Meryl Streep Clears The Air About That “We’re All Africans” Comment At The Berlin Film Festival

About two weeks ago, gripped in the clutches of #OscarsSoWhite, various media outlets (this one included) reported that Meryl Streep made some unsavory comments at the Berlin Film Festival about diversity. Here’s the rough outline of what she said, taken from our own coverage of the incident.

But, when asked by an Egyptian reporter about her understanding of films from the Arab world and North Africa, Streep said, “I’ve played a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures….Thre is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture, and after all we’re all from Africa originally…Berliners, we’re all Africans, really.”

This looks bad, right? It sounds pretty bad! But, what happens so very often is that the bad things that float to the top just sound really bad when stripped of their context. Meryl Streep is probably not an #AllLivesMatter supporter and she came to her own defense in a blog post over at the Huffington Post. In the piece, she lays out the wins enjoyed by films made by filmmakers of color, but notes that we all hopped on our pedestals pretty quickly to tear her down.

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 reporting, she points out, was “distorted,” and she clarifies further the question and her answer.

In a longwinded answer to a different question asked of me by an Egyptian reporter concerning the film from Tunisia, Arab/African culture, and my familiarity with Arab films specifically, I said I had seen and loved Theeb, and Timbuktu, but admitted, “I don’t know very much about, honestly, the Middle East, …and yet I’ve played a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures. And the thing I notice is that we’re all — I mean there is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture, and after all, we’re all from Africa originally, you know? We’re all Berliners, we’re all Africans, really.”

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.

Fair enough. This isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds, and not nearly as bad as other places made it out to be. Takes, be they hot or tepid or cold, are what power this terrible content economy and we are all very, very guilty of reacting without thinking.  But, it’s important to examine the nature of this reaction and why it came so swiftly. Jumping to label celebrities as immediately #problematic is a bad look, but the reason we’re all so willing to do so is because an awful lot of shit out there is problematic.

 Think about it this way: if you spent your entire life quietly processing the the scourge of systemic racism, you’d be pretty sensitive to it, wouldn’t you think? The reaction feels outsized and unnecessary to people who are privileged enough to not have to contend with racism on the regular, but if your entire life is one big microagression writ large, then it’s safe to assume that you’d be extra aware.

I can only speak for myself, but the heady combo of chasing the traffic dragon and the very harsh reality of the lack of equity across so many sectors of the culture means that mistakes happen. Meryl, I’m sorry! I love your work, and still do. You get a pass, for now.