Ten Things Hollywood Can Do to Fight Racism and Promote Justice
By Alan Jenkins
This article appeared originally on LinkedIn on June 4 and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Our shared values call for a justice system that keeps everyone safe, prevents harm and upholds the principles of equal justice, fairness and accountability. Though we’ve never fully realized that ideal as a nation, recent events are a savage reminder of how desperately far we have to go.
The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor; the inadequate response from our justice system; the years-long pattern of official killings and assaults and acquittals too numerous to mention; and the larger context of over-policing and over-incarceration of Black and Brown people have become too dire and too urgent to ignore.
As Americans take to the streets to protest an oppressive and discriminatory criminal justice system, many in Hollywood are among those speaking out. A wide range of celebrities and influencers have joined marches and demonstrations. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Starz and other industry players used their social media accounts to call for justice and support the Movement for Black Lives. In New York, several theaters opened their doors to provide a safe space for protesters.
These are crucial steps. But there is much, much more to be done by an industry that has too often promoted harmful racial stereotypes, advanced the narrative of Black and Brown people as dangerous threats and endorsed the idea that police violence, and even torture, are both normal and acceptable.
Fortunately, there are a range of concrete actions that writers, performers, directors, executives, networks, studios and others in the film and television industry can take, right now, to fight racism and promote justice. Here are ten of them:
1. Consider a Stereotype Moratorium.
What if studios, networks and streaming services went an entire year without a single storyline featuring violent, menacing, dangerous Black men? A year without storylines in which the only women of color are overly sexualized, rude and sarcastic, “sassy”, “spicy” or “exotic”? A year without depictions of Arab, Muslim and South Asian Americans as national security threats? A year without images of immigrant characters engaged in harmful and unlawful activity? A year without depictions of Asian Americans as indelibly foreign, painfully wonky or one-dimensional “model minorities”? A year without erasing Native Americans as lost to history or inextricably, corruptly linked to casinos?
What if screenwriters and showrunners did a “bigotry pass” on their content, just as they do a pass or review of scripts for character, theme or humor? What if studio execs and network Standards and Practices departments considered implicit and explicit bias in their companies’ content as a whole, and made decisions in part on that basis?
What if the unavailability of those tired and harmful tropes led to new, vibrant, nuanced characters and stories? And what if millions of Americans got to see themselves in the full, nuanced, flawed and phenomenal ways that reflect their lived reality? Let’s give it a try.
2. Take responsibility for your part of the big picture.
It’s easy—and comforting—to believe that the state of racial justice in our country does not rise or fall with any one film, show, episode or image. And, of course, that’s true, especially in an era of 532 television shows and myriad streaming platforms. But the decades-long pattern of harmful, stereotypical and sometimes bigoted entertainment content is made up of thousands of individual works and millions of individual words and images. They are tiles in a mosaic that influences how Americans think about each other and themselves.
Just as the way in which you do or do not use your vote contributes to our larger political reality, the way in which you use your creative talent contributes to our collective perceptions of each other and the society that we aspire to be. Make sure that your contribution is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
3. Be accountable for the moral and message of your story
Know what your content is about and see that it reflects your values. Consider, for example, the underlying theme of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry versus the underlying theme of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar Award-winning Unforgiven. Dirty Harry tells viewers that our country has given too much deference to the constitutional rights of the accused, and must let cops be judge, jury, torturer and executioner. Unforgiven tells us that violence only begets more violence and that killing degrades the killer and society as well as the victim. As Eastwood’s Will Munny tells another character in Unforgiven, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
As a moviegoer I enjoyed both films. I also found entertaining shows like Homeland and 24 that sometimes portrayed official torture in a flattering light. But before creating another property in which the protagonist is “forced” to flout the law and torture or kill in the name of “law and order”, creatives must understand and take responsibility for the cultural message and consequences to which they are contributing.
4. Tell Human Stories about systemic problems and solutions
People respond to human stories, be it over the campfire or dinner table, via TikTok or in film and television. But the most important and impactful human stories are also about systemic problems and solutions. Works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Orange is the New Black, Roma, Parasite or Just Mercy tell compelling and entertaining (and award-winning) human stories that also connect viewers to larger societal problems and, in some cases, potential solutions.
Not every Hollywood story can or should be about changing the world. But creators concerned about racial justice can contribute to new understandings while bringing in new audiences and revenue. Humanitas and Storyline Partners are among the organizations helping emerging and established screenwriters combine entertainment and conscience.
5. Imagine the world you want to see
One of an artist’s greatest gifts is the ability to depict not only the world as it is, but also the world as it could be. Consider as an example how Black Panther depicted a fictional African nation, Wakanda, untouched by colonialism, the slave trade or underdevelopment. It offered a powerful vision of AfroFuturism that has inspired thinkers and activists around the world. Here at home, a #WakandaTheVote campaign used screenings of the film to register new voters.
We similarly have no real-world example of a nation in which policing and incarceration have been replaced by culturally competent mental health interventions, a commitment to restorative justice and deep investment in opportunity for all. But activists and artists are envisioning that world, and Hollywood can follow suit.
6. Demand diversity throughout the industry
Calling for greater diversity in the entertainment industry has become routine. But it’s both critical and profoundly absent. The latest Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA found that “people of color remained underrepresented on every industry employment front in 2019.” Whereas people of color represented 40 percent of the U.S. population in 2018, they represented less than 14 percent of film writers, just 15 percent of film directors, and only 9 percent of studio heads. A Color of Change report found that 65 percent of television shows had zero Black writers, and only 17 percent had two or more Black writers.
Contributing to these dismal numbers are implicit and explicit racial and gender bias, nepotism and practices that replicate our nation’s still-segregated social networks—some of the same dynamics that contribute to discriminatory policing and criminal justice.
Clearly, more aggressive and disruptive efforts are needed. One idea is borrowing from the NFL’s recently-expanded “Rooney Rule”, which requires teams to interview two external candidates of color for head coaching vacancies and one for general manager roles. Under an additional NFL proposal, currently on hold, any team that hired a minority head coach would receive a six-slot bump for their subsequent year’s third-round draft pick. The point is not that the NFL is a model of racial progress (it’s not), but that new, sometimes uncomfortable, approaches are needed, including in Hollywood.
Diversity does not, of course, guarantee storytelling that dispels stereotypes or improves interracial understanding. But it usually helps. The era of peak TV has shown us that new, diverse storytellers expand the definition of “we the people” in the public consciousness. They are also, by the way, highly profitable. The same UCLA study found that, “in 2018, films with casts that were from 21 percent to 30 percent minority enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts, while films with casts that were from 41 percent to 50 percent minority enjoyed this distinction in 2019.”
7. Divest from discriminatory locales and abusive companies.
Hollywood wields tremendous economic power and needs to put its money where its mouth is on racial justice. A study released by the Motion Picture Association of America before the pandemic found that the American film and television industry supported 2.1 million jobs nationally, adding high quality domestic jobs and paying out $49 billion to local businesses across the country. Just as some entertainment companies rightly punished North Carolina economically for its transphobic “bathroom bill”, media companies must divest from regions and companies that exacerbate or actively contribute to the nation’s unfair and discriminatory policing, detention and mass incarceration systems.
If Wall Street Banks can divest from private prisons, surely Hollywood can go further in eschewing injustice and reinvesting in places and companies committed to equality and inclusion. Conversely, Hollywood should focus its hiring, procurement and spending on places and faces that have been most excluded and exploited.
8. Support Racial Justice Organizations Led by People of Color
This is a time of financial uncertainty for many people around the country and world. It’s also a crucial time for those who are financially able to support organizations led by people of color focused on equal justice and opportunity for all. The Movement for Black Lives Fund, for example, supports Black-led rapid response efforts and long-term strategy, policy and infrastructure investments in the movement for human rights and justice. Consider contributing or, if you can’t, share them with your friends and followers.
9. Lift up your voice and the voices of others.
We all have a voice and most of us have a vote. We must use them both to demand justice and equality. Some in the entertainment industry have a louder and more prominent voice than others, and with that great power comes great responsibility. The Opportunity Agenda is a helpful source of communication strategies and messaging to engage and persuade a variety of audiences on issues of racial equity, criminal justice reform and other social justice issues. Remember, too, that sometimes (frequently) being a good ally means acknowledging and supporting the voices of those who are directly affected by the issue.
10. Remember that we’re all connected and have multiple identities
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The human rights of African Americans are inextricably linked to the rights of other people of color, of women, of queer Americans, of immigrants, of indigenous peoples and, ultimately, to the health of our democracy. Addressing racial injustice and inclusion must happen alongside the continuing efforts of #MeToo, #TimesUp and other movements.
And because we all have multiple identities and experience discrimination in different ways, intersectionality matters. The discrimination that a Latinx woman experiences, for example, may be different from that experienced by either a Latinx man or a white woman. Understanding and responding to that complexity is key to becoming the society that we aspire to be.
Few of us have the resources, influence or bandwidth to do all of these things. But everyone in Hollywood can do some of them. There’s no excuse for feeling helpless or hopeless in the face of inequality. Solutions are out there.
Alan Jenkins is a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School, co-founder and former President of The Opportunity Agenda, and a transmedia writer and content creator. He was a Director of Human Rights at the Ford Foundation.