No One Will Take Responsibility for Hollywood’s Embarrassing #ITakeResponsibility PSA
But we did manage to find out how one of the biggest celebrity-PSA misfires in recent memory came to be.
On June 11, two weeks into the sustained national protests against police brutality, a press release made its way into journalists’ inboxes. The announcement: a celebrity PSA titled “#ITakeResponsibility.” The two-minute video featured 14 white actors in black tops of varying necklines admitting their role(s) in anti-Black racism. “I take responsibility,” each intoned on front-facing iPhone videos, stitched together by a somber piano score. As activists channeled energy into direct action—civil unrest, defunding police departments, occupying city halls, donating to bail funds—Hollywood’s vague admissions of guilt seemed cartoonishly at odds with the moment. Backlash was swift and near-universal.
Critics had several targets at their disposal: the Photobooth filter, the vague anecdotes, the acting. Just weeks before the PSA’s release, Gal Gadot’s celebrity-packed cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” had been hailed as an emblem of tone-deafness. And only days earlier, stars and corporate allies alike were skewered for clogging Instagram feeds with the now notorious black squares. “The current cultural moment,” as Jordan Coley wrote in The New Yorker, “is one whose urgency feels particularly ill-suited to the sort of vapid pageantry that typically constitutes the ‘socially conscious’ arm of a celebrity’s public-relations repertoire.” The spectacle begged a question usually deployed for feature-length Hollywood misfires: How did this get made?
Nobody wants to answer that question. Not a single person directly involved in #ITakeResponsibility agreed to discuss it with us. Sunshine Sachs, the publicity firm responsible for the rollout, founded by a former adviser to Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither did the little-known production studio behind the PSA, Confluential Content; or its directors, Adam Platzner and Tommy Oliver; or their co-sponsor, the NAACP. Multiple interview requests for the 14 cast members—Aaron Paul, Aly Raisman, Bethany Joy Lenz, Bryce Dallas Howard, Debra Messing, Ilana Glazer, Julianne Moore, Justin Theroux, Kesha, Kristen Bell, Mark Duplass, Piper Perabo, Sarah Paulson, and Stanley Tucci—were declined or unanswered. In the end, people only agreed to break down the production and its reception on background.
Alex* spoke anonymously, they said, because ignoring the PSA’s backlash seemed at odds with its message. On a phone call, Alex outlined the production process, which they found almost as mystifying as it appeared from the outside. The request had come earlier on in the protests—around June 1—they said, from Sunshine Sachs, on behalf of the NAACP and Confluential Content, a firm Alex had not worked with before. They seemed to have specific actors in mind: no other employees at Alex’s company received similar requests for their clients. Each actor received a full script of the #ITakeResponsibility pledge, which they read in full on their own iPhones. There were no instructions on how to read or what to wear, Alex said—the monochrome tops might have been a coincidence, or an illusion helped by lighting. The piano score, the black-and-white filter, and the selection of clips from each actor’s monologue arrived in editing, without their input.
The PSA was initially scheduled for release on June 5, Alex said—a delay that may have contributed to its reception, or not. “I think people are becoming allergic to celebrity PSAs,” one source said. “The fact that it was in black and white didn’t help. People on Twitter said it was too performative. Of course it was performative—you asked a bunch of actors to read lines that aren’t their own.”
The piece initially interested Alex because it was co-sponsored by the NAACP, and because Hollywood has been historically cagey on calling out its own prejudices. The project also boasted a long list of collaborators. The website ITakeResponsibility.org initially included a “Team” page, thanking the “brand company” Red Antler and an additional 39 people involved in the production, including actor Jamie Foxx, journalist Katie Couric, Netflix Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John, and Scientologist David Kitchens. The page has since been removed from the site but remains viewable through the Wayback Machine.
The PSA’s primary organizer was the production studio Confluential Content. The company, which does not mention #ITakeResponsibility on their website, was founded in 2015 by filmmaker Tommy Oliver, who produced the Sony thriller The Perfect Guy, the Oprah Winfrey Network docuseries Black Love, the 2011 film Kinyarwanda, and several similar PSAs. In January, Oliver brought on venture capital investor Adam Platzner as the company’s equity partner and vice chairman. In the press release for the PSA, it is Platzner who takes majority credit: “I cannot sit idly by while this horrific moment in history plays out on our doorsteps, on our streets and on our televisions,” Platzner said. “This may be the most consequential moment in our lives and we must take action.”
On his LinkedIn, Platzner describes himself as a “Builder” whose prior constructions include the VC and private equity firm Corbellus Capital; a Graydon Carter-backed media app once called the “Instagram of News,” ZIG Media; and a novelty beverage called Dream Water, marketed as a sleep aid for insomniacs—which took some flack for its taste and later, for a class-action lawsuit in San Diego, alleging the company was “simply selling snake-oil as a purported cure for one of the most important health problems faced by millions of Americans.” After six years of discovery and litigation, a judge rejected the plaintiffs’ claims.
Platzner’s path into investment was paved in part by his family: the real estate magnates once hailed as the largest landowner in New Rochelle, New York. His grandfather, Herbert Platzner, whom the grandson has memorialized in several Instagram posts, turned his family realty company, Platzner International Group, into a landlord dynasty. In the past seven years, the firm has been sued 18 times in New York state over tenant concerns. Some were disposed; at least one ended in a confidential settlement.
When Herbert passed away in 2017, Adam Platzner told his obituary writers the tycoon had donated “millions of dollars to law enforcement philanthropies nationwide, including the New Rochelle Police Association”—a police union which recently supported the officer who shot and killed 24-year-old Kamal Flowers. Other beneficiaries of Herbert’s donations included at least 41 Republican political campaigns, including Mitch McConnell, according to Open Secrets. The company, whose website now begins with the phrase, “Physically located on earth in the State of New York, at the center of intelligence in the City of New Rochelle, at the Intermodal Transportation Center, entrance to the entire Solar System, with connections throughout the Galaxy,” and ends with a quote from the 17th century philosopher Spinoza, eventually changed hands to Herbert’s son, Harrin Platzner, who recently became a police officer.
Platzner skews more centrist than his family. He has contributed to the campaigns of both Cory Booker (D) and Jon Huntsman (R); and posted on social media in support of Joe Lieberman, Andrew Cuomo, Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, George H.W. Bush, and John McCain. He has condemned the BDS movement in Palestine, and his presidential pick was Michael Bloomberg, who defended the NYPD’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy until 2013, when a judge declared it unconstitutional. The #ITakeResponsibility campaign marked his first public foray into activism.
One frustration Alex aired with the PSA’s rollout was its emphasis on the video, rather than the website. “No one thought this was going to end racism,” a source said. What got lost in the laughter was the project’s other goal: to put money toward social justice causes. Their website suggests donations to NAACP, the police-reform outfit Campaign Zero, grassroots groups like Reclaim the Block, and the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
But neither the video nor its participants discussed donations. The campaign had recruited stars to leverage their platforms, while neglecting the most material part. (The question of how celebrities should respond to crisis is worth asking. One answer may be simpler than some think: “On June 1st, Drake was challenged by his fellow Toronto artist Mustafah the Poet to match a four-hundred-dollar donation to a Black bail-fund network,” Coley wrote, after the PSA. “The rapper reportedly replied, ‘Say less, brother,’ and posted a donation receipt for a hundred thousand dollars.”)
June’s civil unrest united the largest coalition of protesters in American history, but it also exposed the fissures within it: between reformists and abolitionists, liberals and leftists, symbolic change and direct action. “Black poor and working-class people experience capitalism and white supremacy as intertwined,” historian Barbara Ransby recently wrote in The Nation. “Police violence, targeted mass incarceration, and social and economic abandonment are linked.”
The campaign’s perceived failure to push beyond celebrity guilt, to engage with the political forces which render such symbols impotent, left viewers hazy on what, exactly, it was taking responsibility for.