The recent verdict in Mr. George Floyd’s assassination case was a relief, but it also marks the harrowing perpetuation of past injustices that keep Black people in a state of constant anger, frustration and fear. Like some emotional “carpet-bombing,” this rage is pinning us down and obstructs our ability to see that the king is naked.
In my recent HBO film, Exterminate All the Brutes, where I explore the origin of white supremacy, the late author Sven Lindqvist — whose book of the same name inspired the movie’s title — rightly observes: “It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” Demonstrations and angry slogans can help move us toward a more righteous nation — but we need more. More organizing, more dismantling of racist legal structures and, most important, more money to implement change. One can be both political and practical. The future of the United States — actually, the world — is at stake.
But it’s about more than fixing the broken structures of our government. I must address more specifically the maladies of our film and TV industry. There is an indisputable consensus as to the need for more BIPOC in every aspect of the business, above and below the line and in the executive room. We need to not only say this, again and again, but to implement it. To make change, we must engage and not ignore the elephant in the room: the stifling power imbalance in our industry, for it is about power and nothing else.
Battles carried out in the streets, and not concurrently on every executive floor of our industry, will just exhaust us and mask the forest behind the trees. Meager steps and the denials that go with it, and current halfway efforts must stop. To put it bluntly: The promises to do better, all the summoned committees, the public confessions and teary-eyes act of faith, mean nothing until there is meaningful BIPOC presence, especially and specifically on the top floors. Power sharing is required, not jobs allotment.
It’s of course not Hollywood’s job alone to educate, advance justice, promote progress, and build social peace and equality. But it’s surely part of its responsibility not to perpetuate clear deficiencies in its own business. Long-term social peace, both here and abroad, will come at this price.
On this subject, we should acknowledge some of those who have single-handedly brought about concrete changes in the industry. Hats off to Spike Lee, who took the risks and had the guts to force actual changes, and others, like Tyler Perry and Ava DuVernay, who are building infrastructure and advancing the careers of others. But this should not be their job alone! The few top executives who greenlight movies and TV shows are the real gatekeepers. A recently published and excellent McKinsey report exposes just that. Among the report findings: “We estimate that the film and TV industry could unlock more than $10 billion in annual revenues simply by addressing these barriers [of diversity and inclusion] … the equivalent of a 7 percent expansion in baseline industry revenues.”
This is the perfect tool we lacked. A blueprint for definitive and urgent structural changes. The data, the analysis, the diagnostics, the numbers are on the table to back decades-old demands (yes, decades-old, for Christ’s sake!). The veracity of these figures is undisputable. The misdeeds are embedded in the very power and the governing structures where decisions are made. They precisely know where the bodies are buried.
One of the key takeaways from the report is the immediate necessity that this industry acknowledges its deficiencies and puts real money into establishing a pipeline that nurtures BIPOC executive talent, puts substantial cash into authentic and POV-diverse BIPOC projects (let’s stop driving Miss Daisy around!) on par with current industry output and take real action on issues of race and equity. And we are not talking in millions of dollars here but in multiple hundreds of millions, for starters. For capital is the very nerve of the war, the prize for real changes and the price of our real collective weight in our industry. And these concrete means will start up the urgent structural modification of the system at every level. Ambitious initiatives are being discussed, as I write. Industry leaders have come together to support this necessary change, but these changes must be done so that changes in administration and waning “public interest” don’t derail these efforts.
Only meaningful and substantial structural changes will bring fundamental changes.
At key moments when history is shifting, the signs are rarely seen as such. And always, the standard top 1 percent, whether in ancient or modern times, never see it coming. It’s not even in the realm of their imagination. We can keep denying reality, or we can act upon it and lay down this new horizon. The numbers are on the table. What is the price you’re willing to pay?
Raoul Peck is the director and writer of HBO docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes.
This story first appeared in the May 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.