Editor’s Note: There are SPOILERS ahead. This opinion piece about the new Netflix original series “Hollywood” is best understood after watching the show in its entirety. There are spoilers below and some points may not be understood unless the reader has watched the show.
The new Netflix original series “Hollywood” is a seven-episode miniseries co-created by Ryan Murphy, who’s also produced “Pose,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “The People vs O.J. Simpson” and other highly acclaimed projects. The show is about the complexities of late 1940’s Hollywood and is currently one of Netflix’s Top 10 most popular shows.
There’s just one problem: “Hollywood” is listed under the “Historical TV Shows” column on Netflix — but history is precisely what this show gets wrong.
In the thick of the story, we find Ace film studios grappling with the production of “Meg,” a story that mirrors the darkness of Hollywood, led by Camille Washington, a black woman (played by the riveting Laura Harrier) and written by a gay black man, Archie Coleman (played by the vibrant and theatrical Jeremy Pope). Explaining these choices in an interview published by Collider, “Hollywood’s” openly gay creator Ryan Murphy says: “What if somebody had been brave enough to make this movie in the late ‘40s and it won all these Oscars, and all of these people who before were marginalized were suddenly the heroes and heroines of their story?”
This is an interesting concept, but mindsets like this lead to naivete and hypocrisy. For example, why does Murphy imply The Oscars, an awards show created by white people, owned by white people and historically overwhelmingly dominated by white people, is the pinnacle of excellence for people of color?
The movie “Meg” is based on the 1932 suicide of real-life stage and screen actress Peg Entwistle, a white woman who offed herself from the Hollywood sign after not being able to take the pressures of the industry.
So I ask Mr. Murphy, if you thought you had the agency to write a black lead role, why would you have her tell the real story of a white woman, that you blurred a little to make it a black story, instead of actually telling the story of a black woman?
What About The Real Trailblazers?
Interesting choice. We shouldn’t be telling “what-if” stories about a topic that isn’t even finished unfolding in the present day. We should be telling the stories of the real trailblazers that give us the privilege of our current reality.
Studio execs in “Hollywood” worry the studio will go bankrupt if they show the finished picture, reminded that violence in the south, including the Ku Klux Klan, could be a giant problem. Southern movie theatres threaten to not only boycott “Meg,” but also to never again play an Ace studio film in their movie houses.
Realistic But Without Consequences
While all of this sounds historically realistic on paper, nothing bad ever happens to Ace for releasing “Meg.” There are no consequences for the studio or any of the actors. In fact, not only does the film break records, but in the show’s own words, “racial protests across the country simply melted away.”
Wow, who knew it was that easy! In “Hollywood’s” final episode, we learn “Meg” goes on to win just about every Oscar it’s nominated for, including having a black gay man win for his writing, having a Filipino man win best direction, a black woman winning best female in a lead role, and an Asian actress winning best-supporting actress, all in one night.
Racism Solved in One Night
Wowziers, “Meg.” That’s a lot of progress in one Oscars ceremony! Who knew racism could be solved with one movie. The reason this film is no more than a depiction of spit-shined “Dreamland” is because there are never any real consequences for anyone involved with “Meg.”
There were hardly any white people fighting for African American film representation in late 1940s America. There was no one holding their hands to get into the room. Real progress didn’t happen for so long because it couldn’t happen. In the real white-run Hollywood, there would have been very real consequences for a movie like “Meg.”
But in Murphy’s “Hollywood,” as the movie is in production, every knock on every door is just a regular knock, every phone that rings is just a regular phone ring. No one is looking over his or her shoulder, no racist articles or critical radio blurbs fill the scenic space and there’s no real danger.
What we get instead is a handful of racist acts and words, and a bunch of hollow writing hinting at danger but rarely following through to show actual consequence. Even the racists depicted protesting the movie are relatively peaceful. So peaceful in fact that Camille Washington lets the audience know multiple times that she isn’t afraid. Why would she be? No character of color loses anything at all because of “Meg,” in any way.
The lack of consequences for the characters in “Hollywood” is the exact problem. Not only does this make the show historically unrealistic, but it makes every character an archetype and thus no longer a believable person.
Hiding Inequality Behind Sexy Glances
The lack of equity in real Hollywood is largely because of setbacks caused by racism. Murphy’s “Hollywood” hides that institutional racism and inequality behind glitz and glamour, sexy glances through cigarette puffs, and the inhumanly handsome Jeremy Pope. Ultimately, it contributes to a culture in America that fetishizes post-WWII 1940s aesthetics, taking no mind to its racism. Thinking you can separate the two is the same colonial idea that we can pick and choose the owners of the narrative of our country. We can not.
While “Hollywood” is well done at times, thanks to the things in its range, including the show’s beautiful discussion of love, friendship, and depiction of sexuality. It’s almost as if the “Hollywood’s” screenwriter is a gay white man and not a person of color or a woman — (amongst older people, what it means to be white-passing) detailing the complexities of “making it” in Hollywood.
Insulting and Embarrassing
As for what it means to be black in 1940s America? It gets that wrong on top of being insulting and, at times, embarrassing. Fictional depictions of people of color can be a treasure if done right. While “Hollywood” is well-acted and at times seductively enthralling, in the end, it is mostly wasted potential.
Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s weighty presence as white male producers and writers in “Hollywood” is the antithesis to the show’s preachings of how POC deserve to tell their stories.
As we move into the future, I hope white creators reflect more carefully about what stories they have the agency to be involved with, and what stories they do not.
Tyler Bey, is a member of the Maynard Jackson High Class of 2020, and future writer, actor and director at Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York.