The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MTV and Comedy Central pause to honor George Floyd, but much of Hollywood remains on the sidelines

A demonstrator wearing a mask holds a sign with the message “Black Lives Matter” during a protest in Anaheim, Calif., over the death of George Floyd. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)
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At 5 p.m. on most Mondays, the cable landscape dominated by ViacomCBS is filled with familiar sights: Jim playing pranks on Dwight on “The Office”; the host Rob Dyrdek mocking viral-video wannabes on “Ridiculousness,” actor Tim Allen unsuccessfully trying to rule his roost on “Last Man Standing.”

But viewers tuning in on this Monday were greeted with something different: a black screen with the words “I Can’t Breathe,” flashing in rhythm to the sounds of loud labored breathing.

The piece, one-part tribute, one-part video art, honored George Floyd, the Minnesota man who died at the hands of police, and the national wave of Black Lives Matter protests his death jump-started. It lasted the same amount of time — 8 minutes and 46 seconds — that police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. Ten ViacomCBS cable channels, including Comedy Central, MTV and CMT, carried the message, pre-empting regular programming to do so.

Yet many who monitor Hollywood’s initiatives on race say the event stood out precisely because so few other entertainment brands were doing anything like it. Most film and television companies and even many big movie stars have so far done little more than offer general social-media messages of support. While those statements are welcome, they say, they also find notable the scarcity of Hollywood juggernauts publicly making programming or dollar commitments to issues of racial injustice in the wake of the protests.

“Clearly the major players in Hollywood, whether they’re large companies or divisions of large companies, need to look at themselves in the mirror right now and ask themselves about the degree to which they’re part of the problem or part of the solution,” said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and the force behind a major annual report on diversity in Hollywood, alluding to studio executives and other people in power. The most recent version of that report concluded that while people of color make up 40 percent of America, they were just 27.6 percent of film leads and 15 percent of film directors last year.

“Some celebrities are going out there but I think there’s more that can be done by a lot of people in Hollywood,” said Hunt, pivoting to individual actors. “I understand we’re in a once-in-a-century pandemic and some movie stars may not feel safe to go out and be on the front lines where there isn’t social distancing. But at the same time there is a place for these celebrities to do more, to step up, to play the role they’re meant to play.”

An early contrast appears to be emerging between the music industry and Hollywood when it comes to taking initiative off the protests. The music industry held a “blackout” Tuesday in which many record labels, producers and artists paused work, in a grand if somewhat nebulous gesture. Though some agencies and smaller Hollywood companies signed on to the music pause, as of Monday night only ViacomCBS had committed to join among the major Hollywood studios.

Meanwhile, some of the music world’s biggest stars, including Ariana Grande, have appeared at protests. Grande, who’s had four Billboard No. 1 albums and the biggest streaming week ever for a pop album last year, marched with protesters in Los Angeles last weekend holding a handmade “Black Lives Matter” sign. While a number of well-liked actors such as Michael B. Jordan and Timothée Chalamet have taken to the streets, there’s been no comparable name to appear at rallies on the movie side. A host of prominent music-world figures, including LL Cool J, Nick Cannon and Pussy Riot, have written and released new songs tied to the protests.

No major Hollywood figure has yet announced a project about the protests. Spike Lee, the independent filmmaker, went on CNN to debut a 90-second video he cut that spliced scenes from his “Do The Right Thing” with footage of the death of Floyd and Eric Garner, killed in the custody of New York police in 2014.

On Tuesday, the issue of movie-star passivity was brought home when Emma Watson was broadly criticized on social media for an Instagram post in which she included black boxes and little else. Many Black Lives Matter supporters saw her as engaging in performance without action, noting a lack of speaking out or donations on the part of the “Harry Potter” star.

Experts say the uneven Hollywood response is aggravated by what they see as a historic responsibility.

“What role has Hollywood played in circulating the image of the violent threatening thuggish black male?” asked Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California who follows Hollywood closely. “Throughout history, what image has the American film industry put out? Hollywood is not innocent in a lot of what is transpiring. I think that’s why it has a responsibility not just to make statements but to engage in a long-term commitment to end the circulation of images that fuel these perceptions.

“When you see people devote money and airtime, then you can talk about progress,” he added, noting another area in which he’d like to see initiative.

ViacomCBS has sometimes taken the lead in other ways. On Monday, Comedy Central personality Trevor Noah released an 18-minute video elaborating on the systemic injustice and disenfranchisement of African Americans that led to the unrest.

But even at sister company CBS, efforts were limited to a statement of support for Black Lives Matter posted on its social media accounts. The network’s airwaves went with its normal programming in prime time on Monday. So did the three other broadcast networks.

The “I Can’t Breathe” tribute — it also aired on Paramount Net, Pop, VH1, TV Land and Logo, BET and CBS Sports — came as a result of Chris McCarthy, president of the company’s entertainment and youth group, who said he felt the need for a bigger statement to combat hatred.

“While I am not a person of color and can never fully understand this experience, I am offended by the systemic racism, and want to stand together with our communities of color in the hurt and pain,” he wrote in a memo to staff. “We must all do our part — discrimination against one of us is discrimination against all of us.”

McCarthy has a history of pushing from within: He also orchestrated a going-dark campaign in the wake of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and shepherded a more diversity-minded programming roster at traditionally white-bread CMT.

Boyd said his moves were welcome. But he believed executives like McCarthy needed to think about change not just as a matter of the public good but of financial indebtedness.

“How much money has ViacomCBS made off black culture? And how much of that have they given back?” he said. “This isn’t just about being benevolent.”