July 2, 2020
On the Many Problematic Aspects of Hollywood
It is with a heavy heart that I must report that Phillip Drummond’s decision to have his adopted son sing “Ebony and Ivory” with his biological daughter and guest star Janet Jackson did not end racial strife. Moesha’s close encounter with date rape did not end the use of Rohypnol, nor did the gang from 90210’s cute acknowledgements of the dangers of smoking reduce its rate among teenagers (How could it when many members of the cast were photographed smoking?) In fact, I’d venture to say that none of those so-called “special” episodes dealing with suicide, racial profiling, gun violence, and teenage drinking had any effect at all. In truth, they had no chance to. After all, as Avery Brooks said on The Arsenio Hall Show one year, we can’t expect to solve in 22 minutes what we haven’t been able to solve in 400 years.
I would extend that sentiment to full-length movies. We may applaud the serious, message-based films that often appear in theaters in the fourth quarter in order to qualify for the Academy Awards, yet few movies can be said to have truly changed society. Sure, Rain Man made people more aware of autism, yet it made the exception look like the rule. I Am Sam sought to show the capabilities of those often thought of as eternally challenged, yet it was overshadowed by Tropic Thunder’s introduction of a vile term describing actors who play roles similar to that of Sam. And A Beautiful Mind may be a beautiful film, but there is little long-term evidence that it led to better understanding of or increased financial investment in helping those suffering from mental illness.
This is hardly a surprise. Hollywood is, after all, made up of companies whose ultimate goal in to make money. Summer movies make the big bucks, but nominations and awards can attract audiences to more serious fare. Their motivation has never been to change society for the better; instead, they have a legal responsibility to line their shareholders’ pockets as much as possible. As for actors, while many of them aspire to make films that impact society, I can’t blame them for running to a much more financially dependable genre like action as a way of extending their careers. And they have done this in droves – just look at the careers paths of Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, and Robert Downey Jr. Should we really expect them to turn down millions of dollars just because a film has no chance of lifting society up? After all, they do have to make a living.
There are exceptions, of course. Brokeback Mountain broke barriers and gave audiences a better understand of the emotional toll brought on by having to hide who you are; Oliver Stone’s JFK led to greater government transparency (at least in the short term); and films like Boyz ‘n the Hood, Menace II Society, and Straight out of Brooklyn helped educate people about what was really going on in the inner city. Movies like Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored and Imitation of Life, as well as the movie it inspired, Todd Haynes ‘s Far From Heaven, have been instrumental in educating audiences about the past and just how long we have been dealing with issues such as racism and sexism. Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil shattered the romantic narrative of the Lost Cause, stunning audiences with its scenes of senseless brutality.
And yet, for every movie that positively impacts society, there are many more that send questionable or downright horrible messages. Consider these examples: Tony Stark telling his captors the order in which he is going to kill them and then doing so; Dom Toretto and his “family” placing thousands of people in danger by returning to Los Angeles even though they are guaranteed to be tracked there by a merciless terrorist organization; Mark Walberg’s “good cop” shooting Matt Damon’s “bad cop” in cold blood at the end of The Departed; Batman arguing that electing not to save someone is not the same as killing them; Superman not even caring about the damage inflicted during his battle with Zod and his fellow Kryptonites. Sadly, many movies normalize killing; some even excuse it. Just how many of Disney’s animated films end with the death of the villain?
Toward the end of 1986’s Soul Man, James Earl Jones tells C. Thomas Howell, who artificially dyed his skin dark to get a scholarship to Harvard, that he has learned what it is like to be black. In the very next scene, he responds to a racist joke by socking the racists across the room and then being rewarded for the act of violence with a resumption of his relationship with Rae Dawn Chong. Is the movie implying a correlation between what he learned and his use of violence? If so, that’s a far cry from the sentiments espoused during the Civil Rights movement. Fortunately, the following year brought us Robert Townsend’s excellent satire Hollywood Shuffle.
I believe that almost every movie, intentionally or unintentionally, acts as an advocate for either its subject or lead characters. For example, gangster movies glamorize the top gangster and his lifestyle, even if they are preceded by a disclaimer, which was common in the 1930’s. Movies about sexists often make audience admire the sexist for his unwillingness to conform to society’s rules, and they can diminish the impact of traumatic events. In Higher Learning, date rape is dealt with not with therapy or legal justice but a dabble into lesbianism (really); In Revenge of the Nerds, a woman’s nude photograph is used to sell pies without her consent; later, the same woman is tricked into sleeping with someone she thinks is her boyfriend – this is portrayed, not as rape, but the beginnings of genuine love. No matter. The audience laughed, just as they did when Charlotte’s bout of diarrhea brought her no sympathy from her supposed friends in the first Sex and the City movie.
In the 1990’s, a study found that television audience who watched shows like The Cosby Show and Benson were more likely to discount stories of systemic racism and the need for affirmative action, essentially arguing that if Dr. Cliff Huxtable could make it, then anyone could. This was certainly not the goal of the show’s creators. Nor do I think the producers of police dramas intend to discount incidents of police brutality or profiling. They would likely argue that they are giving the audience what they want – images of basically decent individuals neatly wrapping up problems in under an hour or two. Who, they’d likely ask, wants to watch a TV show or movie about truly evil, abusive individuals? They have a point. Just look at the most popular movies and TV shows each week. The majority of them simply “entertain.”
Of course, they do more than this. They campaign for their characters and their actions, and the more we see of them, the less shocked we are by what they do, regardless of how horrendous their actions truly are. Movies can also mold and strengthen our impressions, reinforce existing stereotypes and introduce us to new ones. This has impacted Asian-Americans greatly, often reducing the quality of the roles they are offered or requiring them to have the skills of Bruce Lee or Michelle Yeoh.
While we should celebrate Hollywood and its numerous accomplishments, we should also recognize the pain that some of their productions have caused. I will never know just how much heartbreak African-Americans experienced watching characters in Blackface during the Silent Era or their feelings when they read articles proclaiming The Birth of a Nation a masterpiece. I will never completely understand what went through Asian-Americans’ heads when Mr. Yunioshi appeared on screen or how they feel when Breakfast at Tiffany’s is hailed as one of the greatest romantic films of all time. And I will never experience the level of disappointment that a Muslim-American viewer has when yet another movie is about stopping a Middle Eastern terrorist.
We find ourselves at a crossroads with some advocating the “canceling” of things causing offense, even though I’m not entirely sure that there is a universally-accepted definition of canceling. I am not in favor of censorship or bans. In Germany, many films deemed too sympathetic to Nazi Germany continue to be banned, and this has not stopped the rise of anti-Semitism or hate groups. There will always be versions of South of the South available (I have it on DVD), and it would be ridiculous to edit regrettable content out of old films. We can’t change the past, and we shouldn’t hide it. It is one of the most reliable measures we have of our progress as a society. And movies and television do indeed show progress, from the variety of stories they tell to their increasingly multicultural casts. They also show we have a long way to go, and Hollywood can either help us get to a better place or cause us to take a step back. The ball is in their court.