Hollywood Has a Responsibility to Change the Stories We Are Telling (Guest Column)

Protesters sit in the middle of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif.,, over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day in MinneapolisMinneapolis Police Death Protests California, Beverly Hills, United States - 30 May 2020
Christian Monterrosa/AP/Shutters

No matter how much you protest or share social media posts, the majority of writers, creators and executives in Hollywood could be doing much more to prevent tragedies like the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Tony McDade.

It’s reported by the Geena Davis Institute that 80% of the media consumed globally is created in the United States. You are the most influential storytellers in the world. For the last century, however, Hollywood has exported countless dehumanizing images of Black people, perpetuating the racism and oppression that Black communities have been forced to live with since the transatlantic slave trade.

Writers, creators, and executives: The Trump administration has already decided what story it will tell — now it’s time for you to decide yours. Protests and social media posts are creating a pressure moment. Now it’s time to change the narrative and build the demand and vision for change into our culture.

The entertainment industry collectively has a responsibility to stop taking the easy way out. We have a responsibility to tell more Black stories and recount the events of the 2020 uprisings.

So how will you respond in this moment? Will your historical fiction continue to center the voices of bleeding heart white protagonists? (We see you, “Mrs. America.”) Will your crime procedurals continue to paint police with an untarnished coat of valiance? Will Black characters in your projects continue to serve as one-dimensional tokens in service of complex white characters?

This week’s protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over how our country continues to fail its Black citizens (documented or otherwise). The narrative presented by the Trump administration and many mainstream news outlets, however, is the cliche picture of violent protesters and crazed Black people. Meanwhile, police continue to brutalize Black people and the protesters who stand up to defend us — the all-too-familiar master narrative is implying that the value of white property and the value of law and order outweighs the value of Black lives.

Narrative informs mass perception and you have the power to create narrative. What are you going to do to change it?

We encourage non-Black entertainment professionals to move beyond the performative acts of solidarity to dig deeper in search of answers. Explore the research that organizations like Color of Change and Define American have invested in to unpack the way dehumanizing narratives impact audiences.

Entertainment journalism has its role to play as well. There must be a conscious effort across this section of the industry to report on Black-led projects with the nuance they deserve and immediate plans to diversify reporting, critics and editorial staff. Entertainment trade outlets must be vigilant about calling out dehumanizing narratives and challenge the industry that it means to hold accountable to strive for real impact, not just lip service.

As veteran film executive and inclusion advocate Moira Griffin so poignantly says, the entertainment industry must go beyond the simple question of who is allowed to tell a story. We have to acknowledge that, as people of color continue to struggle to tell their own stories, we fight against an institution that cemented the narrative that we do not belong at all into the psyche of society.

Diversity offices at studios, networks, streaming services and agencies have been working to course-correct this, but they must be given proper financial support and the deep, company-wide engagement they need as they take on the task of undoing more a century’s worth of damage caused by our industry. They must give agency to POC storytellers to use the full breadth of their voices, instead of forcing them to limit their creativity to the comfort zones of white audiences. They also mustn’t simply rely on their explicitly Black-led projects — which consist of less than two out of every 10 major film/TV projects for on-camera talent, and roughly one out of every 10 projects for writer’s and director’s credits — to bear the lion’s share of this responsibility, either. It’s time for everyone to get to work.

The time to do better was yesterday, but starting today can still make a difference. The whole world is watching. It’s time to tell a new, more honest story.

Noelle S. Lindsay-Stewart, Head of Entertainment Partnerships + Advocacy for Define American, is a seasoned communications and entertainment consultant committed to bridging the gap between entertainment and social justice. She currently serves as the Head of Entertainment Partnerships + Advocacy at Define American, where she oversees entertainment industry-focused culture change strategies including the organization’s scripted and non-scripted consulting practice. Her consulting portfolio includes projects like NBC’s “Superstore,” The CW’s “Roswell” and OWN’s “Queen Sugar.” If there’s one thing she wants to accomplish, it’s working with leaders in the entertainment industry to use their influence to inspire the rest of the world to strive for equality, safety, and justice for all.