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Column Explains How Tom Hanks Could Be Anti-Racist — Not Just Non-Racist

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earlier this month, the actor Tom Hanks wrote a guest essay for The New York Times, making the case for a more widespread teaching of history involving Black Americans, especially of events like the Tulsa Race Massacre. Hanks wrote, quote, "History was mostly written by white people about white people like me, and the entertainment industry, which helps shape what is history and what is forgotten, did the same. That includes projects of mine." Now, this inspired NPR critic Eric Deggans to write his own column, noting that while he appreciated Hanks' words, they weren't enough. Eric is here to talk more about that. Welcome back, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So people are going around saying you're trying to cancel Tom Hanks.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Absolutely not. I love Tom - I'm a huge Tom Hanks fan. That is not happening. But, you know, what Tom Hanks did was he kind of outlined a problem - that America's history books and Hollywood have often avoided or downplayed stories about Black people that reveal the brutality of how we've been oppressed in this country. And then he said that Hollywood should do better in this kind of generalized way, and I was just kind of surprised he didn't talk specifically about how he could take action to solve the problem that he defined.

CORNISH: So looking back at his past work, you write that Tom Hanks has, quote, "built a sizable part of his career on stories about American white men doing the right thing." Which films? What do you mean by that?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, one reason I think Tom Hanks is so beloved is because he plays these down-to-earth men of moral courage who do the right thing when they're called upon. And that includes a character like Army Rangers Captain John Miller from "Saving Private Ryan." He's asked to bring a man home from the battlefield in World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAVING PRIVATE RYAN")

TOM HANKS: (As Captain Miller) I don't know anything about Ryan. I don't care. The man means nothing to me. It's just a name. But if - you know, if going to Ramelle and finding him so he can go home, if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, well, then that's my mission.

DEGGANS: Now, these are amazing stories which absolutely should be told, but they also kind of reassure Americans of our virtue and our great works, and by focusing on these stories, I think Hollywood has kind of turned away from stories where America didn't quite live up to those ideals. And that too often means turning away from the stories of nonwhite people who are struggling against racism and systemic oppression in America.

CORNISH: But he's not the screenwriter. He's not the director. He's not the studio guy greenlighting things. I mean, when you look back at films, like "Forrest Gump" or "Philadelphia," how would taking a different approach change things? Like, what could a Tom Hanks have done?

DEGGANS: Well, first of all, he has served as executive producer for a lot of films and miniseries that are rooted in history, including "Band Of Brothers," "The Pacific," "John Adams" on HBO. He didn't appear in any of those, but he was an executive producer. So he does have that kind of influence. But if you think about a movie like "Forrest Gump," for example, if a person of color, if a woman of color had been cast as his love interest in that film, as Jenny, making that character Black would have required telling a story that included what it was like to be Black through all of those episodes in history that she lived through with Forrest Gump, and it would have done exactly what Tom Hanks has talked about in his own essay - bringing more light to the Black experience as it connects to American history.

I mean, Tom Hanks has talked about teachers in his essay, but in a lot of ways, he's a teacher. He's relating stories about what history matters in America and what doesn't in his work. And all he has to do is make a few different choices, and he could expand that focus.

CORNISH: I was only half-joking at the top when I said people are accusing you of cancelling Tom Hanks.

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Fox News published a story online. In fact, here's one of their pundits discussing it on air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE CONCHA: He supports more than three dozen charities, Hanks does, from helping honoring military vets - he's famously done that also in movies with "Band Of Brothers" - but also women's empowerment or children's health care and fighting cancer and diabetes. But no, for one guy from NPR, he isn't doing enough to make the world a better place.

CORNISH: OK, one guy from NPR, how are you feeling about this response?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Well, I got to say, mostly I was disappointed because I felt like people were complaining about things that I didn't even say. And in particular, Fox News created a story about my essay that was inaccurate and misleading, and they implied that I wanted to cancel Tom Hanks, which is the last thing I want to do. So much of the response I got seemed to be really knee-jerk and kind of defensive, reacting to the coverage of my column and not the column itself - emails and Twitter posts with the N-word in it and even worse stuff. Outlets like Forbes and The Daily Beast and Fox News did stories about the column, and they didn't even contact me directly for comment. I just felt like a lot of people used that column to whip up fear and hate instead of having a respectful discussion, which I think my column kind of was.

CORNISH: Have you heard anything from Tom Hanks?

DEGGANS: Not yet. I emailed one of his publicity representatives, but I haven't heard anything back. I mean, if there's any celebrity who might engage in this conversation, I think it would be him. So, you know, I hope maybe he does reach out.

CORNISH: That's NPR critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks for sharing with us.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUFJAN STEVENS SONG, "I WALKED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.