#OscarsSoWhite Again? Is Hollywood’s response to sexual assault coloured?

The accusations of racial bias have been brought on by the way the allegations have been covered in the Hollywood press.

Published:January 22, 2017 12:18 am
Hollywood, Hollywood racism, #Oscarsowhite, Casey Affleck, Nate Parker, racism in Hollywood, Nate Parker charges, Casey affleck harrasment, Hollywood news Affleck (left) is a firm favourite for this year’s Oscar for best actor; Parker and The Birth of a Nation.

At the Sundance Film Festival last year, Nate Parker’s directorial debut The Birth of a Nation, about an 1831 Virginia slave rebellion, and Manchester by the Sea, about a heart-broken Boston janitor played by Casey Affleck, both made waves and promised to dominate the Oscar season.

Nearly a year later, Casey Affleck, the younger brother of Ben Affleck, has picked up a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the janitor, heralding what appears to be a waltz through to this year’s Academy Award for Best Actor. Parker, on the other hand, has disappeared off the Oscar radar — his film matching his trajectory away from grace.

The sequence of events, The New York Times says, has led to accusations of double standards in Hollywood — “involving race, power or both — in the treatment of Parker, a relatively unknown artist, and Affleck, the brother of moviedom royalty”.

“This was the awards season when Hollywood, having been scorched by consecutive #OscarsSoWhite years, avoided tumult over race. Not so,” writes Brooks Barnes in The New York Times.

So what changed? When Parker’s film released in October, it was overshadowed by news that back in 1999, a 19-year-old Parker, then a college student, and the film’s co-writer, Jean Celestin, had been accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted in part because of testimony that he had consensual sex with the victim prior to the incident. Celestin was found guilty and sentenced to six months. Then Variety learnt that the victim committed suicide in 2012, with her brother telling the magazine’s Ramin Setoodeh that she suffered from depression after the incident.

Amidst the uproar over Parker, an alleged sexual harassment charge against Casey Affleck resurfaced. It allegedly took place on the set of his 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here, in which he starred with his then brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix.

According to The Guardian: “(One accuser’s) original allegations included claims that Affleck hired transvestite prostitutes ‘for his personal gratification’ during filming, referred to women as ‘cows’, manhandled her when she rejected his sexual advances and instructed a camera operator to flash his genitals at her.” In one instance, cinematographer Magdalena Gorka alleged that while she was asleep in a private room, Affleck “curled up next to her in the bed” while “his breath reeked of alcohol”. Gorka also alleged that during the shoot, Affleck and others often joked about their sexual exploits and suggested that she should have sex with one of the film’s camera assistants. Affleck settled both the sexual harassment suits out of court, with no details being made public.

Nearly all critics, however, agree that the specifics in both instances are different. Parker’s was a criminal case, while Affleck’s was a civil one. Parker’s accuser’s suicide also adds an extra layer to his case. “In today’s calculus of male dickishness, Affleck’s reads as bad, but not as bad as a rape allegation,” writes Anne Helen Petersen in Buzzfeed.

But the accusations of racial bias have been brought on by the way the allegations have been covered in the Hollywood press. What has particularly galled a number of observers are profiles of Casey Affleck in the run-up to the award season which, they say, make mere “passing mention” of Affleck’s indiscretions. One in particular, by Ramin Setoodeh (who extensively covered the Parker charges) in The Variety, has come in for plenty of stick. Critics note that it took Setoodeh over 1,900 words into the nearly 3,000-word profile before bringing up the “sexual harassment” allegations.

“Oscar voters, almost all of whom actively work in the industry, read such profiles in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. So a cover like this… is a major way to keep Affleck’s name and face in voters’ minds,” writes Kevin O’Keeffe in the Mic. Mashable’s entertainment editor Josh L Dickey even tweeted that when he addressed the issue, it “went nowhere (other than I caught a ton of sh– for it)”.

In stark contrast, when the news of Parker’s trial broke out, The Daily Beast says Academy voters said they won’t even watch the movie while the American Film Institute cancelled a screening. The film also bombed at the box-office.

“Considering the fact that Parker’s career has taken a fatal hit, we have to ask why Affleck’s history continues to be hidden paragraphs deep, or swept under the rug entirely. We can’t re-try either of these cases; given the facts that we have, journalists and filmgoers can reach their own conclusions of guilt or innocence. But readers should be given this opportunity… By selectively choosing which stars to put through the wringer the media becomes complicit in this cycle of easy forgiveness,” writes Amy Zimmerman in The Daily Beast.

Then there are questions of timing, since Parker’s 1999 trial rose back to the surface in August, and had always been in the public domain. “Nobody is justifying wrong, but if you go to court, charge somebody with the crime and the courts in Pennsylvania in 1999 find you not guilty, you can’t have it both ways,” Rev Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, told The Root, an online magazine of African-American culture. “Is the standard now that you can take an almost two-decade acquittal and deny him the Oscars, but it’s all right for others who’ve done crazy stuff to be Oscar material? I just want to know, what is the standard?”

There’s no escaping Affleck’s privilege either. His elder brother, Ben Affleck, has one of Hollywood’s most enduring friendship, with Matt Damon. Casey’s former brother-in-law is another movie-star, Joaquin Phoenix. Buzzfeed says he was cast in Manchester by the Sea, originally slated for Matt Damon, after Damon told writer-director Kenneth Lonergan that (Casey) Affleck was the only person he’d trust to take his place. “This brotherly posing makes prestige outlets hesitant to ask the younger Affleck tough questions, for fear of losing access to all three stars,” writes Allie Jones in The Cut.

And of course there is the inescapable race factor. “Black man acquitted of a single incident involving one woman 17 years ago (when he was 19)… has his entire career destroyed. White man who settled two sexual harassment suits from two separate accusers that involve alleged behavior on a film set from just six years ago (when he was 35) … is well on his way to Oscar glory,” writes John Nolte in The Daily Wire.

And for good measure, Nolte invokes the case of director Roman Polanksi, who admitted to sodomising a 13-year-old but has fled to Europe. “White man who fled from justice after admitting to raping a 13-year-old girl (when he was 44) … is still the toast of Hollywood,” he writes.

“The double standard here belongs to left-wing Hollywood, and if this is not racism, if this is not a bunch of white leftists using the stereotype of the scary sexual black predator to signal their own precious virtue, please tell me what actual racism would look like,” he writes.

But David Sims of The Atlantic believes that by invoking Parker, when discussing the charges against Casey Affleck, is a sort of false equivalency that takes away from the seriousness of sexual harassment.

“By stacking the two cases up against each other, the allegations against Affleck are made to seem less ‘serious’, as ridiculous and facile as that might sound. The comparison might have been an interesting one to draw, but it’s no longer a productive one to make: The contrast only directs attention away from larger industry problems with sexual misconduct and racism. Whether or not the Academy Awards should separate art from artist is a whole other debate—but invoking Parker’s name is no way to resolve it.”

Curated by Arun Prashanth Subramanian

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