Back in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was slowly gaining momentum in the United States, broadcasting services were employed to gather support for the movement. Images of various kinds of atrocities and violence being rendered to nonviolent Black demonstrators were broadcasted into American houses to raise awareness about the movement.
However, the response of Hollywood so far can be explained in a single word- tragic! Hollywood as a major media and content producer has massively shaped the American culture. However it has not much to show as a positive influence on race issues.
A classic 1940’s musical movie, Holiday Inn had the famous song in which White stars performed in blackface. In a 1980s hit, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” the Indians are depicted as barbaric and uncivilised. The list of such racial stereotypes is huge to be reproduced here.
Legendary Hollywood actor John Wayne made highly offensive comments in a playboy interview. His exact words are, “I believe in white supremacy until the Blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.” He further goes on to make a series of comments, that ideally should not be coming from someone with so much influence in Hollywood.
Many legendary actors and industry icons too have struggled due to racism in Hollywood. Bruce Lee is a fine example of a person who fought against racism in the industry and refused to be cast in many roles that portrayed Chinese people in a negative light. He ultimately moved back to Hong Kong, partly due to the lack of appropriate roles. Actress Lucy Liu has also spoken about how she was too naïve to understand back in the early days as to why her friend would get multiple auditions every day, while she managed two or three in a month.
In 2015, there was a massive uproar regarding the Oscar winners after the academy awarded all 20 nominations to white actors. It quickly gained momentum with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite becoming a global trend. Before #OscarsSoWhite, no one would have bothered to notice that 86% of top films predominantly featured white actors.
As per a Washington Post survey, film directors who ranked as the most influential decision-makers at Hollywood were predominantly whites. Hollywood might stress for newer reforms against racism on the big screen but that is not the reality at all. To put things into perspective, the Hollywood academy has never revealed information about the diversity of its members involved in the branches of the academy, such as writers, directors, etc.
The response of Hollywood movers and shakers was always akin to a tokenism, a call to push for producing more content involving black writers, producers, and actors.
George Floyd’s death was just the trigger it needed to burst out in the open the pent up anger over the centuries of discrimination, oppression, and systematic injustice meted out to black people. The way black people are portrayed in reel life directly impacts society’s attitude towards them in real life.
People started demanding that Hollywood production companies and studios should involve the people from the community in the decision-making process when the movie plot is based considerably on the members of those communities. They have also demanded that older movies depicting racially insensitive narratives should be taken out of circulation.
Disney, one of the most reputed names in Hollywood, chose to remove the movie “Song of the South” from US distribution, when the criticism for the movie grew, even though it remains available for those who know where to look. They have also announced the plan to revamp the famous Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland and Disney World to include the character of Princess Tiana- Disney’s first African American princess from the movie The Princess and the Frog.
UK TV broadcaster Sky has added a disclaimer to approximately a dozen films stating, “This film has outdated attitudes, language and cultural depictions which may cause offence today."
HBO max recently pulled the iconic film, Gone with the wind because of its controversial depiction of black stereotypes. It returned with a four and a half minute introductory video by black scholar Jaqueline Stewart for a better understanding about racism.
Ever since the resurfacing of the playboy interview of John Wayne, students and alumni at USC have been protesting against Wayne’s exhibit at the campus. However, USC has finally decided to remove the exhibit.
All these reforms are a direct result of the audience being more and more aware of racism and prejudice. However, it is Hollywood’s turn to step up and push for bigger reforms. While it would be a challenging and bold endeavor, Hollywood’s global influence makes it imperative for the industry to undergo much-needed reforms.