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Why Hollywood Responds to BLM Protests By Canceling Cops, Live PD, and Pulling Gone With the Wind
In response to nationwide protests against police brutality, Paramount Network cancelled the historically-racist, law-enforcement-glorifying true-crime series Cops this week. On Wednesday, HBO Max pulled Gone With the Wind (Donald Trump’s favorite romanticization of slavery) from its streaming platform. And immediately, conservatives were outraged to see such staples of American entertainment made slightly less accessible than they were two weeks ago (as they have with their beloved Confederate monuments). But, both Cops and Gone With the Wind are only two examples of an entertainment industry that has elevated the stories and perspectives of white (and in many cases racist) Americans over those of BIPOC. Pulling Cops and Gone With the Wind from their pedestals in the American culture psyche are not a destruction of our history, but small steps toward bigger structural change in an industry that has influenced and glorified racism for a century.
In early June as protests against police brutality raged throughout the country, culture writers began re-examining Hollywood’s framing of police as just, moral community heroes. “TV has long had a police’s-eye perspective that helps shape the way viewers see the world,” Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk wrote, “prioritizing the victories and struggles of police over communities being policed.” VanArendonk resurfaced a reported series from the Washington Post in 2016 that pointed out, “police pressure, government regulation and censorship helped mold pop culture’s stories about the police.”
This re-examining of police on TV highlighted how cop dramas like NCIS, Blue Bloods, Law & Order, CSI, and many more have shaped mass audience’s view of police. For decades, most Americans likely know the familiar, kind, just, and moral faces of TV police better than they know the names of the police who have murdered black men and the names of the men they’ve killed. To Americans, cops are the do-gooder Andy Griffiths of the world and not Derek Chauvin. Quickly, a number of stars who played cops on TV began donating their residuals to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
And Cops has long been among the TV standards most guilty of glorifying police violence against BIPOC. An early study of the show in 1994 indicated that viewers were more likely to associate people of color with violent crime. In 2013, the show was first cancelled by Fox after a Color of Change campaign against its continued, destructive depictions of policing and crime. But the show was picked up by Spike network (renamed Paramount Network), where it has remained until this week.
“For more than 30 years, Cops has miseducated the public and normalized injustice,” Color of Change said in a statement to Entertainment Weekly. “Crime television encourages the public to accept the norms of over-policing and excessive force and reject reform, while supporting the exact behavior that destroys the lives of Black people. Cops led the way, pushing troubling implications for generations of viewers. Now it’s time for other networks to cancel similarly harmful shows. We call on A&E to cancel Live PD next. In a moment when everyone wants to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, we must hold these companies accountable to put actions to words with a complete industry overhaul.”
But not everyone wants to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, which is kind of the point. Many cling to the phrase All Lives Matter—a phrase that was, in part, created by the culture that helped sanitize and reframe the black experience through a white lens. To say All Lives Matter is to regurgitate what they’ve seen on TV shows where BIPOC commit crimes, and their deaths matter less than the white “loose cannon” cops. That is why it is important for Hollywood, for Paramount Network, for A&E to realize that shows like Cops and Live PD undermine the very claim that Black Lives Matter.
As of Wednesday morning, A&E had officially canceled Live PD, the successor to Cops.
“This is a critical time in our nation’s history and we have made the decision to cease production on Live PD,” A&E said in a statement to Variety on Wednesday. “Going forward, we will determine if there is a clear pathway to tell the stories of both the community and the police officers whose role it is to serve them.”
This decision comes days after the Austin American-Statesman reported that a Live PD crew filmed the death of Javier Ambler, a black man who died in March 2019 after Austin sheriff’s deputies pinned him to the ground and repeatedly tased him.
In January of this year a new study from Color of Change found that crime dramas on Netflix, NBC, and ABC were among the worst offenders in depicting wrongful actions (defined as anything from lying and tampering, to coercion and intimidation, or overt racism) by people of color. As the study notes:
Normalizing Injustice found that the crime TV genre—the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system—advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic. The study found that the genre is also incredibly un-diverse in terms of creators, writers and showrunners: nearly all white.
But the roots of racism in American entertainment go far deeper than cop dramas, farther even than the Golden Era of Hollywood. Gone With the Wind, once considered a staple in American cinema, is an abhorrent depiction of the Civil War-era South that sentimentalizes the evils of racism and slavery.
As Hilton Als wrote in the New Yorker on the 75th anniversary of the film, which is adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s novel:
Margaret Mitchell’s worldview helped me see how racist fantasies are borne out of a kind of realism—the realism of the ignorant oppressor. Money—i.e. slavery and commerce—is central to the story she tells because it buys safety and homogeneity in the white world. But after blacks are “freed,” some of them becoming carpetbaggers, it’s their blackness combined with an “uppity” attitude that perverts and alarms the white Southerner, not the blood and horror of slavery, and how it came to be in the first place. Mitchell didn’t create the white Southerner’s antebellum view of blackness, but she helped popularize it in an artifact of great strength that even my mother admired, and that writers ranging from Dubose Heyward to the Atlanta-based Tyler Perry have created some version of, especially when it comes to the Mammy.
It’s these false, racist depictions in popular culture that can take hold of the American psyche—whether its a crime reality show airing non-stop on TV for 31 years or a film that remains the highest grossing in history adjusted for inflation and sits in the AFI’s top 10 movies of all time.
And canceling Cops or briefly removing Gone With the Wind from streaming services are small, performative gestures in an industry that still needs sufficient drainage. Briefly removing Gone With the Wind from one streaming platform is not a “destruction and desecration of art,” as conservative alarmists would argue. In fact, HBO Max removed the film from its catalog only temporarily, promising to eventually bring the film back “with a discussion of its historical context.” This is an attempt to reposition and reframe through a modern lens, art that has been predominately created and championed from a white, male perspective.
This is not a call for censorship. If you want to bask in the whitewashed glow of Gone With the Wind, feel free to buy it anywhere on the internet and enjoy at your leisure. GWTW remains an interesting study in American cinema history for its popularity, for its technical filmmaking, and its performances. Hattie McDaniel was the first black woman to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of the slave maid Mammy. But watching it today requires an understanding of its monumental mistakes. Its reprehensible choices and point of view should be held against it when being held up as a monument of cinema.
This week, The Flash actor Hartley Sawyer was fired after racist and misogynist tweets of his from 2017 resurfaced. In response, The Flash showrunner Eric Wallace wrote on Twitter that Sawyer’s tweets are “indicative of the larger problem in our country. Because at present, our country still accepts and protects the continual harassment — unconscious or otherwise — terrorizing and brutalizing of Black and Brown people, which is far too often fatal.”
And Sawyer’s firing on The Flash called for a bigger conversation about hiring BIPOC, not just in acting roles, but behind the scenes in writers rooms, in hair and makeup and beyond.
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Hollywood’s immediate response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests are minuscule compared to the work it still needs to do, and has been unforgivably slow to do in the face of cultural movements within and outside of the entertainment industry in recent years. Movements like #Oscarssowhite critiqued the Motion Picture Academy’s constant disregard for films made by or starring people of color. Massively successful, award winning films like Black Panther, Parasite, and Moonlight are encouraging, but like the rest of the country Hollywood still has a long way to go. It must diversify the writers, the directors, the decision makers, the critics who decide what is and what isn’t worthy of our admiration. We must diversify the voting bodies of the Motion Picture Academy and the AFI, which consider works like Green Book and Gone With the Wind universal achievements of filmmaking. We must understand that in to many, many Americans, cops are not, in fact, the heroes. If Hollywood is telling the stories of America, then the people in Hollywood should look like the people of America, through the perspectives of everyone.
Like the toppling of a monument, the removal of Cops and Gone With the Wind or a few bad apples in the entertainment industry are nothing without substantial and sustained institutional change. After all, this is the industry that awarded the abysmal Green Book with its highest honor just one year ago. To keep Gone With the Wind on prestigious lists and allow its towering place in American cultural history go unchallenged is to give reverence to a racist piece of art ahead of the many, more worthy films made over the last century. For perspective, Gone With the Wind is ranked 90 spots higher than Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on the AFI list. To let Cops continue for another 30 years would have been to give it priority on a major TV network that reaches millions of homes over the many other, more worthy shows by black creators. This work begins with re-examining the past and present and continues with giving opportunities to non-white voices from the top down in this industry.
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.
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