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Hollywood turns scrutiny inward amid national discussion on race and policing


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: This week, CBS announced it is committing 25 percent of its budget for TV script development to projects from creators and producers who are black, indigenous and people of color.

The network set a goal of 40 percent representation in writer's rooms for the television season beginning in the fall of 2021.

It's all part of a bigger reckoning across Hollywood since the death of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests over police brutality and racial inequality.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, canvas

Jeffrey Brown: One of the first casualties, the popular reality TV show "Cops." It had faced criticism in the past for normalizing heavy-handed behavior by the police, especially against African-Americans.

But for more than 30 years, it remained on the air, until last month, when the Paramount network said it was removing the show from its schedule. Soon after, the even more popular A&E series "Live P.D.," one of the highest rated shows on basic cable, met the same fate.

At a moment when policing is the subject of protests and demands for change, Hollywood is being forced to reexamine its long-running love affair with cop shows and much more.

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Eric Deggans: There are a lot of discussions now about what kind of stories Hollywood is telling, who gets to tell them, and how that can change, make cop shows less propagandistic for law enforcement, and try to make them more realistic, try to increase the diversity in shows that don't have diversity.

Jeffrey Brown: The reexamination of recent weeks has at times become quite personal.

Jimmy Fallon: And I realized that I can't not say I'm horrified, and I'm sorry, and I'm embarrassed.

Jeffrey Brown: As late-night stars and stars of popular sitcoms have apologized or pulled episodes because of the use of blackface.

Now on the table, says Deggans, questions of content, but also representation in front of and behind the camera.

Eric Deggans: I think what's happened is that people have realized that they can no longer go along to get along.

And it's a sad fact of Hollywood that, often, the way to get, you know, film and TV projects to make strides in diversity is that you have to embarrass them publicly, and you have to create the sense that the audience will no longer tolerate what they're doing. And then they will turn around. They will change.

Jeffrey Brown: One prominent group, headed by actors Kendrick Sampson and Tessa Thompson is calling for changes both in the larger society, such as broad divestment from police, and in the entertainment world itself, including how police and people of color are portrayed, and ensuring more behind-the-scenes roles for African-American writers and producers.

They're not new issues for Hollywood. Recall the Oscar So White campaign of recent years. But they now come with a new urgency.

Stephanie Allain: You know, I was an executive at Columbia Pictures 30 years ago, and there's still not that much inclusivity at the table, where it happens.

Jeffrey Brown: Veteran producer Stephanie Allain, whose work includes "Boyz n the Hood," "Hustle & Flow," and "Dear White People," says Hollywood must recognize its role in shaping how we see ourselves and our history.

Stephanie Allain: I think, right now, the movement is about creating content that humanizes black people, that illustrates the long history of racism in our country and slavery and how we came to this point in time, and how we're still living the vestiges of slavery, of domination, of police brutality.

Jeffrey Brown: That includes taking a fresh look at one of the most acclaimed and successful films in history, "Gone With the Wind," watched and loved by millions since its release in 1939, but also heavily criticized for its romanticized portrait of the Confederacy and slavery.

Stephanie Allain: When you see the opening crawl that says, oh, what a beautiful place this was, a place of master and slave, that feeling perpetuates white supremacy, pure and simple.

And it can't -- I don't believe you can just take these movies and burn them. That is just not what should happen. We have to remind ourselves who we were when we made that movie and who we are today.

Jacaqueline Stewart: "Gone With the Wind" was the highly anticipated adaptation.

Jeffrey Brown: To that end, the streaming site HBO MAX pulled the film from its library temporarily in June, then brought it back, packaged with a new introduction by film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart, explaining its significance, but also its bigotry.

Jacaqueline Stewart: And the film's treatment of this world through the lens of nostalgia denies the horrors of slavery, as well as its legacy of racial inequality.

Jeffrey Brown: Also part of the repackaging, a panel discussion about the film in which Stephanie Allain took part.

Stephanie Allain: We have a system here in America where we label films, they're too adult, they're too violent, they're too this, they're too that.

That movie is racist, and it should be labeled as such. And then watch the movie knowing that that is the context for it.

Jeffrey Brown: Eric Deggans says a change in Hollywood is possible, but responsibility also lies with us, the consumers of entertainment.

Eric Deggans: Because we have so much media now, people have more power than they have ever had. You can say something on Twitter that becomes a meme that can threaten the profitability of a $100 million franchise.

So, along with all that power comes a certain responsibility to consume wisely, be aware of what you're consuming.

Jeffrey Brown: In other words, amid continued protests, watch your screens carefully, and make your own decisions about Hollywood's portrait of our world.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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