What if the industry were actually diverse during Hollywood’s Golden Age? What if a Black woman could lead a major film, written by an openly Black, gay screenwriter? What if some of the feats that we still haven’t accomplished even today, could have taken place years and years ago?
With the perfect mixture of camp and social commentary, Ryan Murphy’s second Netflix Original series Hollywood aims to answer these questions and provides an aspirational blueprint for how it could be today.
The period drama follows a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers in post-World War II Hollywood as they try to make it in the industry, no matter the cost. The group, including Black, gay screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), and Black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), work to create a project like nothing that has been seen, with diversity both behind the camera and in front. Lucky for them, a trio of executives at the studio-level take on their progressive film from a filmmaker of Asian descent, written by Archie and starring Camille. It is the subject of fierce pushback in the form of Hollywood’s timeless forms of oppression: racism, sexism and homophobia. Defying the obstacles, the film makes history, changing not only Hollywood but the world.
Harrier’s Camille is a composite character inspired by legendary Black actresses of the time, Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. Through the series and Camille, as a history-making Black romantic lead, these icons receive the acclaim and financial success that they were never able to receive in reality.
Speaking about Dandridge and Horne, Harrier said to Shadow And Act, “I think they were both these incredibly talented women who were marginalized and pushed to the side and not really seen for their full talent and their full potential.” She added, “I like to think of Camile’s story as being a very happy ending and how life would look if they were able to get the recognition that they deserve. What if Dorothy Dandridge had gone on to win an Oscar when she was nominated? I think the landscape would be very different and there would be young Black girls who would see themselves on-screen and not be portrayed as a maid, oversexualized or just sort of pushed aside. It would have been a really positive thing, so I’d like to hope that Camille is a part of that legacy.”
Pope’s Archie Coleman is still an anomaly in Hollywood today — a Black, openly gay screenwriter of a major film. Also portraying a composite character, Pope, who had a banner 2019 with two Tony Award-nominated performances in Choir Boy and Ain’t Too Proud, says that he used James Baldwin as inspiration. He said to Shadow And Act, “I think he [Baldwin] was an incredible individual and an incredible activist, He had such a knowledge, partially because he spent time overseas and in so many different parts of the world. When he came back to the states, he had a different idea of what it means to be a Black man and what it means to be a Black effeminate gay man with a powerful voice. I feel like that is Archie. Archie is looking to use his voice, his gifts, his narrative to tell a bigger picture and to create paths and way for people that look like him.”
Archie and Camille are explicitly in these positions of success due to their recognized skill and talent, not specifically for being a Black gay man and a Black woman. Yes, they are making history, but make no mistake, in Hollywood that is a byproduct of equal opportunity, not a quota to fill. This nuance is likely owed to Janet Mock, who is a writer, producer and director on the series. The show’s fourth episode, directed and written by Mock, features an incredible monologue by Archie, encouraging his team not to play by the system’s racist rules. Pope’s moving performance, in a just world, should lead to more trophies on his mantle and more greenlights for his future projects.
According to Mock, per press materials provided by Netflix, Murphy approached her about the series by asking what the happy endings would look like for Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong and Hattie McDaniel. From there, she says it was important to tell an aspirational story with a “different” portrait of winners and dreamers. She said, “We’re still grappling with an industry where there are far too few people of color on screen, far too few LGBTQ people and women in power. [If a movie like this were made in the ‘40s], it would have reverberated and pushed culture forward in the same way that Black Panther and Moonlight have. But still, even now, we deal with two steps forward, five steps back.”
Janet Mock directing Laura Harrier during a scene from ‘Hollywood’ | Photo: Netflix
Viola Davis said it best in her Emmys speech when she became the first Black woman to win Best Actress in a Drama Series: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” While Hollywood may be criticized for being too optimistic or too idealistic, it highlights a solution–just the opportunity, just the chance to be in the room, just a chance for Black artists to have their talent showcased. Give us the opportunity and the work speaks for itself.
In Hollywood, the Powers That Be could have easily relegated Meg, the film within the Hollywood universe that the group produces throughout the season, to irrelevance by casting a white actress as the romantic lead and either hiring a white writer to re-write Archie’s script or not given him credit at all. Instead, they got out of the way, let Camille be the best actress for the role and let Archie be the best screenwriter. The result in the Hollywood universe was an iconic film that had reverberating effects on the films that would be developed for years to come and the industry. What if 2020 Hollywood would heed such a lesson and get out of our way?
Hollywood will never be the same after this COVID-19 pandemic. There is no going back to “normal.” The virus is showing how quickly Hollywood’s gatekeeping infrastructure can crumble. The Academy is suddenly able to consider streaming films for Oscars instead of solely those that had a theatrical run. All the things we were told were impossible and irreversible are suddenly not. The gates are swinging open and the times are ripe for change. So, who will Hollywood become and what will we demand of it?
Hollywood‘s solutions may seem “too easy,” too simplistic. But as showrunners are outing their mostly-to-all-white writers rooms on Zoom in 2020, it’s obvious that the industry still doesn’t understand what having a diverse story and a diverse team means. So maybe we do need it to be broken down as simply as possible.
The result is a series that’s as irreverent as it is topical. And during a time where we need television and film more than ever as a method of escapism from current events, why not devote it to the dreamers and the optimists that hope for a better day in Hollywood?
Hollywood debuts May 1 on Netflix.