In a divided America, can Hollywood act as change agent?

Oscar-winner Meryl Streep urged her fellow actors to be a voice for empathetic storytelling. But shifts in technology and culture have put more pressure on the film industry to come up with products meant to please rather than challenge.

Paul Drinkwater/Courtesy of NBC/Reuters
Actress Meryl Streep accepts the Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards show in Beverly Hills, Calif., Jan. 8.

There’s nothing like a Hollywood thank-you speech to whip pundits, the press, and the president-elect into a Twitter frenzy.

But behind the social media furor sparked by Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes is a bigger question: Can Hollywood – with its current blockbuster, give fans what they want financial model – continue to act as a force for change in today’s America?

Entertainment – music, movies, novels, and TV – has historically played a key part in normalizing new ideas and driving social change. But shifts in technology and culture have put more pressure, especially on the film industry, to come up with products meant to please rather than challenge, media analysts say.

In calling for a more meaningful and empathetic approach to storytelling, the multiple-Oscar-winning Ms. Streep told her colleagues that both film and television need to continue to act as change agents, even in the face of such pressures. And with audiences propelled toward an era of both diversity and division, experts say, the task may be as important as ever.

“[Streep] was making a plea for a vision of Hollywood films as an art form, as a vehicle of understanding and empathy,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor of communications at American University in Washington, D.C., and a research fellow at its Center for Media & Social Impact. “It was a proactive call to arms both for members of the Hollywood establishment, and for their audiences, to preserve what is good about Hollywood in what’s sure to be a sustained effort to shut it down.”

Will show business take a stand?

During her speech, Streep called out the president-elect on his treatment of a disabled reporter last year and appealed to her colleagues and the press to stand against such actions.

“We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage,” she said, asking people to support the Committee to Protect Journalists. “And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.”

Her words not only articulated the fears that have bubbled up among racial and religious minorities, women, and LGBT Americans following President-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November, media experts say, they also challenged Hollywood and the arts to be part of the movement to resist efforts to silence minorities or curb free expression under the new administration.

“What she’s really doing is summoning the souls of Hollywood and everything Hollywood represents to make sure that it doesn’t stand mutely by after Trump takes office … if he really starts implementing all the things he’s saying,” says Paul Levinson, writer, novelist, and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York.

Some listeners have already responded. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that hundreds of people made donations to the organization following Streep’s speech.

Some commentators – pointing to continued calls for the creation of a Muslim registry and a “watch list” of academics a conservative group deemed to be pushing “left-wing propaganda” in classrooms – have compared such policies to the repressive McCarthy era of the 1950s.

“The memory of McCarthyism and the blacklists are fresh in the minds of a lot of creative people,” says Professor Sinnreich at American University.

“If I were an artist of conscience in Hollywood right now … I would be doing everything I could to organize, to drive audience sympathy for the important role of the arts as a medium of dissent and as a platform for the celebration of difference,” he says.

More women, minorities on screen

To be sure, casting departments have made an effort to place more brown and black characters in shows and movies, says Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California Los Angeles.

In contrast to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of the past two years, the Globes awarded Best Drama to “Moonlight” and best supporting actress to Viola Davis for “Fences.” Tracee Ross Ellis won best actress in a comedy for the ABC’s “black-ish,” and FX’s “Atlanta,” created by and starring Donald Glover, won best comedy.

More stories, especially in television, are being told that reflect the diversity of audiences, he says. Women and actors of color are more visible in big-budget blockbusters than perhaps they have ever been. The casts of the last two films in the “Star Wars” franchise are a prime example.

Those efforts matter, Professor Hunt notes, because “to the degree that diversity is absent, it’s hard to have empathy for one another.”

He adds, “To the degree that Hollywood is not diverse, that it makes the same old types of movies and TV shows from a white male point of view, then it’s failing in that mission … [to] give other people access to experiences and points of view that they might not have otherwise.”

From that perspective, there’s plenty to work on, he says. The most recent Hollywood Diversity Report, which the Bunche Center releases every February, found that despite making up 40 percent of the US population in 2014, racial minorities held 12.9 percent of lead roles in the 164 films made that year.

To change that, “Hollywood has to deal with diversity from ground up: what type of stories are we telling, who can tell them, who are we casting in them,” he says. Hunt holds up as an example “Moonlight,” whose protagonist is a gay black man struggling with identity. The story draws from the life of director Barry Jenkins, who also wrote the screenplay.

“That’s when you get the breakthrough in terms of inclusivity and resonating with where America is,” Hunt says.

Needed: more blue-collar stories

Also lacking in representation: the working class.

“Rarely do we see poor families who can’t afford anything on TV,” Hunt says. A few programs try to delve into the anxieties of working-class folks trying to make ends meet – like ABC’s “The Middle,” which follows the Heck family as they struggle to get by in small-town Indiana.

The problem, analysts say, is that reminding audiences of money troubles isn’t conventionally regarded as good marketing – notwithstanding the success of “All in the Family” in the 1970s, “Roseanne” in the 1990s, and the success of current animated sitcoms “The Simpsons” and “Bob’s Burgers.”

“[E]ntertainment has always been a class issue because it always costs money, the kind known as 'discretionary.' ” writes Mary McNamara for the Los Angeles Times.

At the end of the day, for all the part it plays as a cultural engine and mirror of change, the entertainment business is just that: a business.

“Any honest appraisal of Hollywood has to say that in many ways it represents the whole continuum of human nature … in terms of making money,” says Levinson at Fordham. “All that counts is [the] box office.”

And if audiences are going to continue to pay for the movies that comfort and reassure and excite – the superhero movies and animated films and explosive car chases – that’s what studios are going to invest in.  

“Those political tensions and aspirations have always existed in Hollywood, but their role in shaping content is always mediated through the marketplace,” Sinnreich says.

“So ultimately if we, the viewing public, are interested in seeing Hollywood fulfill Meryl Streep’s hope of a more empathetic, more inclusive medium, people need to vote with their wallets.”

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