“All in the Family.” “black-ish.” The West Wing.” “In Living Color.” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” “The Color Purple.” “Schindler’s List.” “The China Syndrome. “Get Out.”
What these and other impactful television shows and films have in common is that they touch upon deep and important issues in our society, personally, politically and culturally — topics like racial discrimination, environmentalism, LGBT rights, disability issues, sexual harassment and teen suicide.
No matter the theme, it all starts with the script–and the skill and empathy of screen and television writers who open our eyes to personal and universal challenges, often moving us to take action.
In a special event put on in Beverly Hills last week by the Writers Guild of America West in partnership with American Cinematheque and sponsor Final Draft, “Groundbreakers: Writers Who Moved Hearts and Minds,” the work of a diverse group of such writers was spotlighted.
“Storytelling is a powerful tool to influence social change. These are some of the people who have moved the needle,” said Ben Mankiewicz, host of Turner Classic Movies, who introduced and moderated two separate panels of writers.
They included Diane English (“Murphy Brown”), Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich,” “Confirmation”), Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise,” “Nashville”), George Lopez (“George Lopez”), Tom Musca (“Stand and Deliver”), Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia,” “Homeland”), David Pollock (“M*A*S*H,” “All in the Family”), Scott Silveri (“Speechless”), Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The West Wing”), Lena Waithe (“Master of None”) and Brian Yorkey (“13 Reasons Why.”)
With the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal top of mind, the discussion immediately focused on sexual harassment.
“I thought we had already covered this, between Anita Hill and the invention of the term ‘sexual harassment.’ I was naïve,” said Khouri, who noted that she isn’t interested at this time in writing about the subject. “I had fun writing ‘Thelma & Louise,’ and I hope someone tackles sexual harassment in a way that is transformative and powerful.”
“Sexism and racism are interwoven into our lives. It’s the monster under the bed,” Waithe said. “We aren’t confronting it enough because it’s uncomfortable. This is something that requires more of our male allies, men who aren’t assholes, calling others out on it. There will be stories that come out of this.”
“I’ve been doing standup for 38 years and I’ve never seen sexism and racism like we have now,” said Lopez. “Discussions about a wall being built between the U.S. and Mexico was the toughest for me, and the feeling that we [Mexican-Americans] are not part of America.”
Nyswaner said there’s been great progress since 1993’s “Philadelphia,” for which Tom Hanks won an Oscar for portraying a man with HIV. “I became an LGBT activist in the 1970s, and I never could’ve imagined then that gay people could marry – even 10 years ago. In the 1980s and early 90s, AIDS was a death notice. But we said let’s make a movie about it, not a liberal art movie but a mainstream film to reach as many people as possible.”
With Silveri’s show “Speechless” that centers around a family whose son has cerebral palsy, he said he feels a lot of pressure to get it right. “It keeps us on our toes, but I hope it’s entertaining,” he said. “I did my homework and I’m proud to bring to light an underexposed minority. We are the first show that covers this– and it’s like the Wild West.”
Waithe, who recently became the first black woman to win an Emmy award for writing for a comedy series, specifically a coming out episode based upon her own experiences, said she hears a lot of coming out stories from people she meets. “I never thought I would tell my own story, but I guess society was longing for it. They needed to see a black queer woman. But just because my story was on TV doesn’t make anyone else’s stories any less valid.”
“I’ve cried with strangers who had friends and family members who died of AIDS,” Nyswaner added. “It’s a privilege, and I find it sacred.”
“Making art truthful is a revolutionary act, so if a white kid sees themselves in me, that’s when art is doing its job,” said Waithe, who also mentioned that “Murphy Brown” spoke to her as a kid growing up in Southside Chicago.
“We used to get letters,” English remarked about the “Murphy Brown” era. “People really thought about what they wrote. Now, people can be so hateful. But I also get people asking me to bring her back.”
“The atmosphere is different. You have to tune out the noise. There’s so much stuff that I hate but I don’t write to the person about it,” Khouri noted. “You think about responding, but it’s always a mistake. There is so much ‘okay to hateness’ out there. I am so enraged that stuff we thought was taken care of is not. It’s the shock of what’s happening,” she said, alluding to multiple actions of the Trump administration.
Lopez jumped in with a story about playing golf with Donald Trump in 2007– and claimed the man who now inhabits the White House cheated on the course. He also told a joke about watching Trump eat a hot dog afterwards.
Taking the subject deeper into politics, Nyswaner talked about working on “Homeland.” “We try to write accurately and truthfully. When you’re engaged, it still doesn’t relieve you of the horror of what’s going on in Washington, but there are a lot of smart people in DC,” he said.
“Our subversive act is civility,” Silveri remarked. “Just being fair is a somewhat radical act, as is being kind and open-minded.”
Grant discussed the genesis of her projects. “It always starts with a character, an underdog, going against entrenched powers and the status quo,” she said. “For ‘Confirmation,’ no one saw what Anita Hill went through and what it took for her to testify against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Now we have the language to talk about it. What’s encouraging now is that you don’t hear a lot of people calling women liars [when they reveal stories of sexual harassment]. Maybe now there’s a different story.”
“We always want to laugh. On ‘M*A*S*H,’ we didn’t start out to make statements. The primary task was to make sense and be funny. You take a theme as a whole and let the audience put it together,” Pollock said.
Mankiewicz asked Singer about the role of journalism in his films, which include the upcoming feature about the Pentagon Papers, “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as the newspaper’s editor and owner, respectively.
“It’s important to recognize that journalism can expose corruption and it’s important to be reminded of the First Amendment,” he said, and then segued into talking about Weinstein. “I think the press is missing the point – the culture. The culture that enabled people to admit, ‘We all knew about it and did nothing.’”
“As long as there are structures of power that continue to enable it, abuse is not going away,” said Yorkey, whose “13 Reasons Why” Netflix series was highly praised but elicited some criticism for glamorizing teen suicide. “A big part of what broke her [the lead character who kills herself] was rape culture. After the election, we said we have to do this show. There is outrage fatigue, but we need to keep people talking.”
“The key to any story is specificity,” Grant said, and used the 2004 film “Maria Full of Grace” as an example of how it is not just about the larger topic of immigration but about one person and her humanness. “The drift toward binary thinking is dangerous. Movies can be transformative and having some joy together watching them is a profound experience.”