Insecure When a show like gets the audience it deserves, Hollywood makes more projects like it, which means more representation—and more empathy—for people of color.
“I love the fact that this is a Black-ass show,” said one woman on the call, “so we can have an angry person and a happy person, a sad person, a ratchet person. Give me everything—the whole window of emotions.”
I was sitting in on a regular Zoom meetup with 30 young Black professionals discussing the recent season finale of the HBO hit Insecure. My sister had invited me—except for Golden Girls reruns, I have never seen her more devoted to a television show in my life—and the call turned out to be part community theater, part fan fic. For the entire fourth season of Insecure, the group, convened by an Oakland, California–based English professor, had met on Friday nights to discuss every facet of Issa, Molly, Kelli, Lawrence, Derek, and Tiffany’s characters. They talked about them as if they were real people they actually knew. Black people are starved for authentic content that’s entertaining and thought-provoking. We are just beginning to get used to seeing our full humanity onscreen.
In the weeks following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that broke open thereafter, more than 300 Black professionals in the movie and TV industries signed an open letter addressed “to our allies in Hollywood.” Kendrick Sampson, who plays Nathan on Insecure, spearheaded the action in partnership with a number of community-based organizations, including the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter, under the banner #Hollywood4BlackLives. Issa Rae, Boyz n the Hood producer Stephanie Allain, and Academy Award–winning actors Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer signed the letter, which read, in part: “Even with the recent successes of Black-led and produced films and television, myths of limited international sales and lack of universality of Black-led stories are used to reduce our content to smaller budgets and inadequate marketing campaigns. White people make up the smallest racial demographic globally, yet their stories are seen as internationally universal. When we do get the rare chance to tell our stories, our development, production, distribution, and marketing processes are often marred, filtered, and manipulated by the white gaze.”
There’s a documented hesitancy of white people to meaningfully engage with stories about the lives of Black people. Studies across academic disciplines refer to this phenomenon as the “racial empathy gap,” and it affects not just the entertainment we’re offered but the medical treatment.
It’s a catch-22 born out of America’s historic ambivalence about acknowledging systemic racism: Moviemakers assume that white people won’t see Black films, so either those movies don’t get made or they don’t get the kind of budgets and marketing they need to break through. Last year, a handful of critically acclaimed movies deserved wider audiences and longer theatrical runs: Julia Hart’s Fast Color, Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods, and Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco. At an AMC screening of Talbot’s movie, about the friendship of two quirky Black guy best friends, I sat next to an older white woman who walked out of the theater in a huff after 20 minutes.
The esteemed film critic Roger Ebert famously called movies “empathy machines.” If it’s true that white people mostly see movies about other white people and that feeds into a self-fulfilling prophecy among Hollywood’s power brokers, where does that leave us? On May 25, it left us watching an eight-minute video of the state-sponsored lynching of George Floyd. It leaves us affirming that Black lives matter in street protests and at city council meetings because for far too long, America has denied the full humanity of Black people in every aspect of society.
The majority of movie executives with the power to get movies made are white and male. Weaver said he got some calls from studios when his 2011 study was released, asking for advice. He wants to urge today’s execs to check their biases and stop discriminating both in casting and in hiring writers, directors, and other key staff. He also wants them to stop assuming that if a Black movie flops it indicates some kind of failing in Black movies as a whole. “They’ve used an economic justification for doing that, and it doesn’t hold water,” Weaver said. “If you market a film appropriately, then it doesn’t matter what the race of the cast is. You can do well with a large audience—all else being equal, obviously.”
During the first golden age of modern Black film in the 1990s, Warrington and Reginald Hudlin, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Julie Dash, Darnell Martin, Charles Burnett, and other young directors were under enormous pressure to prove that films with nuanced Black portrayals could find an audience and make money. Movie studio New Line Cinema gave the Hudlin brothers a tiny $2.5 million budget for Reginald’s 1999 directorial debut, House Party. The teen movie went on to make over 10 times that at the box office, and in the process became a cult classic for the hip-hop generation.
“The so-called Black films that the studios greenlight have very small marketing budgets relative to similar genre films with white casts,” said Weaver. “The assumption is, ‘Blacks will go see it—and if any whites come, great, but we’re not going to count on them in order to make a profit. And we’re going to keep the budgets low.’”
Director Keenen Ivory Wayans said much the same thing in the New York Times 30 years ago: “White people don’t have a problem with Black entertainment; it’s only when they’re told by marketing that it’s not for them that they don’t get into it…. It’s a racist attitude. You never see a film publicized as ‘The whitest movie you’ve ever seen—All White People.’”
The phrase “diversity is good for business” has been popular in Hollywood for years, but however well-intentioned it was meant to be, it’s past its expiration date, and needs to be retired along with the need for filmmakers of color to prove themselves over and over. Writer Rebecca Sun eulogized the phrase perfectly, pointing out that inclusive stories succeed at the box office “not simply because they are fresh and new. They succeeded because they were damn good stories, made by a team of artists with an authentic understanding of the characters depicted, given all the tools and investment they needed to succeed. That’s a formula any producer or studio can replicate.” From the blockbuster Black Panther (cowritten and directed by Ryan Coogler) to the Academy Award-winning Moonlight (written and directed by Barry Jenkins with a story from Tarell Alvin McCraney) to Insecure (colead by Rae and showrunner Prentice Penny), studios and networks already have more than enough evidence that audiences are hungry for these stories.
If you are a white person, sit with what it would feel like not to see yourself represented on screen. Let it sink in that Black people, and many other marginalized groups, have dealt with this for generations—and will continue to deal with it unless something changes.
At my sister’s Insecure meetup group, there was near unanimous agreement that the half hour comedy should actually be an hour. “Do you understand why there’s a petition now?” said a woman in a blue headwrap. “We need an hour-long show.”
A woman with a bubble-gum-soft voice replied, “Issa said it’s never going to be an hour. She says, ‘Please stop asking. Please.’”
The woman in the headwrap sighed: “I know. I remember.”
Another person on the call, a middle-aged Black man with glasses, had a custom-made virtual background that read #TeamIssa. “I took notes,” he said before sharing his thoughts about the show. “I can’t afford to forget this. This is a moment in time.”
That sort of connection should be the rule, not the exception.
Beandrea July is a writer, film critic, and audio producer in Los Angeles. @beandreadotcom
For more info visit: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/07/if-white-people-support-black-lives-why-dont-they-watch-black-movies-and-tv-shows