this moment, when centuries of oppression have come to a tipping point, Hollywood must, and can, do more. We cannot continue to operate on autopilot when considering who is portrayed in our productions, how they’re portrayed and who makes those decisions. Hollywood must devote its true strength — that of global image-maker and influencer — to the fight for justice and institutional change.

How do we achieve that? Accountability.

Each year, alongside box office receipts, Nielsen ratings and corporate profits, entertainment companies should publicize concrete diversity hiring and programming goals, and report on their results in achieving them. That’s commitment to positive change. That’s what the memory of George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others) requires us to do if we are serious this time about moving our industry and the world forward through the images that originate from Hollywood.

Now is the time for accountability and action, not symbolic gestures. Now is the time for the senior leadership of Hollywood, including the ultimate gatekeepers who sit on the boards and in the C-suites, to hold themselves and each other to account.

Racism is not merely personal in this country, it’s structural: so deeply embedded in our systems and practices that they continue to produce racially disparate results, even if no prejudiced human specifically seeks that outcome. This is how the C-suites and writers’ rooms remain so white, and how a studio executive could suggest that Julia Roberts play the lead role in a film about Harriet Tubman. It is structural racism that places so many institutional barriers in Black people’s paths: from under-resourced schools to a lack of family-supporting wages, overly aggressive policing and voter suppression.

Over the years, the rich tapestry of life in the Black community has been systemically ignored in favor of simplified one-dimensional caricatures, token characters, and the false narrative that Black communities are dangerous, one-dimensional ghettos. These messages from Hollywood travel far and hold fast. Last year in Ghana, Africans on a national panel told NAACP leaders how difficult it was for them to get beyond their perception of African Americans as violent criminals —which they had learned from American movies and TV.

How Black people are portrayed on screens determines how they are treated in the streets. To accurately depict a community, studios, networks, streamers and production companies need to involve members of that community in decision-making.

And right now, that’s not happening.

In its survey of 11 major and mid-major studios, UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report found that 91 percent of C-level jobs and 93 percent of senior executive jobs were held by white people. In addition, 86 percent of studio film unit leaders were white.

Entertainment companies regularly use metrics to calculate audience appeal and financial performance. Now is the time for Hollywood to create similar metrics to measure the appointment of members to its Boards of Directors, hiring of Black executives, producers, content creators and showrunners, and quantify the production of diverse content for film, television and streaming — and then publicly announce its goals and report on its progress. The industry should work in close partnership with organizations within the Black community that can provide resources, help shape content and provide the audience to commercially support it.

Considering the significant and growing buying power of Black audiences, setting goals for the creation of quality, diverse content is not a handout or quota system, it’s just good business.

Here are four concrete steps entertainment companies should take now to ensure the industry achieves and is held accountable for those results, and to demonstrate that it respects its Black and brown consumers, who consume a disproportionate share of Hollywood’s content.

  1. Appoint Black people to seats on the board of directors in proportion to the number of Black people reflected in their audiences, subscribers or consumer base.
  2. Promote and hire Black people to fill C-suite and senior creative executive positions, who can be advocates for diverse ideas and have the power to see them actually produced and distributed.
  3. Set concrete goals and measurable objectives to guarantee distribution of programming
    that shows people of color in non-stereotypical roles and beyond the token cast member.
  4. And, most importantly, gauge success by results, as entertainment companies do in every other operational aspect of their business.

Change is possible, but only if Hollywood stops evaluating its progress on racial and social justice based on the number of well-intentioned gestures it makes, and starts focusing instead on the results it achieves.

Having a serious, industry-wide action plan to confront issues of race in the entertainment industry — and then doing something bold, fresh and structured with accountability to address them — is uncomfortable, but it is necessary and long overdue.

Darrell D. Miller is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Fox Rothschild and the founding chair of the firm’s entertainment and sports law department.

Derrick Johnson is the president and CEO of the NAACP.