The “What if history were different?” trope has been very popular in recent years, but usually to imagine a worse future — as in “The Plot Against America” and “The Man in the High Castle.”
But in “Hollywood,” Ryan Murphy’s latest series for Netflix, the rethinking of Tinseltown’s history focuses not on the aftermath of a war or an election, but on the ability of actors, writers, directors and interim studio heads to push the envelope on representation and diversity — both on camera and behind it.
Murphy’s characters usually possess unflinching ambition enabling success against social odds: self-obsessed doctors (“Nip/Tuck”), hypermotivated high school singers (“Glee”), underground ballroom competitors (“Pose”) and a power-hungry aspiring politician (“The Politician”). The underlying message: If you’re determined to do it, and convinced that your story matters, you’ll get there. You might have to trample someone on the way, or commit a crime or two, but hey, the end justifies the means.
The characters in “Hollywood” are no exception.
Each sails into the story with an air of entitlement that overcompensates for the challenges they must face.
There’s a half-Asian director who is moving up in his career because he passes for white, trying to make sure that nonstereotypical Asian stories get told by Asian actors. There’s an ambitious black actress, who knows she’s talented and seeks roles beyond maids and slaves. And there’s a black, gay writer who knows he can make it even as he prostitutes himself at a gas station to make some extra cash.
In Murphy’s late-1940s version of Hollywood, the conversations about stereotyping and segregation easily inspire audiences to draw parallels to contemporary inclusion discourse. (Actors with physical disabilities will have to wait for another project to champion inclusion for them.)
Conversations about race and discrimination acknowledge that people who can “pass” for white may benefit from white privilege and therefore don’t experience the same discrimination as people who can’t pass. But because they can “pass,” they may be able to take advantage of that by advancing diversity projects.
Gay actors and producers struggle with their sexuality but come to champion personal stories that reflect their experiences.
The cast of characters is studded with versions of Hollywood powerhouses who actually existed: a closeted gay actor who takes the stage name “Rock Hudson,” verbally abusive agent Henry Willson (played by Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory”); actresses Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel and Tallulah Bankhead; and musical composer and songwriter Cole Porter.
Those and other real-life figures will send you running to Google to find out the real story.
Hattie McDaniel (played by Queen Latifah), the first black person to win an acting Oscar (1940, best supporting actress for “Gone With the Wind”), warns aspiring black actress Camille (Laura Harrier) what to expect from the world, but not to accept it. The display of sisterhood and support in confronting systemic racism bolsters the strength of the character and the emotion of the moment.
In another storyline, the wife of a studio executive, Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone), has been overlooked by Hollywood for being “too ethnic” — which, she explains, means “too Jewish”).
The next gen in “Hollywood” sweeps old Hollywood into a more modern age, liberating the older industry folks into self-actualization.
Symbiotically, the studio executives use their positions to elevate the new and diverse voices and give them the chance to achieve their ambitions. It’s like someone stood in hero pose (say, Lupone’s character, a decision-maker who takes a risk), cape flying behind her in the wind as she converts her own experience of being discriminated against into powerful action, shouting “Avengers of the social justice agenda in Hollywood, assemble!”
Representation in Hollywood — or at least in “Hollywood” — has expanded, and both the town, and the industry that powers it, are more diverse, more inclusive. And they all live happily and inclusively ever after.
But back in the real world, we didn’t. The issues of Murphy’s fictional “Hollywood” have moved forward — there’s more diversity than there used to be, but it’s not 70 years worth of progress.
So what if, back in the late 1940s, Hollywood had prioritized diversity, with stories about and created by women, people of color and LGBTQ-identifying people? What if #OscarsSoWhite had swept Hollywood in 1948 instead of in 2015? What kind of world might we be living in now?
The messages are clear: Be yourself. Be unapologetic. And lift up other people. Ambition can be socially destructive, but it can also push against accepted boundaries, widening our shared space to shape a more socially just society through representation. Seeing yourself on-screen gives you hope that your own story has value. And start now, because it takes time to achieve, but even more time if you delay beginning it.