Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: In Hollywood, a Decade of Racial Progress But at a Glacial Pace

Published Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at 6:51 am

The Hollywood Reporter columnist reviews the movement toward inclusion in the film and TV industry as he takes “tongs and a fossil brush” to The Hollywood Reporter’s poll showing the industry’s most-loved movies of the decade.

We have come to the end of another exhausting year and the end of another transformative decade. These are traditional milestones for self-reflection, just like on Real Housewives reunion shows. And, like Real Housewives, we are both self-congratulatory and accusatory. We praise ourselves for our perceived personal growth and demand apologies from those who have not lived up to our expectations. This kind of self-examination is crucial for our society to determine what progress we’ve made toward becoming who we want to be as well as decide what steps we will take to help us achieve that goal. One of the best ways to see ourselves clearly is in the black mirror of our most popular movies and TV shows.

The Hollywood Reporter recently polled industry professionals about their favorite movies and TV shows of the past decade and tasked me with sifting through the archeological detritus with tongs and a fossil brush to determine what, if anything, the results tells us about the progress of diversity in the film and TV business and society at large. First, the movie list. What immediately jumps out is that the first three movies feature a predominantly African American cast and filmmakers. That’s cool. But is it a harbinger of the sweeping winds of social change or merely a lone cyclist drafting behind the semi-truck of the Obama Mirage? The Obama Mirage is the belief that all social injustices for people of color have been addressed because we elected a black president, proof that there is no racism in America. However, electing Trump has pretty much acid-washed that illusion. The Obama semi has taken the off-ramp and we’re left all alone pedaling our hearts out to catch up with the pack of white cyclists. In other words, the three movies at the top of the list deserve to be there, but are they anything more than a cosmetic makeover?

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Hollywood’s 20 Favorite Films of the Decade (Poll)

Black Panther and Get Out show a definite sea change from the previous conventional wisdom about black-centric films brought to us by the same people who thought Julia Roberts should play Harriet Tubman. Black Panther proved that a black superhero movie, set in a black culture, directed and written by black filmmakers, could earn more than $1 billion. Get Out proved that a horror film that includes subtle but searing social commentary, made by black filmmakers, could be critically and financially successful. Though expertly written, directed and acted, 12 Years a Slave is more conventional in that it explores the safe theme of slavery, which comments on the past and therefore is easy for most people to condemn. It’s the racism going on now that’s harder to confront, admit to and change.

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