At an event billed as "A Day of Unreasonable Conversation," it seemed only fitting that journalist and provocateur Andrew Sullivan provided the audience with its most uncomfortable moment.
During a Monday morning panel probing how Hollywood screenwriters and showrunners portray "the other side," Sullivan criticized "Hollywood" for regularly painting non-coastal elites in unflattering terms, which he said has only exacerbated America's cultural divide.
"These people who are already insecure about losing their job switch on the TV, look at the newspaper and hear that they are being described as bigots, racists," said Sullivan, who was speaking to a packed audience of industry professionals, including some of the town's biggest names, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. "And they resent it, and the one thing I would urge you people who do this type of content is try and complete the idea of 'the other' being in the room because they can hear what you are saying."
Moments later, the author and New York magazine columnist doubled down on his idea, saying: "Don't tell them everything is good. That you deserve it and that you are all basically slaveholders under their skin blah, blah, blah, which is what Hollywood is saying to them every second of the day." Those comments, which were met with audible gasps, set the stage for an immensely tense 20-minute panel that ended in Sullivan being shouted at by an audience member, prompting the moderator to step in and end the panel.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter during the daylong event's lunch break, Sullivan, who is no stranger to controversy, was not surprised. "I said what I wanted to say," he said. "When you're a struggling, white working-class person in say, Kentucky, and a Yale student says, 'You have white privilege,' what do you think happens? [Donald] Trump gets elected — that's what happens. And they don't seem to understand any of the lessons from the last time and I don't want [Trump] to be re-elected, but I don't think the left is helping and I don't think Hollywood is helping."
The rift, which played out in front of industry heavyweights like showrunners Jenji Kohan, Pete Nowalk and Tanya Saracho, actress Amy Landecker and OWN GM Tina Perry, centered on whether television writers were providing enough nuance in their depictions of "the other" — in this case, white working-class Americans. Some audience members took issue with the criticism. One writer asked how one should weigh the grievances of the white working-class demographic, which may be feeling left behind by globalization, against those of inner-city African-Americans, who face racism and bigotry on an institutional level.
Lightening the mood was former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who was met with a standing ovation before delivering a speech that focused on voter intimidation and voter suppression. Abrams made no mention of her plans to potentially run for the Senate or the White House and instead focused on her core work of getting underprivileged communities to the polls. "We live in a time where our system is under attack from within and from without, and the fact that the system is under attack means we have to fight back by telling the stories of those attacks. We have to talk about voter suppression because it is real," she said. "We have to talk about the fact that in Florida, who knows what happens on Election Day?" Abrams said to laughs.
Produced by Propper Daley at the Getty Center, A Day of Unreasonable Conversation is a new annual event that aims to connect writers and content creators with activists, nonprofits and thinkers with ties to underprivileged communities with the goal of achieving more authentic representation. As part of the event, a new mentorship program was announced, pairing 10 emerging writers with established scribes from shows like The Handmaid's Tale, Empire and How to Get Away With Murder, among others.
The Hollywood Reporter was a media sponsor for this event.