Beyond Blackface: Can Hollywood’s Reckoning on Race Lead to Substantive Change?

“Hollywood is being forced to look in the mirror and decide whether it wants to be on the right side of history,” UCLA Dean of Social Sciences Darnell Hunt says

The racial reckoning spreading across America has driven Hollywood to reexamine longstanding storylines and symbols rooted in racist ideology as the entertainment industry adjusts to a radically altered cultural landscape. In the last two weeks, celebrities and studios have rushed to recast Black characters with nonwhite actors, remove offensive TV episodes featuring blackface and reimagine at least one popular theme park ride.

But longtime cultural observers ask if the latest moves are planting the seeds for real change or merely slapping Band-Aids on long-festering wounds. “Remember in ‘War of the Worlds,’ when the aliens come and people are running away before they get zapped?” said Christine Birch, former top studio executive and CEO of the entertainment marketing firm ROYGBIV Collective, referring to the 2005 Tom Cruise action thriller. “Well right now Hollywood is running, and they’re trying not to get zapped.”

In recent weeks, streaming services and producers have pulled TV episodes featuring characters in blackface from shows like “Scrubs,” “Community,” “30 Rock” and “The Golden Girls.” An episode of “The Office” has been re-edited to remove a scene with blackface that had once played for laughs, and Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel both apologized for using blackface in old comedy sketches from earlier in their careers.

Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate both said they’d no longer voice characters of color on animated shows “Central Park” and “Big Mouth.” That television institution, “The Simpsons,” on Friday announced it would no longer have white actors voice nonwhite characters like Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, and actor Mike Henry said he will not longer voice the African-American character “Cleveland Brown” on “Family Guy.”

On the movie side, HBO Max removed the 1939 Oscar winner “Gone With the Wind” from the streaming service before bringing it back with a disclaimer noting the film’s “ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society.” And Disney announced a complete revamp of its Splash Mountain theme park ride to remove all ties to the 1946 animated movie “Song of the South” that the studio had pulled from public circulation decades ago due to its racist tropes.

Golden Girls Blackface

An episode of “The Golden Girls” featuring a blackface joke has been pulled by NBC

The response of Hollywood stars and companies, whether out of star fear or more virtuous motivations, signals just how quickly and deeply public perceptions have shifted about what is acceptable in terms of depictions of race and storylines with race-based components.

“This is one of those moments where Hollywood is being forced to look in the mirror and decide whether it wants to be on the right side of history,” UCLA Dean of Social Sciences Darnell Hunt told TheWrap. “If Hollywood only says the right things, but continues to do the same things over and over, it becomes the key example of why we can’t move forward.”

But blackface and antebellum romanticism didn’t all of a sudden become racist and problematic in 2020. For years, critics have called on Hollywood to recognize the systems in place that have allowed such symbols and ideas to linger in the culture. The #OscarsSoWhite movement started by April Reign in 2015 wasn’t simply about recognizing more artists of color at the Academy Awards show. It asked for Hollywood to recognize and contend with its failures in promoting diversity, inclusion, progress and idealism, and to do better.

In a 2015 article in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Harvard professor Matthew Clair and McMaster University professor Jeffrey S. Denis argue that the point of weeding out structural or institutional racism isn’t to “blame the innocent but to improve understanding so that the policies, practices, and ideas that perpetuate racial inequality can be identified and dismantled.” Even if individuals in Hollywood aren’t racist, the authors suggest, operating in a system that benefits them and harms minorities perpetuates the racist structure.

Going back to “business as usual,” in which studio executive suites are, according to Hunt, roughly 90% white and 80% male, would be a disservice to the current movement.

In an interview for TheWrap Emmy magazine, Prentice Penny, the showrunner for Issa Rae’s HBO series “Insecure,” emphasized the need to keep pushing for change at the top. “We work in an industry where we’re not a lot of the gatekeepers in terms of deciding what gets on the air and what doesn’t get on the air,” he said. “I’d be curious in a micro world, where we work in and make our living in, is this going to open more doors for heads of studios? Is this going to open more doors for people who can say yes, or I get that, you don’t have to explain it to me. I’m curious if it’s going to open showrunners’ eyes of, ‘Hey, I don’t have to just count the one Black person in my room.’ I’ve been on those shows and again — where you can watch other white people continually get hired and you’re still just the only Black person here.”

Rae, who created and stars in “Insecure,” expressed her own hope and misgivings about this moment’s potential to lead to substantive change. “I can’t imagine that things go back to ‘normal,'” she said. “I guess I get tired of incremental progress and I just can’t take the heartbreak if we’re back to more of the same.”

Hunt noted that the entertainment industry tends to have a blind spot in reccognizing its shortcomings given its history of liberal and progressive political thinking. “Hollywood doesn’t think of itself as racist, but I’ve said for years that Hollywood has its own structural racism,” Hunt said. “The most important thing Hollywood can do is recognize its own part in holding up structural racism… It’s hard to root out because structural racism doesn’t depend on the individual being racist.”

mike henry family guy cleveland brown

Actor Mike Henry said he will not longer voice the African-American character “Cleveland Brown” on “Family Guy”

It’s too early to tell whether Hollywood’s current condition of playing defense to fall in line with social demands will produce the long term, systematic changes, but every change indicates a broader move in that direction. “It’s all-important; there’s no magic bullet,” Hunt said. “We’re talking about a multidimensional problem.”

Birch, who has 30-plus years of marketing experience in Hollywood — often as the one of the only Black executives at a studio — said there’s been a generational shift in thinking about the issue. The important thing right now, she said, is that Hollywood is beginning to ask questions like whether a white actor should voice a character of color, whereas before the conversation may not have ever even come up.

“We have been unconscious for a long time,” Birch said. “Now it’s like unplugging people from The Matrix. People are waking up and they’re realizing, ‘Oh, my God, the world is a wasteland. We’ve got to do something.’

And that suggests the move away from past practices may be permanent. “The tectonic plates of the world are shifting. The boat is already rocking. There’s just no way things go back to ‘normal,'” she continued. “Exactly what things are going to look like, well I couldn’t say. I would hope Hollywood takes a really hard look at their policies, practices and behaviors.”

Sharon Waxman contributed to this story. 

Trey Williams

Trey Williams

Film Reporter covering the biz • trey.williams@thewrap.com • Twitter: @trey3williams



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