Updated on February 22, 2016
Meryl Streep, having convened an all-white jury to judge the entrants at the Berlin Film Festival this week, was asked a question about one of the festival’s films—Theeb, concerning life as a Bedouin in the early 20th century.* Streep’s reply was not as tone-deaf as originally thought, but still, as Quartz put it, “pretty cringe-worthy”: “There is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture,” Streep said, explaining her understanding of the Middle East and North Africa, “and after all we’re all from Africa originally.” She added: “Berliners, we’re all Africans really.”
This was, in the context of her all-white panel, unfortunate. Streep’s point was ostensibly that it is silly and self-defeating to emphasize, given the shapes and shades of our rich human tapestry, the awkward seams. It is so much more pleasant to focus on what we have in common. Ich bin ein Berliner, and all that.
So, yes. Here we are again: a Hollywood actor spouting lovely rhetoric that dismisses the nuances of human history and current events. It is vaguely the stuff of Charlotte Rampling and Chrissie Hynde and Kanye West and Matt Damon and, of course, Meryl Streep, who made an extremely similar argument—“I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist”—after promoting Suffragette wearing a t-shirt comparing herself to a slave. It is also the stuff of cyclical Hollywood, a pattern that is as familiar as it is frustrating—a pattern that is perhaps inevitable in a culture that treats celebrities as its public intellectuals.
So let’s at least save ourselves a little time the next time an actor makes a comment like this. Here is a handy template for the next go-round: