We can save America’s soul, together.
The killing of George Floyd hurt millions of people very deeply and personally – some of whom finally were waking to their unique privilege, and others who had spent years screaming into deaf ears of the silent majority. One reason that video was such a catalyst this time, as opposed to hundreds of other recent times, was because a modern-day lynching unfolded before our eyes in a familiar three-act structure. It’s the story of power and powerlessness, of brutality and indifference, and of our collective hearts breaking as a grown man on the edge of death calls for his deceased mama while a human stand-in for America’s policing system literally chokes the life out of him. Mr. Floyd’s brutal story is a microcosm of America’s history – but we must not let it be the story of our future.
“… for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” — Roger Ebert, from the documentary Life Itself
There is no greater power to affect the hearts and minds of a democracy than the power of story, and effective storytelling is like main-lining empathy. I was a young biracial boy growing up in 96% white Boulder, Colorado, when I first witnessed the earth-shattering power of storytelling. It was a Saturday night in July of 1991 and my parents went on a double date with a polite, WASP-y couple who were excited to see the movie that all their friends were talking about – Boyz n the Hood. John Singleton’s masterpiece about Black youth in South Central reached past racial boundaries all the way into the granola foothills of Boulder, fostering conversation about racial divides. More aware of how systemic racism affected families like ours, those white neighbors became cemented as friends and allies – and crucially, they used their privilege for my family several times over the next few years.
I did not grow up to become a Civil Rights attorney, nor am I trained to be a community organizer. I became a Hollywood agent. I am trained to put movies together and get them financed, produced and sold. I’m a gatekeeper with resources, an arbiter of storytelling, and I know what I can and must do in this moment. We need empathy now more than ever if our American Democracy is going to be an Anti-Racist Democracy.
If you are involved in the business of storytelling, get on the bus, Jack.
We need to move the culture forward because professionals who are trained in local and national politics are working tirelessly right now to provide better choices to the body politic – in the form of ballot initiatives, referendums, candidates and so forth – and because Black lives really do matter, we need the people of our democracy to experience empathy that will move them to make the right choice. This process – not corporate press releases supporting BLM – is the only way the citizens of our democracy will respond with a resounding YES. YES we want reform in our criminal justice and other systems; YES we realize America’s rise to global superpower was in large part because of free Black labor, which still affects us now; and YES we will work together to dismantle a structure which encourages Black bodies as collateral payment for white privilege.
We can save Hollywood too, and we all know Winter Is Coming.
Historically, Hollywood always has had this good fortune: Our industry is non-correlated with major economic trends. But that was before the world went into lockdown and prospects became beyond scary for our business. I believe we can get through this challenge and emerge much stronger than before. Not only are movies and shows one of America’s largest exports, I believe the act of sending our stories and ideas around the globe is one of America’s greatest superpowers.
“In a way, there is something quite noble about what we do. Our potential impact can not be minimized and should never be trivialized. At the same time that America has lost its dominance of the world’s economy, it has become a pre-eminent force in the world’s culture … People around the world may no longer drive in American cars, build with American steel or listen to American radios. But they go see American films.” — Jeffrey Katzenberg, 1991 Disney internal memo
People crave affordable entertainment, especially in times of crisis. But this time, business as usual will not be enough; an industry of white people in front of the camera, behind the camera and in the boardroom cannot and should not do it alone. We need more revenue from a more diverse product mix, selling to more consumers at home and abroad, period. Let us all rejoice that this strategy not only helps save America’s soul – in good times it will make Hollywood a f*ckload of money, and in bad times, like now, it will save our business. We truly must align the diversity of our content, and just as importantly our boardrooms, with that of our global 21st century audiences.
UCLA’s 2020 diversity study correlates the more diverse our movies are, the more money they make: “In 2018,” it found, “films with casts made up of 21% to 30% minority actors had the highest median global ticket receipts. In 2019, the films that tended to perform the best at the box office were even more diverse, with casts in the 41% to 50% minority range.”
Many of these films were tentpole franchise sequels with token or stunt diversity casting – and because of the blatant lack of diversity, I would argue in most cases even that’s a good thing – but let’s not learn the wrong lesson here. People crave a fresh story, fresh perspective and fresh characters with universally relatable stories.
Our business needs more authentic Black stories, we also need more Black executive leadership and Black-owned businesses in the mix. We must have Black executives on greenlight committees, running development meetings and taking pitch sessions and casting calls to ensure the authenticity and success of this diversification. UCLA’s 2020 diversity study also revealed that “among 11 studio and mini-major companies, 91% of C-level positions and 93% of all senior executive positions are held by white people.” If you’re a white Hollywood executive wondering whether you have the right to tell Black stories, you’re asking the wrong question. You should be asking with whom of the very, very deep talent bench of Black executives, artists, producers and creatives you should partner on your next creative endeavor.
But don’t take my word for it. Again, Mr. Katzenberg’s seminal memo speaks to us from 1991: “People don’t want to see what they’ve already seen,” he wrote. “So, we need to be bold enough to stretch bounds, push the envelope of creativity and follow our hearts along with our heads. When we fail, let it be because we tried to innovate, not emulate. And, by so doing, I am convinced that we will continue to reap success.”
As arbiters and gatekeepers of storytelling, we can and must save Black lives by giving white audiences a chance to see themselves in Black characters. And no matter your ethnicity, it’s our shared moral imperative to utilize this opportunity to do everything we can, starting right now. History has provided us all with a system based on white supremacy and Hollywood is no different, so what are we going to do?
Mr. Floyd’s tragic and preventable death created widespread empathy and a shift has already started – you feel it, I feel it, we all feel that something’s different this time. This is our opportunity. If you’re a white senior executive in Hollywood, I challenge you to come play on the right side of history. Are you going to step up, seek partners and utilize your greatest superpower as exporters of storytelling and empathy? Or will you do nothing, a 93% white majority of senior leadership choosing complicity with a system designed to erase Black lives, while simultaneously gambling Hollywood’s future on business as usual?
Gerren Crochet is an Associate at Endeavor Content in the Film Advisory practice.
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