Updated: Jun 24, 2020
“Movies don’t just show us how the world is; they show you how the world can be...You take a chance and you make a different kind of story, I think you can change the world,” is the bold proclamation made by Darren Criss’s character in Hollywood, the latest series from creator-producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Crime Story, American Horror Story). Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the show sprinkles real historical events and figures into a largely fictitious narrative centering around the production of a movie called “Meg”. Written by a young Black and gay screenwriter named Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) and directed by the half-Filipino Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), the script begins as a story about the white actress Peg Entwistle who jumped off the Hollywood sign, but it then it ultimately morphs into a story about the disenfranchised in Hollywood with Ainsley’s Black girlfriend Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) as the lead. Although there has never been a feature film with a Black female lead, let alone one written by a Black gay man, the heads of production company Ace Studios (seemingly modeled off of Paramount) decide to produce it because they want to do something important and make history. Despite initial protests, the film is so good that it becomes a smash hit with “racial protests melting away,” and all of the artists of color involved winning Oscars.
Clearly, Hollywood is not a remotely accurate or plausible account of history; the makers are attempting to make a statement with their revisionism. By portraying such a positive ahistoricism, they seem to be showing what could have been, what should have been, and what should be in the future. Unfortunately, their attempts fall flat and are at times counterintuitive. Hollywood is so focused on the idea of progress and of representation in film making an impact that it stays in the realm of the conceptual, failing to make any real progress itself. The story is about the production of a movie with Camille, a Black woman, as the lead and how much that matters. But then why is it that within the show itself, Camille is one of the characters with the least amount of screen time and character development? Why is it that, in contrast, the white agent played by Jim Parsons, who takes advantage of new talent by harassing and coercing them into sexual acts, has a great deal of screen time and depth? In fact, all of the show’s most central characters are white, the focus being on the producers and agents who greenlight the movie rather than the characters of color who create it. The show’s message is supposedly one of inclusion, but very often the characters of color are used more as devices to tell the stories of the white characters who make progress for them while those white characters are allowed to exist as full-fleshed beings independent of the overall message.
Of course it is important to vocally acknowledge that white and otherwise privileged people in positions of power have both the ability and the responsibility to fight for change and inclusion. But when scene after scene is focused around a group of a few white studio heads deciding to include people of color because they want to “do what’s right,” the ultimate narrative that is put forth is one of white saviorism. Further, it reduces the very complex and deep seated prejudice that Hollywood was built upon and continues to perpetuate into something that only some individuals possess and can easily be changed by the actions of a few good-hearted executives. It espouses the narrative that any non-overtly offensive inclusion of people of color and LBGTQ+ people in media is the goal rather than deeper structural overhaul.
This is not to say that the show is completely devoid of positive qualities. I was generally entertained by the drama, the beautiful Hollywood glamour aesthetic, and the ensemble cast of very capable actors. Furthermore, there was potential in the use of contrast and subversion of convention and expectations. But this potential was drastically unfulfilled given that the show takes on such a self-satisfied tone while it imagines a fictional movie in the ‘40s that contains significantly more impressive representation and progress than the 21st century show itself. Murphy and the other producers use the show in an attempt to advocate for change in Hollywood while still keeping focus and praise on those who are privileged and in power, and they would do well to realize that these two aims are discordant.