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:
HOLLYWOOD, CA—The ___(major world city)___ International Film Festival became embroiled in the ongoing debate about diversity in the movie industry on ___(day of the week)___, with jury president ___(Hollywood actor)___ convening an all-white panel and then remarking, “___(observation about our shared humanity)___.”
In an interview on ___(day of the week)___, the ___(increasingly controversial award)___-winning actor explained, “We can never know if it was really the case, but perhaps ___(any skin tone but white)___ people did not deserve to be in the final straight.” To take seriously the question of diversity, ___(noted Hollywood actor)___ continued, would be “___(noun)___-ist to white people.”
Asked whether ___(any skin tone but white)___ communities working in the film industry felt excluded from the cultural conversation, ___(Hollywood actor)___ replied: “No comment.”
___(Dismissive term for “digital journalists”)___ initially speculated that ___(Hollywood actor)___’s comments might have been taken out of context. And, indeed, when further questioned on the matter, ___(Hollywood actor)___ suggested that ___(media outlet)___, as well as people on ___(social media platform)___, had misunderstood the meaning of the initial statement. “I regret that my comments could have been misinterpreted,” ___(Hollywood actor)___said through ___(Hollywood actor)___’s publicist. “Diversity in our ___(collective noun)___ is an important issue that needs to be addressed,” ___(Hollywood actor)___ continued.
In a later interview, however, boarding ___(Hollywood actor)___’s Gulfsteam ___(roman numeral)___ to return home, ___(Hollywood actor)___ dialed back the earlier clarification, declaring: “I’m not a ___(any noun whatsoever)___ist. I’m a humanist.” As the ___(dismissive term for “digital media outlet”)___ Flavorwire summed up the drama: “Anyway, on to the next one.”
* This post has been updated to clarify the context of Streep’s comments about North Africa and the Middle East.