In “The Case for Reparations,” the long-brewing cover story of the June issue of the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a painstaking argument that the gap in wealth, achievement, and a wide range of health and wellbeing outcomes between black and white Americans is the result of deliberate policy decisions. Those decisions, he says, lead to an inevitable conclusion: “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future,” Coates writes. “More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”
A vehicle for such a conversation, Coates suggests, might be H.R. 40, introduced in every convening of Congress for the previous quarter century by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.).The bill does not even demand a specific remedy. It simply lays out a procedure “to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
Americans “are not interested,” in Conyers’s bill, Coates writes, perhaps understating the case. Govtrack, a legislative tracking site, estimates that H.R. 40 has a three percent chance of departing from committee, and a one percent chance of being passed seems almost comical in its optimism. And if, in some fantastical future, H.R. 40 were to become law, I blanch to think about the brutal fights over how such a study would be set up, conducted, and inevitably investigated, much less the battle — or worse, lack thereof — over its recommendations, which could easily be allowed to slip beneath the waters of public policy.
But reading “The Case for Reparations,” I found myself thinking about another question that haunts Coates’s history. How might culture have to change in order to make the sort of reckoning he calls for possible? And what sorts of cultural forces might it take to make these enormous shifts?
“The Case for Reparations” is deeply focused on economic injuries and recompenses. But in imagining solutions, the piece repeatedly returns to the importance of images and cultural narratives. “A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us,” Coates writes. He imagines changes to traditions both wide-spread and particular: “Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling ‘patriotism’ while waving a Confederate flag.”
Looking to another country that struggled with questions of reparations, Coates notes that “Germany’s unwillingness to squarely face its history went beyond polls. Movies that suggested a societal responsibility for the Holocaust beyond Hitler were banned.”
Culture matters, whether it comes in the form of fine art images that become an indelible part of our national self-image, holiday observances, or popular movies and television that can disrupt established narratives. But it has become much harder for a single piece of culture to disrupt and rearrange the American imagination. And the very fragmentation of mass culture that has helped African-American creators and artists to get their visions into production also means that those visions have less reach and less power to alter the course of our sense of ourselves as Americans than they might have in years past.
It has become common to discuss the extent to which the attention of American audiences has shattered, for good and for ill. But it is still staggering to look back at the extent to which it was possible for cultural artifacts about race and racial history, now often treated as niche subjects, to capture enormous audiences. It is difficult to quantify exactly how many people saw the film adaptation of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” his filmed and fictionalized sympathetic history of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. But film historian Melvyn Stokes, who notes that estimates of the movie’s gross have ranged from $5 million to $60 million, points out that no matter the box office or number of tickets sold, that “‘The Birth of a Nation’ was the first American-made film to be seen by a heterogeneous (if largely white) national audience.” They cheered it in both North and South, despite its often grotesque depictions of black men and its treatment of Klan violence as a noble restoration of order and honor to the Reconstruction South.
When Margaret Mitchell wrote “Gone With The Wind,” her mossy fantasy of the antebellum South, Civil War and Reconstruction in 1936, the book sold about a million copies by the year’s end. The novel, with its devoted black servants and psychologically complex former slave-owners was such a phenomenon that when the film version was slated for release in 1939, Gallup actually polled respondents on their likelihood of seeing it, and on their feelings about the casting of Vivien Leigh in the lead role. Extrapolating from the poll results, the New Yorker suggested that 56.5 million Americans intended to see the movie, out of a population of roughly 132 million.The release of the film was literally a state event: the Georgia governor declared a state holiday, and the Atlanta mayor outdid him by establishing a three-day-long festival to celebrate “Gone With The Wind.”
The admissions may not have quite lived up to the Gallup poll numbers, but they were significant. The movie had two initial theatrical runs, bringing in $21 million in ticket sales. At $1.10 per ticket, more than 14 percent of Americans made it to “Gone With The Wind” in that time. The movie returned to theaters in 1998. Mitchell’s novel remains a perennial favorite: For Americans overall, it is the country’s second-favorite book after the Bible, though African-American readers put “Moby Dick” in that spot.
It is not only racist accounts of American history that once had the capacity to reach enormous swaths of the population. When Alex Haley published “Roots,” a multi-generational account of a black family who arrived in America via the horrors of the Middle Passage, in 1976, the book sold 1.5 million copies in seven months. When ABC adapted “Roots” as a mini-series the following year, 36.4 million households tuned in for the finale, still one of the most-watched television broadcasts in U.S. history. (The country itself was approaching 227 million in population.)
“Roots” both benefited from and helped advance a broader understanding of African-American history. But the success of a new narrative that treated slavery as a horror and placed black Americans at the center of its story-telling, rather than presenting them as accessories to white protagonists, did not mean the end of audiences’ fondness for old stories. Late in 1976, as Haley’s book was making its mark on American readers, almost 34 million households watched a two-part rebroadcast of “Gone With The Wind” on NBC.
When we compare numbers like these to the market penetration of culture that concerns itself with race, it is clear that we live in shrunken times. “Fruitvale Station,” the excellent account of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant by the first-time director Ryan Coogler, made $16.1 million at the box office last year. With an average movie ticket price of $8.13, that comes to 1.98 million tickets. Just 0.6 percent of the American population of roughly 317 million saw this wonderful movie, which was not just about the untimely death of a black man, but the worth of his life. Grant’s recent and real-life death on a BART platform in Oakland, and the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, could not combine to make “Fruitvale Station” a national media event.
In the same year, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave,” which ultimately won the Academy Award for Best Picture (the first awarded to a film by a black director), brought in $56.7 million at the box office, which means about 7 million tickets purchased at that average price. The reach is a little better. But it still means that just 2.2 percent of Americans saw a movie that was literally marketed as a moral imperative.
Telling audiences that a movie will acquaint them with the real horrors of slavery and white supremacy is apparently not much of a sales pitch. We think we know the truth, that we have performed our duty of witness well enough to give ourselves a break from the savagery of our own history.
Movies that pose white goodness against anti-black bigotry have performed better, but they are still far from mass phenomena. “The Help,” an adaptation of a book about black domestic workers and the young white journalist who is enlightened by them, made $169.7 million in American theaters in 2011: the average price of movie tickets that year means about 21.4 million people saw “The Help,” about 7 percent of the population. “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s hagiography of the late president, made $182.2 million a year later.
Television figures are lower, too. Even Ken Burns’ multi-part documentary, “The Civil War,” which aired on PBS in 1990, reached 38.9 million viewers cumulatively during that first run, much lower numbers per episode than an event like “Roots.”
The collapse of the mass audience is hardly limited to artifacts about race. Phenomena like the 12 million-copy U.S. print run for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” or the runaway successes of the “Twilight” and “Avatar” franchises, still exist, but they are increasingly rare.
In the music industry, Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” was the only record to crack the 2 million sales mark in 2013. Sales figures for “Thriller,” the Michael Jackson record released in 1982 and which became the most popular in history, are disputed, but some who have reviewed the figures think that there were times when Jackson moved a million copies of the album a week.
Americans still watch plenty of television, an average of more than five hours a day in 2013, but the consensus is vanishing there, too. In the 2012-2013 television season, just two programs, crime procedural “NCIS” and “Sunday Night Football” regularly drew more than 20 million viewers. Earlier this year, New York Magazine television reporter Josef Adalian pointed to a 1983 industry report that declared a show with 7.4 million viewers — a figure that would probably be a guaranteed renewal today — a cause for grave concern.
This decline of television — and other cultural juggernauts — can give art that might have been canceled or buried in an earlier era room to flourish. “Networks may need to start figuring out how to survive in a world where niche appeal may be their best option: Better a small, highly devoted fan base than an indifferent audience the same size,” Adalian wrote in March in a column pondering why Fox had renewed a slew of comedies with tiny audiences. Small but dedicated audiences have bolstered franchises like “Veronica Mars,” the television series that came back as a movie, making money both in a small theatrical run and in simultaneous home viewing.
In trying to cultivate those dedicated audiences, first Fox, and now ABC — home to Shonda Rhimes, the most powerful person of color in the television business — have tried to emphasize diversity, particularly in front of the camera. But the number of African-Americans with any sort of creative control or influence in the entertainment industry is vanishingly tiny. In the 2014 Hollywood Writers’ Report, the Writers Guild of America West found that racial and ethnic minorities held just 11 percent of television writing jobs in 2012. People of color write just five percent of movies. In television, the earnings gap between the median salaries for all minority writers and the median figures for white male writers was $21,150. In film, that same gap was $30,000.
The figures are not much better in directing positions. A 2013 analysis by the Directors Guild of America (which recently elected its first African-American president, television director Paris Barclay, who is also gay), found that in the 2012-2013 season of television, minority men directed 14 percent of episodes, while women of color direct just two percent. The situation is similarly grim film. The Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California looked at the 500 top-grossing movies released between 2007 and 2012, and found that of the 565 people credited as directors on those projects, just 5.8 were African-American.
Numbers like these are released every year. I have cited them constantly during my time as a professional critic. But “The Case for Reparations” provides us another way of understanding why these figures are so critically important. Even if the fight to give African-American artists more opportunities to make television, film, music, and books — and to do so with greater autonomy — succeeds, that victory comes with different rewards than might have accompanied it in the past. What are we winning if African-Americans get access to the machinery of cultural production precisely because they can attract niche audiences, and because their industries have given up on the idea that their work, or anyone else’s, might have truly mass appeal?
It is a remarkable thing that Steve McQueen can make “12 Years A Slave,” but that film does not actually counterbalance the role that “Gone With The Wind” occupies in American culture, and the influence it has on American thinking about what slavery meant, and who slave-holders were. On film, Oscar Grant continues to struggle for the respect D.W. Griffith granted to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, in “Birth of a Nation.” The success of Shonda Rhimes shows like “Scandal” is a wonderful thing, but we will not see an opportunity the likes of “Roots” again.
This is not quite the equivalent of turning a neighborhood over to prospective African-American homeowners as its property values crater, one of the dynamics Coates describes in his essay. But the idea that artists of color would gain access to the tools that might help them change our culture just as those tools become less powerful is terrible to contemplate. It may not be too late to advance the dream of reparations. But the swords and plowshares we might have used to fight the cultural battles that would make such a reconciliation possible are not what they once were.