Earlier this week, two prominent Black filmmakers took a stand against Georgia’s new, restrictive voting laws by pulling their upcoming project out of the state. Emancipation, a slave drama starring Will Smith and directed by Antoine Fuqua for Apple TV, will no longer be shooting in the Peach State.
“At this moment in time, the Nation is coming to terms with its history and is attempting to eliminate vestiges of institutional racism to achieve true racial justice,” Fuqua and Smith said in a joint statement. “We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that enacts regressive voting laws that are designed to restrict voter access.”
The laws, signed by Republican governor Brian Kemp in the wake of Georgia’s Democratic victories in the presidential and Senate elections, disproportionately restrict voting access for Black and poor voters through things such as limiting the number of ballot drop boxes and narrowing the window to request an absentee ballot. The backlash from Democrats has been fast and furious. President Biden called the new laws “un-American” and “sick,” equating them to “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”
Fuqua and Smith aren’t the only ones in Hollywood who have taken a stand against the laws, but they are an overwhelming minority. With the exception of a few other voices, including Ford vs. Ferrari director James Mangold and actor Mark Hamill, who have vowed not to film in Georgia—one of the biggest production hubs in the country due to generous tax incentives and an abundance of sound stages—for the most part Hollywood has remained mum on the subject. A few conglomerates, such as Comcast (owner of NBCUniversal), AT&T (owner of WarnerMedia), and Viacom have expressed their unhappiness over the legislation but have stopped short of saying they would not film in the state. AT&T said that it was working with members of the Atlanta and Georgia chambers of commerce to support “policies that promote accessible and secure voting while also upholding election integrity and transparency.” (In Atlanta, local business behemoths Coca-Cola and Delta were faster to take strong stands against the laws, though under public pressure and with predictable backlash.)
Other broad-ish efforts have included an open letter published in the New York Times and Washington Post on Wednesday that called out efforts to restrict voting access but did not name Georgia specifically. The letter was signed by companies including Amazon, Netflix and Apple, and individuals such as J.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes and Samuel L. Jackson.
But several weeks into the controversy, neither Disney nor its Marvel division, which are reportedly ramping up to start shooting one of the most high-profile projects of the year in Georgia in July, have made a public statement—and that silence is increasingly deafening. That project would be Black Panther 2, the follow-up to the 2018 blockbuster. Buzz about the film’s shoot increased with the news of Emancipation‘s relocation on Monday. Here is yet another high-profile Hollywood production steeped in racial justice themes and with a virtually all-Black cast, and one with significantly more global awareness.
If any single project could serve as a platform for Hollywood’s condemnation about what’s going on in Georgia, it’s the Marvel tentpole. The original film, directed by Ryan Coogler (he’s also directing the sequel), was considered a revolutionary milestone for using the superhero genre to tell a story about African descent. It was also hugely commercial, grossing $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office.
As of Tuesday afternoon, neither Disney nor Marvel had responded to an email requesting comment for this story. There have also been no reports that there has been any change in production on the film.
Disney’s past responses to controversial Georgia legislation
Interestingly, both companies spoke up in 2016 in reaction to a “religious liberty” bill that then-Georgia governor Nathan Deal was threatening to sign into law. That bill would have allowed officials to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages on the grounds of religious belief, as well as permit religious organizations to fire employees on the same grounds. At the time, Disney said, “Disney and Marvel are inclusive companies, and although we have had great experiences filming in Georgia, we will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law.”
The governor ultimately vetoed the bill.
In 2019, when Georgia passed a law banning abortions after six weeks, Hollywood again was up in arms. Disney didn’t condemn the law immediately, but when Bob Iger, then CEO of Disney, was asked if the company would continue to film in Georgia, he said that it would be “very difficult to do so” if the law was implemented. “I rather doubt we will,” he went on. “I think many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard. Right now we are watching it very carefully.”
In the end, the law was blocked by a federal judge.
The voting rights issue: It’s complicated
This time around, observers attribute Disney’s—and other Hollywood companies’—silence on the Georgia laws to the fact that “it’s complicated,” as one person said. The industry is just barely crawling its way out of COVID-19, which has been devastating to the movie business, particularly for studios such as Disney that depend on theatrical revenue, and Georgia has been a key location spot as things get back up and moving. Furthermore, Hollywood funnels $10 billion annually into the Georgia economy, and its TV shows and films—50 productions are shooting there currently, including Netflix’s Kobra Kai, Fox’s LEGO Masters, and Marvel/Disney’s She Hulk, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development—employ thousands of individuals, many of whom are African American. Would getting rid of those jobs really help things?
That’s been the argument of Democratic activist Stacey Abrams and other prominent members of the Black community, who have been asking Hollywood not to stop doing business with the state but rather to help fight its government by working with lobbyists and other activists on the ground. Abrams took a similar stance over the 2019 abortion bill, when she flew to Hollywood to meet with executives and ask them to “make sure jobs stay in Georgia.”
Last weekend, speaking on a panel at Chapman University, Abrams said, “I respect that boycotts work best when the target of your boycott is responsive, and unfortunately we are not dealing with good actors here”—meaning state Republican officials. “The Governor of Georgia is reveling in the potential of a boycott, because it gives him someone to blame for his own actions. Unlike previous boycotts I’ve worked in the South, the length of time it takes for a big concerted effort to take effect, it can be devastating to an economy, devastating to people.”
For Marvel, whose cumulative box-office revenue totals over $22 billion, the dilemma is particularly complicated. Since 2014, the company has filmed almost all of its productions at Trilith (formerly Pinewood Atlanta Studios), including Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and the original Black Panther. Moving a production such as Black Panther 2 would incur hundreds of millions in costs, if not billions of dollars, something neither Disney nor Marvel is presumably eager to do right now. Indeed, Trilith has become a Hollywood destination for executives and producers who regularly fly in to check on things at the million-square-foot production facility. “It’s incredible,” said one agent. “I was just there for WandaVision. It’s acres and acres of stages.”
Speculation among Hollywood-ites is that studios and streamers—Netflix is another Georgia-dependent company—will follow Abrams’s advice and instead of stopping production, put their resources into activism and lobbying to help battle legislation. Tyler Perry, the Atlanta-based filmmaker and mogul, has said that he hopes the Department of Justice will be “taking a hard look at this unconstitutional voter suppression law that hearkens to the Jim Crow era.” People on this side of the debate point to the recent decision by Major League Baseball to move the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver, questioning how impactful the move ultimately is. “Is it symbolic or painful?” said one producer. “If it’s not painful, it’s not effective.”
Hollywood leaving Georgia would certainly be painful. The question is: Just how painful, and for whom?