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How ‘American Crime Story’ Producer Nina Jacobson Is Making Audiences Face a Harsh Reality

by Stacy Lambe 4:45 AM PDT, March 18, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

Nina Jacobson understands the power of visibility in Hollywood. Considered one of the most powerful women in the industry, the producer has broken down barriers for both women and the LGBT community for the past 20+ years.

On Saturday, March 19, the Human Rights Campaign will honor Jacobson with the Visibility Award for her continued success as an openly gay woman, who "sets the stage as an example for others to follow."

Admittedly, Jacobson tells ETonline she hasn't done much in terms of producing LGBT characters on screen, but she has been at the forefront of change within the entertainment industry. In the early '90s, she and producer Bruce Cohen formed Out There, an organization for LGBT personnel in Hollywood. Jacobson has since been an outspoken advocate, unashamed of who she is -- even when it wasn't always in her best professional interest.

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"There were times, even at Disney, where I would get friendly advice not to be [out] -- 'there's more to you than just being gay' and 'you don't have to make this such a part of your identity' and that kind of thing," Jacobson says of her former employer, which also reportedly terminated her as president of Buena Vista Motion Pictures while she was in the hospital with her partner, who had just given birth to their third child. At Disney, she produced such hits as The Sixth Sense, The Princess Diaries, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. (Disney did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

"The truth is that it's kind of an all or nothing deal. Visibility is the only answer in many respects. It's the only route towards progress," she continues.

That's not to minimize Jacobson's impact on screen. In the years since, she founded Color Force, producing The Hunger Games franchise and launching FX's hit anthology series, American Crime Story. Both projects have helped provide a new -- and sometimes harsh -- perspective on issues surrounding gender, race, politics, and celebrity culture.

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Photo: FX

The first season of American Crime Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson, Jacobson says has given the country an opportunity to hold a mirror up to itself. "The way we like to think of ourselves is not the way we look," she says. "We like to think of ourselves as more evolved than we frequently are."

"We always want to congratulate ourselves at having made more progress than we actually have," she adds.

Pointing specifically to gender in the workplace, which is told through the lens of prosecutor Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson), Jacobson says American Crime Story's sixth episode ("Marcia, Marcia, Marcia") may be "one of the most feminist episodes of television a person will ever get to see." Famously vilified for her hair and clothing, Clark's story on the show can be seen as an allegory for Hillary Clinton, Katherine Harris and other women in politics and media.

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"It shows how difficult it is for a woman to be in the limelight without having her appearance parched incessantly and her contributions trivialized," she says.

If there is a central theme to her work, at least with Color Force, it's a notion of standing up to adversity. "Any time that someone defies the status quo and defies oppression, it feels like a step in the right direction," Jacobson says, knowing what's seen on screen has the power to make audiences face a certain reality.

With that in mind, she looks at shows like Transparent on Amazon, or even the current political landscape, and knows there are more stories to be told. "I wonder, 'Have I really done enough?'" Jacobson asks herself. "I say, 'I still have a lot more left to do.'"

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