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[This article contains spoilers for the Hollywood finale.]
When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan had been functionally dead for nearly half a century. Just a few years later, the Klan boasted a membership in the millions, with many more unaffiliated but ideologically aligned with the hate group. Historians generally attribute the Klan’s revival in the 1920s to D.W. Griffith’s three-hour drama — by some accounts, Hollywood’s first blockbuster — which used its many breakthrough cinematic techniques to posit Klansmen as heroic protectors of white women from black men’s ostensible sexual aggression.
Entertainment can damage. It can also do good. The latter is clearly the aim of Netflix’s Hollywood, Ryan Murphy’s revisionist take on 1940s show business. “Movies don’t just show us how the world is,” pontificates an aspiring-filmmaker character played by Darren Criss. “They show us how the world can be. If we change the way that movies are made — you take a chance and you make a different kind of story — I think you can change the world.” If a film like The Birth of a Nation set back America, Murphy seems to wager, an optimistic alt-history like Hollywood might yield the opposite effect.
The limited series begins as an industry story about newcomers. A biopic about Peg Entwistle, the real-life starlet who jumped off the Hollywood sign in 1932, has been greenlit by the fictional Ace Studios. But its first-time director, the half-Filipino but white-passing Raymond Ainsley (Criss), and his black actress-girlfriend, the promising but inexperienced Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), believe that the film’s “parable about how Hollywood treats an outsider” could be more resonant if it starred a woman of color, namely her. Peg‘s black, gay screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) initially balks against the change, as he was hoping to prove with his script that black writers could pen more than “race pictures.”
But Archie quickly comes around, and the project finds unlikely support from Ace, which is suddenly no longer run by the usual blowhard studio chief (Rob Reiner) but his long-suffering wife, Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone). Moved by a personal entreaty by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris), who opines that a movie could more substantially change the life of “a dirt-poor little black girl living in a shanty” than the government could — really? — Avis allows the production team to change Peg to Meg, starring Camille.
The rest is Hollywood history: Meg becomes the biggest hit in years and garners Academy Awards for Camille, Raymond, Archie, Avis and supporting actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), who in real life watched German-born Luise Rainer, who played a Chinese peasant in yellowface in The Good Earth, win an Oscar that might have been hers. In one of the countless willful anachronisms scattered throughout the series, the finale features the kind of viral speeches about representational milestones that we’ve come to expect in the past few years from awards ceremonies.
I was thrilled when Parasite director Bong Joon Ho made history just three months ago by winning four Academy Awards, including the first best picture prize for a non-English-language film. But I was frustrated when the fictional Wong collected her counterfactual Oscar on Hollywood — a feat that has yet to be achieved by any actual Asian-American actress. My irritation redoubled when Camille won the best actress prize — an achievement whose real-life counterpart wouldn’t take place until Halle Berry’s historic triumph for her performance in Monster’s Ball in 2002.
Hollywood has been met with middling reviews — at present, it has a 58 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 55 percent rating on Metacritic — but it has also inspired a slew of scathing thinkpieces. The Atlantic summed up much of the critical response by calling it “earnest nonsense,” with detractors critiquing the series’ soft-peddling of racist and homophobic fallout, its white-saviorism and its “frictionless” plotting, once pretty much everyone decides to get on the right side of history and is handsomely rewarded for it.
Moreover, there’s no possibility of any moral complication: In Hollywood, goodness and talent are unconvincingly conflated so that the more kind-hearted a character is, the more creative she also magically becomes.
Hollywood is certainly not alone in its reimagining of reality as a nicer place; the recently departed Schitt’s Creek, for example, is beloved by its fanbase in part because of its creation of a small-town, blue-collar setting where homophobia doesn’t exist. So why does the revisionism of, say, Murphy’s Pose (FX) seem so necessary, while Hollywood‘s feels so insulting?
After a saccharine debut season that merited a comparison to Full House, Pose became, in its sophomore year, one of TV’s best and most urgent dramas by balancing its encroaching darkness with a “fairy-tale” wistfulness. (The great majority of its characters not only keep outrunning death by AIDS or murderous transphobia, but also get to pursue their dreams.) The drama pays tribute to the trans women and gay men of color of the 1980s and 1990s by reminding us that they were individuals before they were members of an endangered demographic.
Hollywood, on the other hand, doesn’t let its characters be more than specimens of oppression. We learn precious little about Camille, and as a director, Raymond seems far less motivated by the art of storytelling than by the prospect of getting his thwarted role model, Anna May Wong, and later his girlfriend and his screenwriter, trophies. Wong is a victim of Hollywood typecasting, but we never really learn what kinds of characters she would like to play. (Her role in Meg is conspicuously undefined — what matters is that she wins an Oscar for it.) Archie is somewhat humanized by his romance with Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), but as he’s written on the page, he’s all ambition, no core.
Hollywood thinks it’s championing its characters of color, but it can only see them as victims, then miraculous victors. No wonder the show’s heart is LuPone’s Avis, while its most memorable performance belongs to Jim Parsons, playing the villainous talent agent Henry Willson, who’s given the series’ campiest, most delicious lines.
There are plenty of other righteous objections to Hollywood to be made, from its wrongheaded implication that the most progressive depictions of marginalized groups are aspirational ones to the patently untrue suggestion that the most an actor can achieve is an Academy Award. (Even in this whitewashed history of Hollywood, an Oscar win didn’t do much to perpetuate or enrich the career of Gone With the Wind co-star Hattie McDaniel, played by Queen Latifah.)
And yet Hollywood‘s biggest sin might be its eagerness to propagate the simplistic yet enduring idea that the industry, through its shrewd deployment of a meritocratic process like the Academy Awards (ha), can and should better the nation, if not the universe. (Such a starry-eyed, navel-gazing framework leaves no room for the Academy to interrogate its own obvious biases, nor for the supposedly protean moviegoing public to interpret or react to movies or television shows in the ways they see fit.)
Murphy has actually done the work of making real-life Hollywood a more equitable industry, but that doesn’t make this self-aggrandizing vision of “justice” any easier to stomach. If more inclusive storytelling is all it takes to “change the world,” Hollywood certainly counts itself among that world-improving content. How exhaustingly busy it all is, remaking the past with one hand, signaling virtue with the other.
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