One year ago today, the everyday violence Black people face in this country became much clearer to tens of millions of people who always had trouble accepting that it was real. After a decade of very public police murders, we saw the murder of George Floyd by a gang of Minneapolis police. During the trial of Derek Chauvin, we saw the defense attempt to defame George Floyd’s character. But this type of subjugation isn’t anything new.
Last year, we also saw a white woman in New York invent a complete lie about a Black man, a bird watcher, hoping to call in a police strike on him in order to get her way. Both the Minneapolis police and the New York civilian felt free to use racism to their advantage, because society never showed them there were real consequences for doing so. Meanwhile more Americans than ever tuned in to crime TV shows as stay-at-home orders caused a spike in TV audiences nation-wide. These may seem like unconnected events, but as always, entertainment culture has a major impact on social movements in our country.
The murder of George Floyd set off the largest demonstrations of any kind in American history. Partly that’s because we saw videos on our phones that we rarely see on our televisions: the true story of racism, not the Hollywood version. But one year later, our televisions are still telling us that this violence is okay. Earlier in 2020, Color Of Change released a first of its kind report, Normalizing Injustice, which showed just how prevalent those storytelling practices in Hollywood are — either pretending racism in policing doesn’t exist or finding every which way to rationalize it where it does.
Since the racial justice uprisings last year, companies in Hollywood have committed to a #ChangeHollywood Roadmap that outlines many actions Hollywood studios and networks can take to honor the cause that millions of people stood up for in the last year: making sure Hollywood is an equitable and fair industry to work in, making sure Hollywood doesn’t prop up police budgets with their security contracts and police union contributions. But the crime genre itself — the content that Hollywood puts into the world, seen by tens of millions of people everyday — must change as well. It still remains a PR machine for the police. And the genre has only become more prolific and influential in the last year. Today, Hollywood is profiting from well over 100 scripted, reality and documentary TV shows that tell the same lie that the woman in New York did — blaming Black people for things we didn’t do, and authorizing the police and prosecutors to ruin our lives for it.
Shows like the new and rapidly beloved HBO drama, Mare of Easttown, only make it worse — wonderful performances and an enlightened script that appears to tackle rich social issues, covering over deeply problematic portrayals of policing that serve to normalize unjust practices in the real world, practices that ruin Black people’s lives. It’s just another show promoting the idea that police can and should do whatever they want, no matter who gets hurt, in service of catching the bad guys.
On this day, there are a lot of hard questions to ask ourselves. After a year of action aimed at changing the rules that enable police violence (including the lack of accountability for it), we at Color Of Change are leading a week of action aimed at taking our collective impact to the next level. But the hard questions remain.
I start with myself, as the leader of a major justice organization. Have we converted the intention and dedication to change that happened during last year’s uprisings into the real political power it takes to truly make Black lives matter in society? Have we held corporations accountable for making consumer-pandering statements to cash in on the cultural cool of BLM, while also putting lobbying dollars behind politicians who aim to prevent millions of Black people from voting and run cover for the violence of white nationalists? Have we made the everyday violence of policing — physical brutality, sexual violence, violations of human rights, wrongful arrest — unacceptable, and turned the public toward investing in communities rather than in more artillery, surveillance and violence?
Most importantly, I ask myself: Who are our true allies in ending in racism? Who will be voicing the hard questions today, the questions they believe they still need to answer? Hollywood executives, and the creative people whose talent makes this town run, play a major role today in preventing progress on criminal justice reform. Will they own it or deny it? Will they realize that they can make the same turnaround for the cause of ending racism in the criminal justice system that they did for other causes — from being part of the problem to being a critical part of the solution.
Today, millions more people are on Black people’s side. But most of Hollywood still isn’t. There are more Black-written stories and authentic characters, which is immense progress. But until the crime genre is no longer free to use racism to its advantage, we will live in a world where “Black Lives Matter” is a vision for the future and not the reality of the present.