Last week, Meryl Streep set the internet ablaze with widespread outrage fires when the quote “we’re all Africans, really,” was released as an interview pullquote. Especially in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite conversation— but really any time at all— that’s a shitty thing to say. At least, it is unless it is taken aggressively out of context. Which, we now know, it was.
In the age of the internet celebrity culture/outrage news cycle, context is a hard thing to keep in check. I was totally guilty of falling victim to the simplicity of internet quotes here (and, sure, probably many, many, many other times as well). I remember seeing that story and knowing that incendiary quotes like “We’re all Africans” often have a larger context that softens or changes the meaning. But I also remember wondering to myself “Is there any context in which those words don’t mean those things that they appear to say?” and coming up empty. And since the story had already been covered on this site and other places, I put it in my “revisit later” pile and never actually read the full coverage or original piece. I didn’t take the quote out of context myself, and I didn’t rail against Streep or swear a boycott. But I, like most other people who read a headline, had probably forever unconsciously filed this away as a black mark next to the actress’ name in my brain.
Then it came out that there actually was a context that could make her words mean something else. The opposite, actually, somehow. That when she talked about us all being African (which is some super hippie macrocosmic to the point of risking sounding overprivileged no matter what), she was talking about how crazy it is that the stories of people of color aren’t seen as universal in the same ways “white” stories are. Immediately before those headline-grabbing words, the start of that thought was “there is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture…”
In an essay she wrote for the Huffington Post Thursday, titled “Setting the Record Straight From Berlin,” she said,
The lede was buried in the story of the Berlin festival, the largest in the world. These stories of people from China, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, and Tunisia — testaments to the impact, importance and diversity of global cinema — have been smothered in the U.S. by the volume of attention given to five words of mine at an opening press conference, which is too bad.
The original coverage made it seem like her “Africans” comment was defending the fact that she was heading an all-white jury at the Berlin Film Festival. Not only does she not get to choose who sits on her jury (not that that doesn’t mean that jury and those like it don’t necessitate a critical look), but she wasn’t even talking about the makeup of her peers there when those words were said.
Contrary to distorted reporting, no one at that press conference addressed a question to me about the racial makeup of the jury. I did not “defend” the “all-white jury,” nor would I, if I had been asked to do so. Inclusion — of races, genders, ethnicities and religions — is important to me, as I stated at the outset of the press conference.
It seems that instead, what Streep was referring to was something that has been on my mind a lot lately: empathy.
I was not minimizing difference, but emphasizing the invisible connection empathy enables, a thing so central to the fact of being human, and what art can do: convey another person’s experience.
Because while it would be incredibly ignorant to defend against an all-white jury of film judges by claiming that we all come from the same Pangean roots, ignoring millennia of cultural and racial experiences, it is quite another to use that argument to question why people have such a hard time relating to stories with characters that don’t look like them.
Did Meryl need to explain herself better? She obviously didn’t foresee this one journalist’s question leading to a widespread pull quote, but she does know that she’s Meryl Streep and that her words get attention. Did the journalist who pulled the quote have a responsibility to be more honest with another person’s words? Should we all have looked more carefully before we reacted? I have a feeling that it’s varying degrees of all three. We can all do better, can’t we?