Studios should "pull a Christopher Plummer" on racist content
Last Thursday, I saw performances by artists from 1HoodMedia, a group of black musicians and activists who use their platform to speak out about current political and social injustices in order to spread awareness and invoke action. One of the most prominent lines from the set came from rapper LiveFromTheCity, who opened the show by performing his song “Black Girl Magic,” a song that praises black women and their beauty. After the song, he talked about how the best way to represent marginalized voices was to “give them the mic” before happily passing said mic to fellow 1HoodMedia artist, and black woman, Jacquea Mae.
This statement could not possibly be truer in our current pop culture climate where representation is becoming more and more important, as shown by events such as the astounding success of Black Panther (which is now Marvel Studios’ highest-grossing domestic movie) and the heightened importance of women due to the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. The only way to further this momentum is by supporting through your dollar, going out to support content created by these marginalized voices. The biggest indicator of a film’s performance to a studio is through its financial performance, often and unfortunately even more so than critic and audience reception.
So, by that logic, the opposite should be true. Content produced by sexual assailants and rapists such as The Weinstein Company’s The Current War, a film about Thomas Edison and his rivalry with George Westinghouse, should not be supported in any way, and such action has been taken to reflect this. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Current War was pulled from the company’s release schedule after Harvey Weinstein’s allegations came to light. After allegations of Kevin Spacey’s sexual misconduct hit news, Ridley Scott decided to scrap all of Spacey’s scenes from All the Money in the World and reshoot them with Christopher Plummer recast in Spacey’s role, J. Paul Getty. Content produced by racists, such as ABC’s reboot of the beloved television series Roseanne, should not be encouraged and spurned on at arrival. However, Roseanne is receiving positive reviews and 18 million viewers watched its premiere, according to The Washington Post.
Among a pop culture landscape that is largely liberal, it was a smart and tactical business decision for ABC to green-light Roseanne, a beloved sitcom with a conservative twist, in order to take advantage of an opening in the TV market: a show featuring a character with highly conservative, pro-Trump political beliefs made by a woman with highly conservative, pro-Trump beliefs. Maybe ABC saw Barr as a marginalized voice, even though she’s a white, working-class woman. So, ABC decided to give her the mic, and everyone involved saw their benefits from the deal.
What ABC should have done was take a look at the larger picture. What does taking on this property convey about our company image? What kind of public relations will this show receive, rather than just blindly accepting whatever random assortment of attention Roseanne collects? Will we be able to still exercise some form of control over Roseanne if it gets out of hand? While ABC has worked with Roseanne Barr before, and therefore would have known what they were getting themselves into, these are questions they still should have asked in 2018 before coming under any possible fire.
That’s not to say though that film studios and producers today haven’t made changes to reflect anti-racism. Last Wednesday, it was announced that Riverdale’s K.J. Apa would “pull a Christopher Plummer” and replace YouTuber Kian Lawley in 20th Century Fox’s book-to-movie adaptation of Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a novel which follows the life of 16-year old Starr Carter after she witnesses police officers shoot her unarmed childhood friend. Lawley was set to play Starr’s white boyfriend at the prep school she attends, and was dropped from the production last February after a past video of Lawley resurfaced showing him using the N-word and making racial slurs such as “'We’re all black drinking purple Kool-aid and eating Kentucky fried motherf***ing chicken,’” according to Variety.
While it is a little easier in today’s liberal pop culture landscape to support a movie this socially aware and progressive, 20th Century Fox did what ABC did not do, and take a step back to look at the larger picture. When initially buying the rights to this movie, 20th Century Fox also saw an opening in the market — a politically charged movie about African-American issues — and hoped to profit lucratively from it after its release, which is still unknown due to Lawley’s recasting. In fact, they may even profit more after the release of Black Panther. They saw the hypocrisy and image disparity in choosing a racist YouTube star to participate in a movie about a young black woman’s draw to activism inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s an easy decision today to take action against properties featuring actors, producers, and writers who have committed or been accused of sexual assault or rape, so the hesitancy to take action against content produced by racists is puzzling. Has racism been such a timeless, unmovable, large, awkward issue that no one wants to strike it in the heart and instead keep prodding it with sticks for the next century?
Recently, Roseanne featured a joke digging at other ABC shows Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat, where Roseanne and her husband Dan fall asleep through all the ABC programs between "Wheel to Kimmel.” Dan remarks, “We missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” to which Roseanne retorts back, “They’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up.” In a barrage of tweets made after the episode, writer Kelvin Yu slams the joke for belittling the black and Asian experience and saying that “I actually think it's too accurate.”
In order to better align their slate to their company image and draw in as many people from diverse backgrounds as possible, studios need to look at all elements of any film or property they decide to invest in, from the views and beliefs of everyone involved to the creative content of the property itself. But, we should be too. I’m not saying that we should be researching the backgrounds of every actor and crew member on a film and stay as up-to-date as possible on all of Hollywood’s controversies and global political actions whenever we watch TV, because I certainly am not. Isn’t that why we read books, or watch TV and movies, to escape and get away from stuff like this? What I’m saying that is we should strive to be a little more aware with what we invest our time and money into. We should think a little more about what we’re supporting, and what our $9 or an hour in front of a television will mean to the larger studios on the other side of the coast. It has a larger impact than it seems, and, in a couple years and with more calculated and aware distribution, it will make Hollywood listen more to its public than to its bank account.