Actor and rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris and Jeff Clanagan, Kevin Hart’s business partner, represented the entertainment perspective in a virtual panel Thursday examining issues across society and culture raised by the George Floyd protests.
“There is no perfect revolution,” Harris said. But even if ultimate outcomes don’t match “what we have in our heads,” the key is to continue “attacking the financial base of what we consider this power of oppression.”
Clanagan, president of Hart’s Laugh Out Loud and CEO of Codeblack Films, said the recent Gone With the Wind episode shows how much progress is yet to be made. HBO Max this week temporarily pulled the 1939 film off its streaming service after objections were raised about its depictions of slavery, among other issues. “But the next day, Gone with the Wind becomes the No. 1 movie on Amazon,” Clanagan said. “So what does that say to America and the world? HBO Max did the right thing and took the right step, but the hunger for that media is there.”
The death of Floyd, who was Black, in May at the hands of a white police officer has set off large-scale protests across the country and started to set off significant changes in organizations and many facets of modern life. The panel, called a “Town Hall for Change,” was convened online by trade show organizer Advertising Week. Other speakers included Ndaba Mandela, founder and chairman of the Mandela Institute for Humanity; Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League; and Jayanta Jenkins, co-founder of advertising collective Saturday Morning. Monique Nelson, CEO of UWG, the oldest multicultural media agency in the U.S., served as moderator.
Keisha Lance Bottoms, major of Atlanta, appeared for a few minutes at the start of the event before logging off, citing a busy schedule. She addressed the systemic glitches in this week’s Georgia primary vote, which have raised concerns about November. “As unorganized and frustrating as it was, what was not lost on me was that people were showing up to vote,” she said. “They were willing to stand in line for six to eight hours to exercise their right to vote. I think that’s what we will see going into November.”
Clanagan emphasized the need to dismantle the historically “racist structure” of Hollywood, complementing recent gains in on-screen diversity with real change inside studios.
“Studios are willing to pay for [Black-created] content because it generates revenue for the company but they’re not willing to share the power in the boardroom,” he said. “We don’t control anything. We don’t control distribution, we don’t control marketing. We’re not making decisions. And yet, the insensitivity that a lot of studios have, they don’t understand the culture, there’s no one inside. So what do they do? They go hire a VP of diversity. A token person at the studio, you know, who can’t really make a lot of changes. A lot of times, the VP of diversity is not sitting in the room where a lot of decisions are made.”
Unity will be a key priority as things move forward, he added. “We have to work as a unit. We have to speak up and now’s the time,” he said. “I’m really encouraged by black, brown, white coming together and vocalizing what’s going on. But we have to keep that going. It can’t be a hashtag, social-media cause and then a month later we don’t even think about.”
Jenkins, who has worked for 15 years in advertising for companies like Nike and Twitter, said his current focus through is on trying to use his craft to “help us see ourselves as not ‘other.'” A project Saturday Morning did with consumer products giant Procter & Gamble last year yielded a powerful spot called “The Look” about perceptions of race and racial profiling, not just by police.
Agreeing with Clanagan, Jenkins said the focus should be on targeting the “power structure within leadership” with “authenticity, not tokenship.”
Recent statements about the protests by media, entertainment and tech companies — many of which have made sizable commitments — are welcome but also generally rote, Clanagan argued.
“One of the immediate responses of the entertainment companies was to put out a statement and then make a donation,” he said.
While millions of dollars have gone toward a cluster of deserving causes, including the NAACP, Amnesty International and the Bail Project, he said, remote learning for school kids during COVID-19 has exposed inequality that is less-publicized but equally worthy of funding. More than one-third of Black Americans don’t have internet access or personal computers, he said. (On the subject of education, Harris urged schools to stop “celebrating Confederate losers” like Robert E. Lee and instead instill students with more of a sense of Black history.)
As to entertainment companies, “to do the right thing, they’re going to have to hire Black executives,” Clanagan said. “You’re benefiting from the culture, but you don’t have anybody inside or in the boardroom. That’s just not going to work. That has to change.” Tech companies are “even worse” in terms of executive representation, he added.
Having often elicited the response from white-dominated companies that they can’t find enough qualified candidates, Clanagan dismissed that as “a bunch of B.S.” He said he and industry colleagues have started passing around a roster of candidates on LinkedIn. He also said few companies bother to recruit at historically Black colleges. “They’re not even trying,” he said.
Harris, a multi-platinum recording artists who appeared recently as a judge on Netflix competition series Rhythm + Flow and has been in films like Ant-Man and TV series like HBO’s Ballers, said progress is important to recognize. “A lot of us, myself included, focus on the deficit, the things that we don’t have, the reasons why we haven’t made it farther,” he said. “But I would like to take a moment to applaud what we do have.” He went on, “Culture is our commodity. When we were stripped from our native land and stripped from our native tongue and all of our traditions and religions, we were as a people kind of lost, with no way to identify with the rest of the world. … We have created our own culture, our own story. That has empowered us.”
Jenkins agreed, noting hopeful developments in recent days, including NASCAR’s banning of the Confederate flag and the promotion of Gen. Charles Brown to lead the Air Force, the first Black leader of an Armed Forces branch. “You’re seeing some things that are the right signals,” he said. “We need to continue the work … We open the door and create a line of sight. We don’t open the door and then it shuts behind us.”