This weekend’s wide release of a film depicting Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights march through segregation-era Alabama, under threat of attack by state troopers armed with billy clubs and tear gas projectiles, has a striking resemblance to real-life images of protests that erupted nationwide after two unarmed black men were killed by police in Missouri and New York last year. "Selma," which hits theaters Friday, and other racial commentary projects released in recent years, reflect a conversation happening near the apex of the #BlackLivesMatter social media campaign, years after initial production began on some of those projects.
Several filmmakers, playwrights and academics say the existence of such projects in concert with the national debate on race and diversity in the tech, business and media industries could result in future works depicting the experience of minority populations in the U.S. They hope the ongoing demonstrations and growing support for recent diverse film and TV projects will result in a more representative media landscape that also generates debate about inclusion.
“I wouldn’t doubt that someone in the near future would take a moment to tell the Trayvon Martin story, the Mike Brown story, or any of the stories that have captured our attention in the last year,” said Tia C. M. Tyree, an associate professor of strategic communications at Howard University in Washington. Issues placement, or the inclusion of topics speaking to current events, is not a new phenomenon, Tyree said. But the frequency and diversity of such placements can be seen as an acknowledgement of the ongoing debate on racism, policing in urban America and economic opportunity in those communities.
“It’s a misnomer that people turn off their ideas and prejudices simply because they walk into their workplace, their classrooms or the grocery store,” Tyree said. “What we see in the movie theaters is extremely important. It makes a difference in the lives of the people who consume it, whether they understand it or admit it.”
A string of successful and critically acclaimed projects over the last few years bear out that notion: 2012’s "Django Unchained," a thriller about a freed slave’s mission to free his enslaved wife; "Fruitvale Station," a film based on the real-life killing of an unarmed black man in Oakland, California, and "12 Years A Slave," a true missive of a free black man kidnapped into slavery, both in 2013; and last year’s "Dear White People," a satire about the experiences of black students on a majority-white Ivy League campus.
These films came more than two decades after African-American producers, actors and audiences enjoyed years of varied TV representation in the 1990s. Sitcoms such as "The Cosby Show," "A Different World," "Living Single" and "Family Matters" charted a path for many careers in Hollywood. Those successes lost momentum as viewing habits changed and the industry struggled to adapt. That became clearer in the cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment late last year, when private emails between studio executives leaked online by hackers revealed some racial insensitivity about President Barack Obama’s movie tastes and actor Denzel Washington’s bankability in world box offices because of his race.
Dawn Porter, director of Gideon’s Army, the acclaimed HBO documentary examining flaws in the American criminal justice system, said she’d received inquiries from industry people who were jolted by the violent protests after the deaths last year of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. The callers were unaware that a follow-up, untitled documentary by Porter on mass incarceration was already underway.
“We shall see if it results in financing and support, so that a number of projects make it past the finish line,” Porter said of the interest from producers in works that reflect the conversations happening around the Brown and Garner cases. As a black woman, Porter isn’t cynical about the buzz for such projects: “I have two young sons. I want to be able to look them in the eyes and tell them that it’s going to be better.”
The potential influence of the recent #BlackLivesMatter social media campaign, which, among many things, is a protest of a real or perceived disproportionate use of lethal force by police against blacks, is something that can’t be ignored, said Kinohi Nishikawa, an assistant professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“I think it's absolutely the case that social media campaigns create a national and international awareness of things that would have previously been passed over as a local issue,” Nishikawa said, adding that technologies like smartphones are already driving cultural productions in the mainstream.
“The critically acclaimed 'Fruitvale Station,' co-produced by Forest Whitaker, gained the traction from grass-roots and mainstream media coverage from the death of Oscar Grant when it happened -- not from an enclosed writers' meetings, but from the forces that were coagulating after the tragedy,” Nishikawa said.
In some ways, Hollywood has increasingly embraced diverse content aimed at multicultural audiences in recent years. There was the expansion of primetime programming by Shonda Rhimes, a successful African-American showrunner who has been praised and criticized for her casting of black female leads in the popular shows "Scandal" and "How To Get Away With Murder." A non-Rhimes ABC project, "Blackish," depicts an upper-middle-class African-American family navigating race and career in majority-white spaces. Next month, ABC is set to launch "Fresh Off The Boat," a sitcom depicting an immigrant Asian-American family’s struggle with assimilating in U.S. cities.
On Saturday, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim debuts "The Wizards of Watts," an animated musical about a depressed black neighborhood rebelling against an army of pigs in riot gear. The project was in production last year when a police officer in Ferguson shot unarmed 18-year-old Brown, a coincidence that didn’t go unnoticed by the musical’s director, the New York Times reported.
But these diverse shows remain far from the norm. There are still few women, Hispanic and black directors in the mainstream. The most recent examination of casting data by SAG-AFTRA, the Hollywood-based actors union, reported minority actors had record-high representation in TV and feature films, at just over 27 percent in 2008. Nonwhites made up about 35 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, according to Census data.
“There has to be a commitment from the mainstream to not be doing business as usual,” said Jonathan McCrory, director of theater arts programming at the National Black Theater in New York. “Diversity is about showing the majority a perspective of the world in which they live in, in the most authentic way, making sure the narrative is clearly defined and told in a lens that actually celebrates the nuance of what is going on.”
Dominique Morisseau, a playwright and actress in New York whose work has appeared off-Broadway and at the National Black Theater, said her fight is with academia, where many prominent conservatory programs focus on works by white American male playwrights. “Whatever happens in academia, it makes its way back into the mainstream,” Morisseau said.
“I have a feeling there will be more influence by playwrights who are writing about the more uncomfortable topics,” she said. “That’s going to change the whole industry.”