The internet is rife with posts on how to be a good ally these days. The intended audience is generally the layperson who may feel paralyzed in their fear of saying the wrong thing or acting in the face of what seems like overwhelming odds stacked against the oppressed. However, what about those on the stage? What information and pressure is being exerted in order to make sure that those with significant voice and power are standing up for the rights of their coworkers and fellow performers? Before we touch upon currently trending “we believe in you” hashtags, let’s examine two examples (one popularly known, one less so) of two well-known actors who became privilege-flexing allies, starting with one of the most famous and problematic movies in cinema: Gone With The Wind.
I’m not going to lie, my immediate family loves this movie. As a child, it was what I generally watched while getting my hair braided. It was about the right length of time for both my sister and I to get our cornrows done by my auntie, and something she could enjoy rather than the endless barrage of cartoons we’d normally choose. I marveled at the dresses and the sheer drama of it all, and decided Rhett Butler was a much better choice than Prince Eric, Prince Charming, or whoever it was that the Beast turned into. In my teenage years, I was able to learn more about the book and grew sad about the realities that were glossed over in the film version (“political meeting” my behind, they were going to a KLAN RALLY, Ashley is such trash). But the movie brought the Black community the first Oscar win in history, though Hattie McDaniel was seated at a tiny table in the back away from the other nominees. It also brought an example of lending power to those who had none courtesy of Clark Gable.
While it is well-known that Clark Gable initially refused to attend the Atlanta premiere of Gone With The Wind because the segregated theater would not allow Hattie McDaniel inside (she convinced him to go anyways), his success in desegregating the set is far lesser known. Lenny Bluett, a young Black extra in the film, went to the bathroom on his first day and found the toilets were divided into White and Colored. As the filming was taking place in a desegregated location he was appropriately horrified. Though he had little luck convincing older Black actors to risk being replaced by joining his dissent, he knew to take this matter to the top: Clark Gable’s dressing room. The fact that Gable not only met with him, a basically nameless Black extra, but was equally horrified to the point where he threatened to leave the production if it was not addressed, speaks volumes for his commitment to creating safe spaces. He committed to the ideal that it is the responsibility of those with clout, no matter how they got it, to wield it for good whenever possible.
Fast forward a few decades and you might find yourself on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. If you are a certain young Black actress named Nichelle Nichols, you may also find yourself getting paid less than co-stars George Takei (Sulu) and Walter Koenig (Chekov). Enter Leonard Nimoy, who did not have the clout of a major star but was also not one to learn of injustice and stay silent. He went to the front office and made sure Nichols received what was due to her. He did this not as a major star who knew he was irreplaceable, but as a human with a conscience. Now, I do not need to tell you what Star Trek means to my family (my mom already did that). But did you know that one of its biggest fans was none other than Martin Luther King Jr.? Or that when George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were not cast to do the voices of the animated series Leonard Nimoy refused to do the voice for Spock without them? I hope you are seeing the theme here.
Let’s leap ahead to this summer and see what happens when you start together but end up alone. I am talking about none other than the #LoveForLeslieJ campaign. Now, if you have no idea what this referred to let me say Welcome to My Blog/News/The Internet/Being Remotely Aware of Things. Glad to have you! Here is a quick recap: The Ghostbusters all-female reboot received a Great Lake’s amount of haterade from a certain troll-infested section of fantasy fandom that insisted the movie was impossible to enjoy, with 100% of the reasoning being the gender-swapped leads. Naturally, every person attached to the film did significant amounts of PR regarding the importance of women in these major roles, asking people to reserve judgement till they actually saw the damn thing, and to throw in a “suck it” or two because the film was still being made so they will simply wield their umbrellas of money to protect them from fanboy tears.
Once the movie came out, however, a very specific type of haterade started being circulated at the water fountain. It was made from a standard recipe that has been around as long as any strong Black female lead has dared to be unapologetic about their visibility. Leslie Jones, the film’s sole Black lead, began getting endless amounts of vile social media attacks. They ranged from memes comparing her to Harambe to outright race-based death threats. I am not about to repost or share any of the cruelty that she faced (Jones herself received criticism about retweeting the worst of the worst, though it was an effort to shed light on the depth of the depravity) but rest assured it was enough that she briefly left Twitter for her own mental health.
During this time, her 3 white female co-stars (Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig) have been EERILY silent on the matter [If I were a worse writer, there’d be a horrible joke about ghosting here but I’m saving that for in-person convos with my long suffering family and friends]. While the group presented a united front when the vitriol was against women as a whole, the lack of response once it turned from misogyny to misogynoir is a prime example of fair-weather allies. Or convenience feminism. Or white feminism. Or of just not being there for someone even though on some level you at least partially conceive of the pain they are going through because you went through it too. Their silence on this is deafening given how vocal each star has been about having a place for women in the industry. Even more confusing is the fact that Jones’ SNL co-stars, musicians, top celebrities who have never even worked with her, and Ghostbusters director Paul Feig have all been incredibly vocal about putting their support behind Leslie Jones, signal-boosting the #LoveForLeslieJ hashtag created by @MarissaRei1.
As I wrap this tour of highs and lows in “Allies of Entertainment History”, let me touch upon this week’s “where my allies at” hashtag: #veteransforkaepernick. Now, if you follow me you really may have no idea simply because: sports. I can’t blame you, being on a fantasy team these last few years has done wonders for me caring about the game outside of hoping that the Patriots are in the Super Bowl because there will be more parties with better snacks. I was already aware of Colin Kaepernick because of a year of living with a California transplant who was all about her home teams. He was cute, Christian, not a horrible player, and had yet to do any other NFL player “oopsies” like, I dunno, run a dog fighting ring/murder an acquaintance/beat his fiancee on film/hire a friend to murder his wife.
So when the organization exploded with incredibly vocal opinions because he decided to peacefully protest the National Anthem by not rising due to his beliefs that the anthem did not reflect how he felt about the country it was a bit surprising given the indifference the League has shown to so many players committing actually illegal atrocities. Or maybe it was not surprising at all, given that Kaepernick is a Black player in a sport owned almost exclusively by wealthy white men, who make buckets of money off of shows of nationalism. Many sports fans voiced negative opinions, stating their distaste for everything from his “audacity” to protest while he enjoys the privilege of wealth and fame, to his manner of protesting being disrespectful to veterans who died for the flag. Several Black players joined the commentary with some going so far as to police his Blackness because of his biracial heritage. It was pretty much a hotep tailgate party on certain corners of Twitter.
So when the allies starting getting in formation, it was amazing to see that the most vocal of all came from the US Armed Forces. Once #veteransforkaepernick started, it could not be stopped. Thousands of tweets poured in, shared and liked thousands more times in support of Kaepernick’s right to protest. A significant portion came from not Black, but White allied service men and women. It is important to note that it was his RIGHT that everyone wanted to throw support behind, not necessarily his reasoning or method. There were plenty of photo captions disagreeing with what he stood for, but all shared that they were out there defending a value, not a song. And it has since been brought to light that the song itself? Kinda problematic…
The 49ers played their last preseason game, where Kaepernick took a knee and was joined by teammate Eric Reid. Both players will be joined in their dissent by Seattle Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane. Will more players become allies as the season goes on? Will he be cut for this bold display (and let’s face it, lagging performance)? Time will tell. For now, I hope that the associated hashtag will remind allies of causes the world over that not speaking up is permission for those maintaining the status quo to speak for you.