In “Traveling the Equator,” which chronicled his steamship voyage around the world, Mark Twain noted, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Arguably, we have never lived in stranger times and it is stunning to see how many accept pure fiction as fact. In this difficult, dangerous, and disorienting era, we must think creatively about the possibilities for change – and have the courage to implement them.
We have done so before. European civilization produced the extraordinary Renaissance following the Black Plague that wiped out a third of the European continent, killing some 25 million people during the Dark Ages. Like today, instability was fueled by what currently is called “fake news” and Europe’s rebirth was triggered by a resurgent focus on classical learning, art, and science. It produced the invention of paper, printing, the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, the discovery of new continents, the growth of commerce and some of the most breathtaking art ever created. In the last century, the tragedies of World War II sparked the building of today’s international system and delivered to America its “Greatest Generation” that contributed to one of the most productive periods of creativity and prosperity in the country’s history.
More recently in the United States, art enticed people to evaluate their society and implement dramatic, systemic change. For instance, during the Vietnam War and the societal conflict of the 1960s, we saw some of the most meaningful films of all time emerge — from “The Deer Hunter” to “Easy Rider” to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” They grabbed our attention and fueled our emotions and got us to look in the mirror.
Today, our international system is failing. Inequality is growing, with the world’s eight richest men owning more wealth than the bottom 4 billion people. According to Freedom House, 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with fewer democracies today than a quarter century ago. Across the globe, populist leaders seek elimination of checks and balances through attacks on the judiciary and the media and the demonization of perceived foes, usually minorities. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to spike, having already infected more than 15 million people and killed over half a million. We are now seeing communities from Spain to Australia resume lockdowns as we brace for continuing surges and a possible more deadly second wave of the virus, while America looks on.
On top of the pandemic, we have seen racism once again rear its ugly head stoked by the senseless killing of George Floyd in plain sight, captured on video and streamed across social media around the world. Like the Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who triggered the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire in frustration over economic and racial inequality, the brutal death of an unarmed black man has set off global protests around the failure to provide equal rights and dignity to minorities. It has served as a rallying cry for all regardless of their nationality, age gender or race — to protest, discuss and hopefully spark society’s rebalance.
While many of the great works produced in the 1960s were panned by some as the voice of the counterculture, in fact, they were reflective of the conscience of the masses. It was the arts that aligned with our purpose and spawned change. It can again. The studios and streaming networks should see this as an opportunity to produce drama that has something meaningful to say.
But where are the films and television dramas that reflect these issues, our anger and frustration? We’ve never had more content to watch and so much time to view it — but few of the stories reflect society’s current concerns and define these troubled times. They need to spark a clarion for change.
It is time for another renaissance which can help rebuild our global institutions to address these challenges and coalesce around a common good. And while film and the arts alone will not solve our current woes, they undoubtedly have an important part to play.
We are calling on the industry to produce drama that entertains but also has a purpose. It is also our hope that others from the political and arts communities will also recognize the opportunity and take up the challenge.
The two of us come at this with a common view even though we hail from markedly different walks of life. One of us spent her entire career as a national security advisor in U.S. politics, where the facts were the most valuable asset. The other worked for four decades creating film and television drama — often based on fiction — but always with purpose at its core. That is what has drawn us together – an alignment around truth and principles and an objective to bring it to the big, and small, screen.
While we may represent the real — and the not-so-real — worlds, we believe that the two are interconnected. History has repeatedly proven that point.
We need to embrace a bit more of Mr. Twain’s definition of fiction and “stick to possibilities” and not be subjected to truth which sadly today has been hijacked for the self-aggrandizement of the privileged few.
Nancy Soderberg served as a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and as Deputy National Security Advisor to President Clinton. Stewart Mackinnon is president of Circle Pictures and developer of Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle.” Both are part of the Portent Project, a ‘what if’ drama series where a fictional president initiates a war in order to secure a second term.
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