It’s been over a year since Hollywood released on Netflix, and I still remember beginning the show with a sense of uneasiness. I always feel this way when I am watching period pieces because they’ve always seemed one-toned and whitewashed. For a while now, I’ve been very wary about the way that history is being represented in pop culture.
Coming from the Gulf, I am sensitive to these things because I have seen how history can be warped by others. Not much has been documented (and made public) by locals about our history, so the world sees the British documentaries with their commentary. Those kinds of images stick with you until you cannot imagine another alternative, to men in the desert swatting away flies with no woman in sight.
That’s why I feel so strongly about the way that history is presented on screen. Netflix’s Hollywood is set in the 1940s, post-World War II. Period pieces suffer from a common problem. They are so white. Even the most popular period pieces, like Little Women, Atonement, The Notebook, and of course The Great Gatsby, have an almost entirely white cast. What’s that about?
A popular period drama director, Julian Fellowes, defended the lack of diversity with the claim that “you can’t make something untruthful.” It’s not difficult to see how dangerous this way of thinking is. If the media make it out that people of color were only recently ‘introduced’ to the main stage of society, then they’re deliberately negating all their contributions. Not just that, but for decades, period dramas have been butchering history to make it fit their ideas of romance.
Fortunately, there have been movements to ‘unwhitewash’ period pieces and tell more layered stories. That’s where Ryan Murphy’s Netflix mini-series Hollywood comes in, with its re-invention of a true story of stardom and success.
The show begins with a relatively simple premise: a WWII veteran, Jack (David Corenswet), is trying his hand at making it onto the big screen. But he soon realizes it takes more than passion when he struggles to even be cast as an extra despite his angelic looks. Accepting a job as a gas attendant, he learns to resort to other means to make it past the iron gates of the Hollywood studios. Pimped out by his manager, he ‘services’ female customers to make ends meet and wait for his big break. Lucky for him, the gas station is full of young, attractive guys dreaming of becoming stars.
Cue the montage of women rolling up to the gas stations and asked to be “taken to dreamland” and Jack hopping in to sleep with them. Preppy music plays in the background and I am left a little disoriented. A hollow feeling in my stomach, I can’t put a finger on why I feel this way. There is, I suppose, a kind of delight in the way that the women are expressing their sexual appetite but it is completely overshadowed by the darkness of these men’s dreams being exploited.
Still, Hollywood plays it off lightly. I understand its intent, that there is sometimes no way to break into the industry. The show makes a big point of having the actors literally sell themselves in order to pay the ‘price’ of their dream, which I hold no judgment about. Yet, this part of the plot is left behind really quickly and becomes of little significance in the following episodes.
In that same gas station, a new hire, Archie (Jeremy Pope), is an aspiring screenplay writer with a script that has been picked up by producers. Now every actor and actress in L.A. wants a piece, but there’s a catch. Archie can’t take ownership of his work, let alone be involved in its production because he’s Black.
What’s more, the producers have written his film off as a dud either way. Mainly because the new film director (Darren Criss) wants to cast Camille (Laura Harrier), a Black actress, in the lead role which Archie had written in reference to a blonde actress, Peg.
There is an inherent commentary that is woven into this decision, which I thought was really important. Are actresses interchangeable, regardless of their background? Does the role have to be retrofitted to Camille? Archie, the script’s author seems to think so, and is a little dubious about Camille’s ability to relate to the role. But in the end, the director gave us his answer to that question as he merely changed the name of the character and kept the rest the same.
As the film starts to get made, to our surprise, there are still many obstacles ahead. A feeling of dread starts to envelop me, as the audience, because I fear that everything these actors, the writer, and the director have worked for will not be able to succeed in the face of the fierce discrimination they meet at every corner. Hollywood navigates these sensitively, not shying away from exposing the deep-seated homophobia that doubles against some of the characters.
And my predictions ring true, to some extent. White supremacist groups target the cast of their film, Meg, and even after they get a chance to wrap up filming, their film reel is burned to a crisp. Yet, somehow, by the finale, they are all granted a second chance when a copy of the film is found and it is released to wide public acclaim. Multiple cast members, including Jack, Camille, and Archie receive Oscar nominations.
While I was delighted by how it all turned out, as I was starting to really root for the characters, all of this seemed too fast. I could feel that the show was trying to wrap itself up. I could let it slide until the abusive, predatory agent, Henry, gets a sort of redeeming moment where he apologizes before dying. To me, the ending, after such a strong start and promising climax, was disappointing.
I understand what Hollywood and its Netflix producers were going for, a subversion of history. I am all for that. It’s an exploration of what could have been if it were not for the systematic, oppressive measures that barred the fictional movie, Meg, from ever hitting the big screen, at least for a while.
Yet, what saves Hollywood for me, is that they managed to keep it mostly authentic to the reality of the times. It is still far from a fantasy. Underneath its pleasing 40’s aesthetic, handsome leads, and golden dream of success, there is so much to lose for each character. It is not ideal, the producers manage to keep the story grounded in reality as the characters still face troubles to reach their dreams and often have to compromise.
How I see it is that Hollywood in the ’40s, and even now sometimes, has the door closed in the faces of non-white actors trying to play roles in movies that are not about race. But here, the door is cracked the tiniest bit open to imagine what the industry could be. The show has aged well and continues to remain a worthwhile one to catch up on while we relax after the socially distanced or online Pride parades.
Hollywood has a strong cast, large ambitions, and succeeded at changing the way we see the industry and the stories that industry creates. It’s an eye-opener to the opportunities created, the traps of the system, and the nuances in between – a unique take on a giant that’s normally difficult to access. And, most importantly, it’s a very promising start towards more diverse period dramas that we need this Pride Month.
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