Social Issues Inform Art--And Us
  • Friday, Jun. 4, 2021
Ethan Hawke (photo by Michael Buckner)

The Cannes Lions Preview in this edition of SHOOT canvasses jurors who reflect on how the pandemic and social justice issues that have come to the fore over the past year-plus might inform their approach to judging the awards competition. In the same vein, this week’s installment of our The Road To Emmy Series shows how the influence of events over the past year affected several TV shows directly and indirectly in terms of storytelling.

Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke, showrunner and star of The Good Lord Bird (Showtime) miniseries, said that the story of the Harper’s Ferry raid led by abolitionist John Brown in 1859--told from the perspective of a teenager freed from slavery,--took on a special resonance in light of current racial unrest, the murder of George Floyd, and the momentum generated for Black Lives Matter. “You can’t touch on any serious subject without bumping into this country’s relationship to race and how destructive it can be,” observed Hawke, explaining that he “felt the call to make some art about it.”

Similarly race relations proved to be a compelling force in this latest Emmy-eligible season of This Is Us (NBC). Director/EP Ken Olin, a three-time Best Drama Series Emmy nominee for This Is Us, related that the show took an unprecedented turn with the killing of Floyd.

Series creator Dan Fogelberg and the writers, said Olin, “felt a responsibility to integrate what was happening in the world with our storytelling.” As a result, continued Olin, “you could see our characters changing in some ways as they confront these events. In other ways, you could see characters looking at themselves through a new prism. This was the first time in five years that a season had to address a changing landscape that was very immediate, very current. Before that, this show wasn’t particularly topical. It was more about how the past informs the present. What’s happening politically, the health of the country, were not part of the original tone of the show. 

“To the credit of Dan and the writers,” continued Olin, “they took all that on within the show’s vocabulary, particularly in terms of Randal’s character (Sterling K. Brown), and the dynamic of a Black child being adopted by a white family. We delved into aspects of racism but in terms that are meaningful to the show. That’s been really extraordinary, very challenging in a good way for everybody.” 

Robert Goldrich is an editor for SHOOTonline.

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