But never quite like this.
But Black scholars say there’s been a sense in recent weeks that Americans’ attitudes on race and culture are changing for real this time — and that entertainers who ignore them do so at their peril.
In several ways, it’s already happening.
There’s renewed interest in Black-themed art and entertainment
Streaming platforms have been prominently featuring Black-themed content: Netflix has been promoting a new “Black Lives Matter” collection to customers in the US, featuring dozens of movies and series about racial injustice and the lives of Black Americans. Among them are Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” about racism in the criminal justice system, and Spike Lee’s new drama “Da 5 Bloods,” about Black soldiers returning to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader.
“New audiences appear to be turning to these stories as a form of education and understanding of the Black experience in America,” says Ashley Alleyne-Morris an insights director at Parrot Analytics.
Audiences are turning to podcasts about race: In the world of podcasts, Apple’s charts show audiences are gravitating toward the New York Times’ “1619,” about the history of slavery in America, and NPR’s Code Switch, which features journalists of color talking about race.
“We must be careful to not mistake sales for social reform,” he says. “Translating the knowledge and content from books and electronic media into everyday antiracist practices is the only meaningful way for this renewed attention to influence society.”
People are reappraising racist or inappropriate cultural content
Hollywood has had an uneasy relationship with race dating back to “The Birth of a Nation,” the landmark 1915 silent film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
“The more you know about our racist history, the more you understand what’s going on now,” he says. “We’re in this pop culture moment right now. America is struggling about what kind of country it wants to be.”
Stars are apologizing for their past use of blackface: This week Tina Fey, creator and star of the Emmy-winning series “30 Rock,” asked streaming services to remove four of the show’s episodes that feature White actors in blackface. Fey apologized for the episodes and the “pain they have caused.”
People are viewing long-established acts and shows through a new lens: Reality shows about police officers, including “Live PD” and “Cops,” have been canceled over criticisms that they glorified police violence.
Whitehead, the Loyola professor, says she’s been revisiting shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” which featured no major characters of color, with more critical eyes.
“You look at this and think, ‘Where are the Black characters on this show?'” she says. “How has this been OK?”
This revisionist thinking has even extended to the names of musical acts. Country music trios Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks both changed their names this month.
Yes, things are changing. But will it last?
That depends on who you ask. But cultural observers are cautiously optimistic.
Asked why pop culture seems to be becoming more racially enlightened in recent weeks, Wes Jackson has a simple answer: money.
The Emerson College professor says business executives looked at the sheer breadth and diversity of the George Floyd protesters and realized there was money to be made.
“Someone pulled out a spreadsheet and said, ‘We better get on the other side of this,'” he says.
As educators, Jackson and Willmott, the Kansas professor, both say they have another reason to be hopeful: their White students, who appreciate Black culture and don’t tolerate racism in their entertainment.
“These are White kids coming in here, progressive and engaged,” Jackson says. “These are people who grew up on Obama and Beyoncé and Jay-Z. They’re like, ‘Yeah, of course Black lives matter — when did they not?'”
Some scholars say they sense a seismic cultural shift regarding pop-culture portrayals of people of color. But others caution it’s too soon to say whether this is more than just a fleeting moment of media wokeness.
Wanzo sees the present moment as just one in a series of historical moments in which activism has spurred people to examine African-American art and literature that addresses oppression.
“There has never been a moment, nor can I imagine there will ever be … when everyone in the country ‘wakes up’ to racism,” she adds. “The war against antiblackness has lasted for centuries, and it is a slow chipping away.”
“Right now, cultural critics and Black figures are en vogue. Everyone wants to get the Black perspective and carry a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign. But we will see if people are still listening when the buildings stop burning.”
Some observers say that real, lasting change in terms of race and representation in pop culture will only happen when the entertainment industry hires more people of color as writers, producers, directors and showrunners.
“Due to Hollywood’s immense influence over politics and culture, all of the racism, discrimination and glass ceilings Black people in Hollywood experience on a regular basis have direct implications on Black lives everywhere,” it says.
“…this gives us less control over our narratives (and) continues the legacy of white supremacy’s influence over our stories.”
The reckoning is here.
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