Is Hollywood’s Structural Racism Beyond Repair?
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural, under a pen name.
Reader, do me a quick favor: paint a mental picture of the Old West – stop reading this and take a moment to do so (really). Now do the same for Egypt, World War II, Native Americans, Arabs and Medieval Europe. Create as detailed a mental image for each of these as you can manage (don’t cheat and Google any – just use your imagination).
Now, for this next part you have to be honest with yourself. What did you picture for each prompt and how accurate were your mental pictures, really? For the Old West, did you picture handsome cowboys and saloons with swinging doors? Perhaps you pictured a frontierswoman; in what style did she wear her hair? I’ll bet she wore make-up. For Egypt, did you picture the Pyramids of Giza surrounded by nothing but an expansive desert? In your images of World War II, did you picture any African-American soldiers storming the beaches? (They were there, I assure you.) What did your Native Americans look like? Did you picture modern men and women or half-clothed warriors? And the Arabs? Were they wealthy and garish? Or maybe they were terrorists, overly religious, covered and veiled. And how about Medieval Europe – what did your fair maidens look like? Did they have all their teeth? Was their skin clear? Did they look suspiciously modern?
I think my point is becoming painfully obvious but it is a very important point indeed and here it is: We have absolutely no way of knowing what the past looked, smelled, sounded, and tasted like. We rely solely on the media, especially film, to reconstruct the worlds of the past for us and, most importantly, to supply us with the building materials to continue re-imagining them on our own (this is not only true of the past but of the world we currently live in as well). That is an incredibly important power and I don’t think I’m all that comfortable with Hollywood wielding it.
I don’t intend to go through every one of our examples to explain exactly why those perceptions are false, or which movies in particular are to blame, as that would require a series of well-researched books to get to the bottom of. But, as our little exercise has hopefully made clear, Hollywood dictates to us what the past, and indeed present, looked, and now looks, like.
With the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests and the racial reckoning we’ve been witnessing globally in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it’s worth taking a look at Hollywood’s role in the sort of questions we’ve been dealing with. There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about films such as the infamous Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, the latter being pulled from HBO Max for a few weeks before being reuploaded with a video introduction which serves as a warning label of sorts. This, I believe, was a good step, but we need to acknowledge that the problem extends far beyond the narrow scope of blatantly racist films. It's like passing a law banning the police from using chokeholds without tackling the uncomfortable question of systemic, structural, and institutional racism within the very concept of American policing. Simply the fact that terms like systemic racism are becoming commonplace is a good start and we’ve seen a slew of companies and corporations coming out and attempting to root out systemic racism in their own midst (whether this is genuine or performative remains to be seen). It’s Hollywood's turn; however, that battle will be a nearly impossible one to win. This is in part due to the fact that the liberal elite that make up Hollywood believe they are part of the solution and not of the problem. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that they see themselves as the solution. The irony of this can be seen in the self-aggrandizing (bordering on masturbation) that occurred after Parasite won Best Picture (It’s South Korean!) or every time a racial-pandering film, from a white director, is produced or wins awards – like Green Book or even Hidden Figures (Look, it’s intersectionality!). Never mind that a filmmaker like Spike Lee was denied an Oscar until 2018, despite being one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, or that Hollywood has perpetuated some of the most toxic and damaging racial stereotypes present in American culture. If we set aside the openly racist history of Hollywood films (the films mentioned earlier and the continued refusal to diversify the Oscars) we are left with the almost more uncomfortable reality that Hollywood has quietly made a racist of us all. Not card-carrying-Klan type racists but certainly something less obviously insidious but no less harmful. If Black Americans are not portrayed as criminals they are portrayed as folksy and wise, or bold and sassy in no less cringeworthy a manner, and very rarely as human beings with flaws and truly multi-dimensional personalities (again, here I don’t really need to get into specific examples because the issue is so widespread that every single reader can readily identify ten or more films that are guilty). And then come along those “brave” Hollywood movies that tackle racism, something they do in so yellow-bellied a manner as to do more harm than good in the way of actually tackling racism. What I mean by this is that racists portrayed in these films are so obviously, comically villainous that they give white audiences that don’t want to confront realistic, real-world racism (in themselves and in their communities) a convenient out: Well, I’m not like the people in that movie!
I also strongly suggest we look to Hollywood during this moment of national reckoning around the specific issue of police brutality. Now, I’m not laying any deaths (or the issue of police brutality and militarization) at the feet of the U.S. film industry – that would be unfair. However, that being said, it is not unfair to acknowledge the problematic portrayal of law enforcement stretching all the way back to the earliest Hollywood films. Cops, detectives, and even soldiers are routinely displayed taking a shoot-first approach, regularly breaking the law and making a mockery of civil liberties. Yes, I know it’s all in good fun but do you know who watches those movies? Current and aspiring law-enforcement officials. It would be irresponsible and naive to suggest that the public perception of an occupation does not affect the sort of people who aspire to have that job and, due in large part to Hollywood portrayals that routinely celebrate police violence with fascistic glee, that perception has overwhelmingly been that police need not worry about repercussions for their violent actions (this has translated seamlessly from the screen to reality).
So, what are we to do? Watch more movies about and by African American voices as I have seen suggested by just about every publication and media company lately? Yes – though after taking a look at some of the Hollywood-centric lists circulating I became almost more depressed and pessimistic; the films are often laughable in their simplification of race-relations (how much is Green Book really going to help you or anyone?). The solution is independent cinema. It is the only solution – I cannot stress this enough. We cannot wait for Hollywood to address the structural racism within its own ecosystem because Hollywood as an ecosystem is structural racism. Elite and far-removed from those it is “entertaining,” Hollywood has done tremendous damage to the standing of minority communities for over 100 years.
Here is my advice: take this opportunity while COVID-19 has paralyzed the movie-making world to dive headfirst into independent cinema. Sounds simple, right? It is! It’s incredibly simple! Find minority filmmakers that are trudging along out in the cold (in terms of film finance) and support them. This is not a small ask, I realize, but neither is combatting something so ingrained and vile as structural racism. If we are not willing to give up and radically alter the ways in which we simply entertain ourselves, then how can we ever expect to achieve any sort of real change? One of the (few) opportunities that our kill-or-be-killed capitalist system here in America affords us is the power of boycott; our words have power but so do our wallets. Instead of giving our hard-earned money to old guard companies that for years have peddled and maintained our system of white supremacy (overtly or otherwise), why don't we put our money where our mouths are and shift focus to a new generation. Just because a company like Disney realized that racism doesn’t sell like it used to and has started actually casting Black and brown actors for Black and brown roles, it doesn’t mean that we need to reward them. Again, this is not easy! I realize that fully but this is the moment, if ever there was one, to move forward, leaving the old system behind us; the danger is that moments – even ones as powerful as this one – are fleeting. Get out into the streets and protest rampant injustice in the branches of government but don’t forget the injustice lurking in the cinema and within your Netflix watchlist.
Please research local filmmakers of color in your community and show your support by helping to fund them and share their work.
Furthermore, I will include some incredible resources that promote and support independent filmmakers (you can use these organizations to either educate yourself a little further or you can donate to some of them):
Black Public Media: blackpublicmedia.org/about
Film Independent’s Project Involve: www.filmindependent.org/programs/project-involve
The New Negress Film Society: newnegressfilmsociety.com/about
Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project: qwocmap.org/about-qwocmap
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!