Hollywood has long been viewed as a force in the battle for social justice.
But the police killings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the subsequent murder of five police officers in Dallas last week is forcing some in the entertainment industry to take a hard look at their role in the nation’s growing racial tensions.
“It has to change,” “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, whose show routinely tackled social issues in the 1960s, told TheWrap at a special screening of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” on Thursday at the WGA in Beverly Hills.
“I don’t feel like race has ever been so on the forefront of the conversation until now,” adding that “Black Lives Matter is an important social movement.”
The documentary celebrates the life and work of social justice TV pioneer Lear, who produced iconic shows like “All In The Family” and “Sanford and Son.”
Kenya Barris, writer and creator of the ABC sitcom “Black-ish,” about an affluent African-American family struggling to maintain its identity, said Hollywood has a responsibility to use its influence on popular culture.
“I feel like we’re not making forward progress,” Barris said. “The point of any type of art is to have a conversation.”
Asked whether the Black Lives Matter movement might make an appearance on his show following recent tragedies, Barris said it might.
“I would not want exploit the situation,” Barris said. “We’re not ‘Law & Order.’ I don’t want to rip things from the headlines. But if the natural conversation comes up and it feels like something that that family would organically be talking about, Absolutely. I cannot stress that enough. I think that if people communicate a lot of these problems will go away.”
Over the years, the entertainment industry has been credited with changing public opinion on issues from women’s rights to gay marriage.
Some have argued that NBC’s “Will & Grace” helped change attitudes towards gay people in America. The short-lived 2005 ABC drama, “Commander in Chief,” starring Geena Davis as the first U.S. female president, experts say, helped people warm up to the idea of a woman in the Oval Office.
“‘Will & Grace’ took the shock value out of being gay,” advertising consultant and founder of the Los Angeles-based The Brand Identity Center, Chad Kawalec, told TheWrap. “It desensitizes people to the issue and allows them to see the characters as real people with the same problems they have. Hollywood has the power to humanize the issue.”
But some critics argue that Hollywood failed to shine its powerful Klieg lights on the issue of racism because it’s part of the problem. Earlier this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was forced to announce major changes to its membership rules after it came under fire for nominating only white actors two years running.
“The image of the black male in American society as a stereotypically threatening figure is an image that Hollywood for a long time has not only represented but in many ways helped to create,” Prof. of Cinema and Media Studies at University of Southern California, Dr. Todd Boyd, told TheWrap. “There’s a perception of Hollywood being liberal, but I don’t know that that perception is true.”
To be fair, Hollywood has addressed the issues of race relations and gun violence in some of its most popular shows recently. In March, ABC’s “Scandal” aired an episode titled, “The Lawn Chair,” about the shooting of an unarmed black teen in Washington D.C..
Season 4 of Netflix’s hit show “Orange Is the New Black” includes an episode about new inexperienced prison guards using extreme brutality as they deal with inmate overpopulation.
And in April, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” took on the issue of gun control head-on in an episode called “Trigger Happy.” The storyline centered around a young boy who accidentally shoots his friend after getting his hands on his parents’ gun.
Asked what Hollywood should be doing to help in the wake of the recent shootings, actress Justina Machado, known for her role as Vanessa Diaz on the HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” told TheWrap: “If you have something to say and you know you have this amazing platform, then you should use the platform. But I don’t think anyone should be shamed into it, or bullied into it, or pushed into it. Everybody has their journey.”
Weiner insisted Hollywood could and should do better.
“Things haven’t changed,” he said. “But I do think we have a responsibility.”