Reconstruction Comes to Hollywood (Guest Column)

Keli Goff
Courtesy of DAWN BOWERY

Keli Goff

It’s great to tweet about Black Lives Matter and give Emmys. It’s more important to award BIPOC executives with greenlighting power and to support men and women of color in this industry who call out harmful institutions or individuals.

After George Floyd’s tragic death, something strange happened to many of us who are Black in Hollywood. Though it’s crass to say, we became trendy, as demonstrated by the uptick in our meetings and deals. I soon felt more guilt than gratitude. A man lost his life and as a result some of us were benefiting. But conversations with friends revealed an unfortunate reality: Some entities desperate to work with us were hiding their own skeletons regarding race.

Sometimes those skeletons revealed themselves via the Black Hollywood whisper network, such as: “I have a friend who worked for that studio/network/showrunner. Be careful.” Other skeletons emerged in the press, like when Black writers accused CBS of downplaying allegations of racial misconduct against a showrunner, despite the network’s having partnered with the NAACP on diversity efforts. I discovered that a company interested in a project of mine rooted in race was accused of rampant discrimination. They conveniently forgot to mention those allegations during our meeting.

Now, I’m not a fan of cancel culture because I believe in the power of redemption. But what’s unnerving right now is that for every showrunner who wants to diversify his or her writers room for the right reason, there’s a studio giving deals to prominent Black creatives just so those of us they’ve discriminated against either won’t go public, or will be neutralized if we do. The number of recent stories I’ve heard of people being warned not to discuss incidents of racism perpetrated by a specific star, showrunner, studio or network is downright scary. I’ve received such warnings myself. The lesson seems to be that companies don’t mind donating to civil rights groups and tweeting “Black Lives Matter.” They do mind seeking redemption because that requires a commitment to substantive change, and that can be inconvenient and expensive.

Which is why the mood doesn’t feel quite as hopeful as it has during some moments of monumental social change. Instead, it feels more like Reconstruction, a time when Black Americans achieved political and economic gains in the post-Civil War South that were unimaginable during slavery. But this change upended society, unsettled many white Americans, and, as a result, the Klan emerged. The Confederate flag would later reemerge during the height of the civil rights movement. Proof that people’s behavior often becomes worse when they are pressured by outside forces to become better.

But eventually things do become better, if there are enough good people leading the way. By voicing unconditional support for actor John Boyega, who feared his racial justice activism might end his career, J.J. Abrams demonstrated how to be a true ally. It’s great to tweet about Black Lives Matter. It’s more important to flex your professional muscle in support of a Black man or woman in this industry who speaks truth to power by calling out the institutions or individuals who have harmed them or threaten to.

For companies claiming to care about Black lives in Hollywood, here are ways to prove it. You can start by releasing your Black employees from any confidentiality clauses that prevent them from speaking candidly about their experiences working for you. Or how about publishing data on your compensation and settlement agreements along racial and gender lines? If this is done, a lot of power brokers will be forced to admit that they haven’t cared about Black lives much at all.

But it’s never too late to turn the page. It’s never too late for redemption.

It’s worth noting that South Africa’s transition from apartheid to the presidency of Nelson Mandela was aided in large part by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Because true reconciliation can only come after people have been honest about whom they’ve hurt. Hollywood has hurt a lot of people.

This year’s Black Emmy winners — which featured a record number of acting wins — are encouraging. But we’ll know there’s been systemic change when there are more Black people with the power to hire those performers and greenlight their projects. We’re not there yet, but I believe in the magic of movies. So I know we’ll get there, someday.

Keli Goff is a producer on the upcoming Joe Exotic limited series. She was nominated for two Emmys for Reversing Roe and is a contributor to KCRW’s Left, Right & Center.