In recent years, the internet has enabled society to have access to celebrities’ personal lives in a way that we never have before. This has created a phenomena colloquially known as “cancelled culture”, as social media users judge the actions of celebrities, and ultimately “cancel” them when they have said or done something considered to be offensive. In this instance, cancel means to not support their work such as music, film, or television projects. It may also mean “cancelling” people who chose to work with them as a sign that they don’t acknowledge the problem. In many cases, it is a celebrities own words that come back to get them cancelled, sometimes years later. Social media posts have gotten countless celebrities into hot water, from Jeffree Starr to Kanye West. No one is safe.
There has been a lot of controversy around the film “Harriet”. The lead actress, Cynthia Erivo, is a recent victim of cancelled culture. In late 2019 right before the film was released, old tweets from 2013 resurfaced in which Erivo, who is British, said that she was using a “ghetto American accent” and what followed was text in her attempt at AAVE. She was immediately met with backlash and social media users began to discuss disapproval of her being cast to play Harriet Tubman. Tubman is arguably the most well-known African-American leader. Not only is she disrespecting African-American culture, but also the people that Tubman fought so hard for to gain freedom. The result of this backlash brought up two important discussions: 1- disunity in the black community and 2-inconsistency in film casting. One I agree with. The other I disagree with.
First, let’s address the disunity in the black community. Though black people from around the world have completely different experiences and cultures, we are all still black. Oftentimes, black people with different nationalities discriminate against other black people. Even within the same country, there are divisions within the black community based on ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and so much more. Erivo resurfaced tweets are a prime example of this division. She is a black woman, but still chose to speak down on African Americans. It is sad to say, but there is a lot of work to do within our sub-communities to overcome this oppression of the entire black community.
Secondly, there is the inconsistency in film casting. Social media users began to express disapproval of her being cast to play an American icon when she is not American herself. Though I can see where they are coming from, the point of acting is to portray a character that may not align with your actual identity. I believe the bigger issue is not that she is British, but rather that she has made disparaging remarks against the African-American community, and Tubman was a leader in defending our freedom.
However, this is a conversation that has been had in response to many other roles. In Jungle Cruise, an upcoming Disney film, questions arose regarding whether or not actor Jake Whitehall should have been cast to play a gay character when he is not actually a part of the LGBTQ community. I understand this to be a separate issue because gay men are not well-represented with options to play gay characters in Hollywood. However, the experience is different for African-Americans in Hollywood. In other words, Erivo did not take the opportunity from an actress who could have been a pioneer in diversifying the film industry, because in my opinion, black women are already well represented. Overall, her remarks were awful, however her cancelling led to an important discussion about race and representation.
Should actors be cast to play characters who have different identities than them?
How have you witnessed divisions within the black community?