The art of being mindful, careful, and diligent; we must remember these things when writing and reporting, but most of all when we’re consuming.
The mob mentality of the Internet has made such things increasingly difficult, especially at a time when important conversations about issues of racial and gender equality are on the table each and every morning.
In the war against the patriarchal domination of the film industry (let’s not forget that only 7% of the 250 top-grossing films of 2014 were directed by women), we need people willing to speak out against a system that simply doesn’t foster inclusion or channels for diversity to thrive. This does not mean blindly calling the Academy racist; this does not mean slamming every opinion that doesn’t strictly adhere to the narrative created by ill-informed instigators disguised as legitimate social justice warriors. This means instilling the notion that equality is not a tool, but rather an ideal we must believe in, subscribe to, and work for in order to make it a livable reality.
Attention and visibility are key, and sensitivity about the ways minorities are represented and discussed in public forums is ok when we’re trying to shift the conversation in the right direction; it’s important to call people like Julie Delpy or Charlotte Rampling out when they make careless statements about real issues. Still, it’s not our inherent responsibility to demonize irresponsibility, but rather to edify and educate in the hopes that change will sprout from understanding.
Meryl Streep, president of the 2016 Berlinale Jury, is someone who gets it, and the Court of the Internet (otherwise known as Twitter) is somehow unjust, lazy, and totalitarian for having taken the actress to task earlier this week without first doing its homework.
The actress came under fire after her comments–or rather, the headlines reporting her comments–at the festival’s opening press conference rubbed many the wrong way. You can watch the full press conference for yourself right here, but let’s set the stage, shall we?
First, a reporter directed the following question to German actor and fellow jury member Lars Eidinger: “Did you notice that there are no black people on the jury at all? There’s not one black person and no people of color. That has been the case for five years. What’s your opinion on that?” Eidinger sort of brushes the question off, saying that the failure to include people of color in the jury wasn’t a conscious decision. And with that affable sidestep, the moment ends.
Another reporter then asks Streep a question about women’s rights and Berlinale’s history as a progressive, political, socially-conscious festival that represents strong female perspectives both in front of and behind the camera, to which Streep sort of responds with an answer to the previous reporter’s question about diversity: “Well, I’m very committed to equality and inclusion of people of all genders, races, ethnicities, religions; there should be inclusion and this jury is evidence that at least women are included–and in fact dominate–in this jury, and that’s an unusual situation in bodies of people who make decisions, so I think that the Berlinale is ahead of the game.” Perfect answer, right?
Several minutes pass. A writer from Cairo introduces herself to the jury and asks Streep the following: “There is a film that is representing Tunisia and the Arab world and Africa in the main competition. How do you see this part of the world, and is it easy for you to understand that culture, and are you following any Arab movies?”
Streep takes a moment, but responds with earnest appreciation for such a direct question: “Yes, in fact I’ve just seen a film called Theeb, which I loved. I saw Timbuktu recently, but I don’t know very much about the Middle East, and yet I’ve played a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures. The thing that I’ve noticed is that there is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture. And, after all, we’re all from Africa originally; we’re all Berliners, we’re all Africans, really. We have critic on our jury, we have a director on our jury, we have actors, a photographer, cinematographer; people will be looking at different things in these films, but we’re human beings, and film is an emotional experience. We’re going to make these decisions based on what our head wants to say, but we’re first attacked in the heart.”
The Internet did not like that carefully-worded, well-intentioned response one bit, choosing to focus on the broader picture (a jury of white people were asked a few questions about diversity) instead of the true context. One Twitter user even said, and I quote, “It seems like she’s saying ‘oh, well we’re all from Africa, so the lack of diversity on the jury doesn’t matter.’ How condescending.” The fact is that Streep was not asked a question about the lack of diversity on the jury (Eidinger was), despite several irresponsible headlines from reputable sources that made it seem as if her comments about Africa were directly related to her feelings on the jury’s lack of racial inclusion.
Here are just a few examples of the selectively misrepresentative headlines which followed the “incident” (I hesitate to even call it that).
Vox: “We’re all Africans really”: Meryl Streep defends heading up an all-white film festival jury
The Atlantic: Against ‘Humanism’: Meryl Streep explained her all-white film-festival jury by claiming that “we’re all Africans, really.” She’s right, and so wrong.
Variety: Meryl Streep on Diversity at Berlin Film Festival: ‘We’re All Africans’
The Hollywood Reporter: Berlin Jury Chief Meryl Streep Responds to Diversity Concerns: “We Are All Africans Really”
Those are loaded headlines with the intent to stir shit up in the absence of a body squatting over the bowl in the first place. Streep was, by all means, not responding to the question about diversity on the jury; she was responding to a specific question about her connection to films from the (as the reporter put it) “Arab world,” and simply noting that despite not knowing much about that particular part of the world, she is willing and open to exploring other cultures through character, cinema, and compassion because she recognizes that we are all equal, emotional beings with equal origins.
These headlines–like the first reporter’s question to Eidinger–seemingly spring from a place of of-the-moment urgency to discuss relevant social injustice in the film industry and beyond, and they certainly caused an uproar aimed squarely at Streep. Topical trigger finger leads to healthy conversation and visibility in some areas, but merely talking about an issue for the sake of talking about it–not when a real issue is present–is dangerous. It creates a vile, combative atmosphere where the only result is unfair victimization. Yes, Streep is a white person in a position of power, but her comments were not ill-informed, irresponsible, or inappropriate. Celebrating a humanist view as a long-standing champion of equal rights for women (in case you forgot, Streep often puts her money where her mouth is) makes you true to your word, not a flippant racist, as some corners of the internet would have you believe.
I must admit that when I read these headlines, my palm met my forehead faster than it ever has before. Then, I actually read the articles instead of indulging the Internet’s desire to make me act on a feeling versus fact. The Hollywood Reporter‘s story does’t even mention the leading quote until it’s nearly over, instead choosing to report on Streep’s message of female empowerment as she takes on a position leading one of the most prestigious festival juries in the world. The Vox piece completely disregards Streep’s comments in context, instead choosing to connect her comments about Africa to the question about the lack of diversity on the jury’s panel, which is outright deceptive (and misleading) journalism. Is it really worth chasing momentary validation through devious, selective reporting that plays into other people’s legitimate concerns over a real issue?
The scary thing is that now we can see that even the trade publications are purposefully speaking to an increasingly lazy audience that doesn’t want to put in the work. No one wants to feel anything more than what a headline tells them to. People want to feel angry, and they’ll take a headline that panders to their heart whether those few lines of text accurately reflect the subject at hand or otherwise. If a false construct fits the calculated narrative, it’s used as a weapon, and we’re all expected to get out of the way when it comes time to launch the rocket.
Perhaps a white person commenting on a topic of racial exclusion currently exists outside the realm of acceptable discourse, and that’s a shame, because we need more voices like Streep voicing empathy and understanding across lines and divisions. We have to start somewhere, and that means reporting facts as facts and not interchangeable pieces of a puzzle that can be rearranged to create a typhoon in the name of a few clicks. We didn’t fight the battle that mattered this time and for that I must extend an apology to Meryl Streep on behalf of the thousands of condemning voices that won’t do the same.
Joey Nolfi is an awards season, film, and pop culture fanatic currently working as an editorial intern at Entertainment Weekly. His work has appeared in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, AFROPUNK, East End Fashion Magazine, Naima Mora Online and Serving Cinema, an Oscar blog he founded in 2014. He also acts, makes films, and can’t wait for the day his friends have children he can to take to the zoo one time and then spend the rest of his life patting himself on the back for it.