The brilliant actor Benedict Cumberbatch is in hot water for getting his words wrong. Appearing on Tavis Smiley’s show, the Oscar-nominated star of “The Imitation Game” took a strong stand in favor of greater diversity in Hollywood.
That’s a good thing, right? There has been much criticism that this year’s Oscar nominations were insufficiently diverse, even though the president of the Academy is herself an African-American woman. But the problem is not with the Academy, but with the industry.
The Academy (which, full disclosure, is represented by my law firm) doesn’t decide which movies get made or who gets the kind of juicy parts that earn you Oscar consideration. If there’s blame, or responsibility, it belongs to those who make the movies, not to those giving out awards. Last year’s nominees were more diverse for the very simple reason that the best pictures of the year, and the best performers, were more diverse.
Apparently, thing are, if anything, worse in the U.K. Pointing that out and calling for more diversity got Cumberbatch in trouble because he didn’t say it “right.” Said Cumberbatch: “I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really difficult in the U.K., and I think a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here than in the U.K., and that’s something that needs to change.”
“Colored actors”? Wrong. Not just wrong, but racist, if you read some of the commentary. Cumberbatch has been apologizing ever since, calling himself an “idiot” and a “complete fool” for his “thoughtless use of inappropriate language.”
What is interesting, though, is what Smiley, who is African-American, had to say. “Those who saw Benedict Cumberbatch on @PBS, know he feels persons of color are underrepresented in #Hollywood,” Smiley tweeted.
“Colored actors” vs. “persons of color.”
Words matter. I understand that. But actions matter more. Beliefs matter more. Words matter in part because they convey beliefs, and there is no question, if you listen to the entire interview, that Cumberbatch actually went out of his way to make clear his strong support for greater diversity. So why criticize him?
There’s a great song in the musical “Rent” that makes the point that “everyone’s a little bit racist,” and it’s true. Everybody’s a little bit sexist, too, and some people far more than a little bit. And many of them would never make the mistake that Cumberbatch did. They use very nice language. They just don’t hire African-Americans for parts that could as easily be played by actors of color or give them the opportunity to prove themselves. But language? Oh, they have the language down perfectly.
I haven’t heard anyone criticize Cumberbatch for actually doing anything racist. Quite the contrary. As Smiley pointed out, it is absolutely clear from the interview that he is one of those who see the lack of diversity as a compelling problem. So why criticize him?
The cynic in me wonders whether maybe someone is pushing this story in an effort to decrease Cumberbatch’s chances of winning the Oscar and increase those of one of the other actors nominated. It’s no secret that studios and others spend huge amounts of money promoting their nominees, and it’s long been suspected that they may spend almost as much trashing their opponents.
I’m no film critic, but I thought Cumberbatch was brilliant in “The Imitation Game,” and nothing he said to Tavis Smiley should in any way affect his claim to an Oscar. His acting and his actions matter far more than a language slip. Actions speak louder than words.