Justin Simien: When Will Hollywood Recognize its Blind Spots?
Most of the Black people I know in Hollywood are experiencing a great deal of anxiety over this so-called "Racial Reckoning," because we know along with the enthusiasm from well-intentioned white people, comes an expectation of acknowledgement and timely resolution. There's also a fear of being blacklisted for pushing back against even the hollowest gestures.
Black people appreciate the Twitter statements, outdoor campaigns, press releases, social media stunts, donations and the content dumps -- I mean curation of pre-existing Black content -- but we are keenly aware that those are not solutions to systemic racism. Black people know that anti-racism is an ongoing, at times excruciating process that actually sucks, but it's one we have to undergo or else our very lives are at stake. For some white people, this really is their first anti-racist picnic, and as delicious as that bespoke jar of potato salad may be, there's a lot of people to feed and a pint isn't going to cut it.
Our industry should be spending time on not only what this culture is representing but how it is being manufactured. We produce global culture that has ramifications so profound it's actually impossible to measure it. Humans have a tendency to "tell on themselves" in their art, governments, religions and social codes. All of these systems should be examined. Even if it produced some Black nominees this time, or found a Black show success.
Admitting and solving the obvious racial disparity between budgets at every level of conception, production and promotion for "shows" vs. "Black shows" would be a wonderful start. I struggle to think of networks or studios where this is not an immediately actionable step that nevertheless is not being taken.
Ultimately it would be great to see the rules of cinema as an "empathy machine" applied to stories about and from Black people at large. Why are stories about white people "universal" and stories about Black people "niche?" Because we've decided so, through the projects that are made and the ways in which we curate and distribute them. We can literally make new choices whenever we want.
I do think a lot of the efforts I'm seeing are sincere, and in rare cases, not necessarily performative. I am also still having to navigate a desire from white people to be made to feel as if their recent efforts, sincere as they are, are even in the realm of "enough."
Hattie McDaniel comes to mind. She was the first Black woman to win an Oscar, for playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind. In 1940, at the 12th Academy Awards, she knew that her acceptance speech was not just for her. She knew that it would echo throughout history and reverberate into the lives of Black people she'd never meet.
At the ceremony, when she accepted her Oscar, she was humbled and gracious and beside herself with emotion. She sensed, as do most Black people when receiving a token of appreciation from white people, that to tell the truth about her experience would not be welcomed.
No one wanted to hear about how she was made to enter through the kitchen of the venue and wait to receive her Oscar in the back of the audience at a separate table from her white co-stars and producers. No one wanted to know how hard she had to fight, infamously slamming a stack of her reviews on David O. Selznick's desk to demand even an attempt at an awards campaign. No one wanted to hear about how playing a "Mammy" would be an albatross around her neck for her entire career as something she had to justify to both Black and white people. No, the most politically expedient thing to do was to thank the nice people for their enormous bravery and generosity in, at minimum, recognizing the peerless work she did. White critics who heralded her, white producers who paid for the campaign, the white Motion Picture Academy and the white crowds got all that they wanted out of that win. But, what did Hattie McDaniel really get?
A lot of Black folks in this town find ourselves at a similar if not proverbial podium as Hattie that night. We know good and well we deserve more than what was given, but to say that will look ungrateful and potentially curtail all this white enthusiasm before it even starts. So, we say thank you and end our Zoom meeting with a smile and then cry!
It's why this will be the only time I point out that while it's nice to have a guest column from me sent to Academy members, it would've been REALLY nice to be nominated for an Emmy for a show that, I'm sorry, few would argue against its deserving of one.
When watching Dear White People, I'd love for viewers to see how deeply tied the so-called unbiased systems of capitalism, politics and culture are to white patriarchal supremacy. I'll be happy if people see the humanity in the Black faces that populate the show.
Why does a series as current, relevant, well-watched and critically lauded as Dear White People get met with resistance? I'd say for the same systemic reasons well-qualified Black people are routinely omitted, ignored, avoided, dismissed, overlooked and overruled in our society at large.
Dear White People is a mirror that reveals a part of society to itself, that white people have the privilege to avoid seeing, and since white people are profoundly over-indexed as curators of popular culture (whether as critic, creator or CEO), Dear White People has a tendency to fall into the blind spots of our popular culture.
What I've found to be true and continue to explore in the work, is that the phrase "Dear White People" tends to be a reliable litmus test for one's own unconscious racial bias. The film and the show are in part an analysis of the "white reaction" to something called "Dear White People" being made by a non-white person, namely Sam White. When you encounter the phrase "Dear White People" out in the world, coming from a Black person, how does it sound in your head? Does it sound accusatory, nagging, rude, reductive, male, female, sarcastic, provocative, tame, funny, mean spirited etc.? That's how you unconsciously imagine an empowered Black person. Not Oprah, Beyonce, or Kevin Hart, but the anonymous Black person you see at the grocery store or participating in protests. This is important because conventional wisdom among white people in America about Black people becomes policy and popular culture at alarming speed whether or not it's true or even rational.
All of this is to say that while there are many conflicting and passionate reactions to Dear White People, from praise to dismissal, they reveal a truth about what's really going on beneath the surface of this country with regards to race.
I feel an extra sense of responsibility both in the stories I tell and in the way I facilitate their telling. Black people working in this industry and the ones just sitting at home watching its output have been systemically disrespected in immeasurable ways by well-meaning people who never bothered to check their blind spots. I'm honestly terrified of causing the same grief for the Black folks who work on or watch my show, even though in many cases it's impossible to please everyone. This pressure to "please everyone" both within the culture and outside of it is literally crazy making, and I will consider it a success simply to survive it.
My advice for young Black creators is to see very plainly what you don't like and to find the resolve to do it anyway. Quitting or letting it drive us crazy is a win for white supremacy. Let's keep showing up in the spaces where we were previously not allowed access and let's keep saying what needs to be said.
Justin Simien is the creator of the Netflix series Dear White People. He recently launched 'Don't @ Me,' a podcast dedicated to featuring conversations with industry professionals who are shaping today's culture.
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The statements and viewpoints expressed in the article above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the Television Academy, the Television Academy Foundation, or their members, officers, directors, employees, or sponsors.