You are not doing this for the sake of art; you are doing this because you want to feel relevant again. Well, guess what, there is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day, and you act like it doesn’t exist. Things are happening in a place that you ignore, a place that, by the way, has already forgotten about you … You’re doing this because you are scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman
People lived under a permanent state of vague fear.
Monica Ciobanu, “Piteşti: a Project in Re-Education and Its Post–1989 Interpretation in Romania”
Beneath Hollywood’s seductive exterior, a throng of cutthroat wannabes is jostling for their moment to shine. The scarcity of juicy parts eventually called into question the rationale of the industry’s gatekeepers. A 2016 study reports that Oscar voters are 91% white and 76% male. Dutifully, in response Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs committed to doubling the number of women and minority members over the next four years, a statement to which former Academy President Hawk Koch replied, “there aren’t that many qualified people, period, of any race or gender, to invite each year.” However, change isn’t occurring fast enough for Hollywood’s “moral entrepreneurs,” who adopt the guise of social justice to elevate and preserve their reputations, while the rest of their peers await their trials for their inevitable future slips of the tongue.
On July 22, 2018, eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson was murdered. As has become the norm, the Hollywood elite could not allow the tragedy to go to waste. Shortly afterwards, Anne Hathaway released a statement on Instagram, condemning Wilson’s murder. But—rather than seize the moment to reflect on life’s sudden cruel twists of fate—Hathaway chose instead to use her platform, to the approbation of some, to lecture on white privilege, the silent culprit behind the young black teen’s death. Hathaway’s indictment of white silence expresses the sanctimonious outrage that has become a sort of cheap penance, through which marquee talents absolve themselves of any ambiguity as to where their allegiances lie. In her preemptive sermonizing, Hathaway states:
White people—including me, including you—must take into the marrow of our privileged bones the truth that ALL black people fear for their lives DAILY in America and have done so for GENERATIONS … we must ask our (white)selves—how “decent” are we really? Not in our intent, but in our actions? In our lack of action?
It’s nothing new for celebrities to advertise their virtue, but Hathaway’s rhetoric is symptomatic of a more insidious phenomenon. Virality offers power in an age that is seeking something to stand for. It has become laudable to self-censor out of loyalty to the progressive camp, in which the most vocal, ingratiating self-denunciations attract the least suspicion. The efficacy of this rhetorical deflection is impressive, given that its proponents are usually prime targets for such rebukes. Hathaway’s words possess the unsparing scriptural heaviness you might have heard from a segregationist in the 60s. In her eyes, privilege is the new original sin that needs to be whipped out of humanity.
The Tyranny of Authenticity
Following an uproar over the casting choice, Scarlett Johansson renounced her role as Dante “Tex” Gill in the movie Rub & Tug, a film based on the true story of a transgender man, who led a ring of prostitution fronts in Pittsburgh’s Red Light District. What is striking is how satisfyingly defiant Johansson’s initial statement was: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” (These are all well-regarded actors who have portrayed transgender characters).
This defiance demonstrated a level of conviction that constitutes the essence of the creative spirit, which seeks to explore the unfamiliar, despite fear. However, Johansson retracted her previous riposte once she sensed the pyres were being readied:
In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project. Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive … While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.
Despite the film’s potential to steer her career in interesting directions (think Charlize Theron in Monster), Johansson felt her contribution to the “conversation” could be best articulated through her absence, even though big names can draw attention to overlooked issues. In 1973, when Marlon Brando was awarded an Oscar for his infamous role in The Godfather, he let Sacheen Littlefeather, in full Apache attire, decline the award on his behalf, to highlight the representation of Native Americans in the film industry, and the deadlock at Wounded Knee. The tactic sent ripples through the US media, snowballing concern for the cause.
How many working transgender actors in primetime programming will it take to satisfy GLAAD’s diversity goals for a demographic that comprises only 0.7% of the US population? Konstantin Stanislavski, regarded as the originator of the American Method, once said, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Those demanding more roles and screen time should recall that Anthony Hopkins earned an Oscar in 1991 for only around 12–15 minutes on screen in Silence of the Lambs. But, if we’re to believe the sloganeering of April Reign, who coined the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in 2015, the skill of Hopkins’ performance, with its enduring iconic terror, is moot, because white men awarded him the Oscar. Perhaps all actors should be allotted exactly 14 minutes of screen time to avoid any unfairness.
But Johansson has also unwittingly set a precedent for all actors interested in crossing into the LGBTQ+ domain of storytelling: her words suggest that authenticity is defined by what you are not, and to what you should not aspire. This malignant insistence on authenticity minimizes revelatory past efforts by greats like Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar in 1989 for his performance in My Left Foot, the story of Christy Brown, an Irish writer and painter with cerebral palsy who could only write or type with one foot. Does Day-Lewis’ able body detract from his talent or negate his right to have played Brown? What is most exasperating about this push for diversity is that these self-abnegating rationalizations do real harm to empathy, the very faculty necessary to experience commonality with what we least understand. Surely a clampdown on empathy will eventually backfire?
Sorry Isn’t Good Enough
In mid-July 2018, Mark Duplass was hounded by Twitter, as users tried to get him to atone for the heresy of encouraging liberals to engage with conservative pundit, Ben Shapiro, as a means of easing growing political polarization. Duplass took back his suggestion: “So that tweet was a disaster on many levels. I want to be clear that I in no way endorse hatred, racism, homophobia, xenophobia or any such form of intolerance.” See full statement here.
These rambling apologies, while effective, are not sincere. They are defensive maneuvers to sidestep the vitriolic frenzy that threatens to gut the career of anyone within six degrees of separation from anything deemed to be right wing. Even the goofiest of progressive celebrities—Sarah Silverman, who confuses utility markings for swastikas—has been raked over the coals for a molestation joke made almost a decade ago. This came hot on the heels of the abrupt firing of Guardians of the Galaxy director, James Gunn, after he was Twitter-lynched for fossilized tweets, which made light of pedophilia. The media mob will not relent, unless people learn that conceding only provides grounds on which people can demand further concessions. Gunn has since received heartening support from the Guardians cast, unlike Martian star Matt Damon, who set off a firestorm of protest when he tried to offer some balance on the Hollywood #MeToo purges, in an ABC News interview in late 2017. Here is Damon’s incendiary remark: “There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.”
Gosh it’s so *interesting how men with all these opinions about women’s differentiation between sexual misconduct, assault and rape reveal themselves to be utterly tone deaf and as a result, systemically part of the problem (*profoundly unsurprising).
Simply not agreeing enough is now “systematically part of the problem.” Driver’s objection reveals a deeper disquiet within the Hollywood community, no doubt. But crucifying your allies will not lead to reform—it only causes greater mistrust, resentment and more political turbulence. It wasn’t long before Damon was eating his words: “I don’t want to further anybody’s pain with anything that I do or say. So for that I am really sorry.”
A strong-armed apology becomes an admission of guilt, not a show of understanding. Some unknowingly walk in front of the firing squad. But others willfully volunteer their heads for the chopping block, in hopes that the crowd will take pity on them and redirect their scorn elsewhere. In the words of Charles Bukowski, “everyone knows the bacon is burning,” and nobody wants to be burnt. In a climate of persecution, erratic condemnations multiply into a prisoner’s dilemma, leaving betrayal as the only logical next best move. It is always safer to side with the mob, than to vouch for your neighbor’s innocence.
It Is Quiet Amid the Inferno
This rage for “progress” does not produce equality, but terror. Hollywood is in the grip of a vicious purity spiral. And, in the fight for diversity, conscientious objectors are routinely disciplined or exiled. I don’t dispute that representation should be fair, but I have a problem with unappeasable agendas. A film’s success depends on numerous variables, not simply on cast demographics. The problem of opportunity extends beyond minorities. Almost 30% of actors are expected to survive on less than $10,000 a year. By comparison, a Starbucks employee earns $25,680 a year. Marginalized groups are being championed by Hollywood elites—not out of genuine concern for equality, or to bolster up their own dwindling relevance—but out of fear of seeming insufficiently appalled.
Describing John Stuart Mill’s views on liberty, William Stafford writes, “free speech permits the propagation of error … If error is proscribed, there is always the danger that elements of the truth will be banned too; for no authority can be sure of infallibility.” As Jordan Peterson has warned, free expression is the first to go on the road to hell. In Pitești Prison, in Pitești, Romania, which Aleksander Solzhenitsyn describes as “the archipelago of horror,” re-education experiments were carried out on prisoners between 1949 and 1951, under Communist party rule. The experiments aimed to cure prisoners of heretical political and religious views. The twentieth century is littered with such forced confessions and renunciations of faith. Even today, in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs in reeducation camps, instructing them to recant Islam and their traditional culture, and submit to party doctrine. In China, the dark reality of censorship has taken on a grotesque, unambiguous form.
Julius Malema is the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a far-left political party, and one of several notable political groups in my home country of South Africa. In early March this year, in a move to oust Nelson Mandela Bay mayor, Athol Trollip, Malema announced, “we are cutting the throat of whiteness.”
Actors are not politicians, but if, like them, they squirm and backpedal to pacify the haranguings of an embittered activist minority, out of blind careerism, the arena appointed to explore the human condition will rot. Hollywood cowardice is already permeating the wider discourse, in which too many are aggrandizing call-out culture, extolling apologies, declaring proudly that creativity should be segregated according to social identity, and that writers should restrict their curiosities to in-group interests. In time, would it be so surprising if those unable to detect the privilege in their very bones should be discarded by society?