The Danger In Hollywood's Continued Humanization Of White Supremacists

June 28th 2019

Unless you’ve totally checked out of what’s been going in Hollywood, it has been hard not to notice what is a disturbing trend. There have been multiple projects that are in the works that seem to either sympathize with white supremacists or present them in a non-threatening nature. 

Although these projects may seem harmless to some, they are extremely dangerous and participate in violent rhetoric that continues to perpetuate white supremacy. 

Two projects in particular have gained lots of attention over the past month. Burden, a film that premiered back in January 2018 at Sundance, is set to be released in theaters on November 2019--just in time for awards season. A literal Ku Klux Klan redemption tale, it is the true story of a man who decided to leave the terrorist organization and was later taken in by a Black church while he was on the run from other Klan members. Like most of these films, this one has a starry ensemble cast that features Forest Whitaker, Mudbound’s Garret Hedlund and even Grammy-winning R&B singer Usher.

Last week, this trend continued in what just might be the most disturbing of these films and projects that have been put into development. Shameless producer John Wells signed a huge deal with Warner Bros., putting 13 shows in the works. Chief among them? You guessed it -- a white supremacist sympathy tale! According to The Hollywood ReporterHeart of Lion, based on a Finnish film “revolves around a white nationalist who falls in love with a woman who has a Black son and has to confront his own past, his family and beliefs in a rapidly changing America in the age of Trump.” So, now we are legitimately putting Black children in the crossfire for the sake of a white supremacist's redemption story? 

Earlier this year,  Best of Enemiesbombed at the Best which starred Taraji P. Henson as iconic civil rights activist Ann Atwater and Sam Rockwell as the Grand Wizard of the KKK. Instead of focusing on Atwater, Best of Enemies flattened her character in order to make space for the KKK member's character to develop and garner audience sympathy. And though last year’s Oscar-winning film, BlacKkKlansman, was not a KKK redemption tale, it did present members as a bumbling group of fools with sometimes interspersed moments of humor, as opposed to lethal white supremacists.  

Last year’s Where Hands Touchdirected by Amma Asante, starred Amandla Stenberg as a biracial girl in Germany who falls in love with a young Nazi. Though the film was released in late 2018 to mostly mixed-to-negative reviews, it didn’t receive much attention until the following January when it was released on demand. As people discovered the film, memes were created and fresh criticism was unleashed, showing that Black audiences and other moviegoers don't want to see white supremacist redemption stories, no matter who is starring in them.

But Hollywood isn't getting the message. The short film Skin--which depicts Neo-Nazis beating a Black man and referring to him as racial slurs--just won the 2019 Oscar for Best Short Film. The same director now has made a feature film of the same name, though the feature chronicles the story of a real-life man who co-founded one of the biggest white power/skinhead organizations in America who decides to get his many tattoos associated with the organization removed after he becomes a father and decides to stop being racist. The feature premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 and will be released this July, backed by the same production outfit that brought us Moonlight, A24. 

These are only the most recent examples. In 2017, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced their new HBO series, Confederate, which, according to its official description, "takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”  After the announcement, the internet erupted in a fury. How could HBO make a series that literally would show what would happen if slavery is a legal, modern institution? The swift backlash has led the series to “not be in active development right now,” and though Benioff, Weiss and the network won’t state this directly, it will hopefully never see the light of day. If Hollywood would only listen to Black people when we repeatedly say what we don't want to see, they could save themselves a headache and some coins.

But more important than studios saving themselves from getting dragged to hell for their insistence on financing, producing and distributing these white supremacist fairy tales, is what's driving Black anger behind these kinds of projects. The greatest example of the real-life harm these movies cause to Black people directly is the infamous 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. That stunning beacon of racism presents the Klan as heroes against violent, rapist "Black" men (white men in blackface) who were out to get white women. Thanks to President Woodrow Wilson, it was the first film to be screened at the White House. This celebration of these violent images of Black men and triumphant images of the KKK from the seat of American power, the White House, directly led to the resurgence of the Klan. Over 100 years later, the KKK is still active, and its history of terror, lynchings and other violence against Black people is undeniable.

While this may be more overt praise for white supremacy than some of the more recent projects, that doesn't mean that less overt images are less dangerous. This humanization of white supremacists is perilous and whether directly or indirectly, it underscores the terrible notion that white supremacy and white supremacists are not inherently bad, evil or racist. In the case of movies like Best of EnemiesBurden and Skin, producers and filmmakers seem to believe that if a project is inspired by or based on a real-life subject then it is a story that needs to be told. You can scroll through your Instagram feed and see that just because something happened doesn’t mean that it needs to be made into a movie. And, as we've seen with movies like Green Book, how a movie is framed and who gets to tell that story changes everything. 

Then, there is the danger of putting Black creatives in the position to take on projects like this in various capacities, whether it be as a staff writer or actor. During the fallout from Green Book--where everything was criticized, from the misleading title of the movie to the flattening of Dr. Donald Shirley's story in favor of his white racist chauffeur, to Dr. Shirley's brother exclusively telling Shadow And Act that the movie was "a symphony of lies," about Dr. Shirley being friends with the chauffeur--its white writer and director and producer Peter Farrelly threw his only Black executive producer Octavia Spencer and his Black lead Mahershala Ali under the bus, citing them as approving of the main issues being criticized. While they all went home with Oscars for this movie in 2019, no Black awards shows honored the film or its Black participants with any awards once the Shirley family's statements about how the movie's portrayal of their loved one hurt them hit the news.

During the Confederate development, Black husband and wife producer duo Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman also took major heat for being attached as executive producers, alongside Benioff and Weiss. But even outside of folks like the Spellmans, who would be in the top tier among the crew of a show, what about the staff writers, writing assistants and production assistants that may have to work on projects and films like this to build their careers? What about the young and up-and-coming actors trying to get their big break who will be testing for the role of the young Black child who grows up with a white supremacist when Heart of Lion inevitably comes to theaters? 

The FBI says that for the third year in a row, hate crimes have increased in the United States. Three out of five of these hate crimes were motivated by race and ethnicity. The current United States president is enacting policies that continue to embolden white supremacists and has virtually refused to denounce an act of white supremacist violence that took place in 2017. As Hollywood continues to humanize white supremacists and show their perspectives, this unchecked, hateful ideology continues to be legitimized, endangering all of us.

White supremacy, including acts of racial discrimination and terror, should not be veiled in an effort to disguise what it actually is: terrorism. There is no reason that Hollywood should be bringing us narratives focused on anything but showing white supremacists and white supremacy for exactly what they are.

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Photos: DirecTV, 101 Films, A24 

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