The Empty Gesture of Red Carpet Protest


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Lizzy Caplan at the premiere of “Allied” in London, shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

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Dave Benett/WireImage

A week or so after the 2016 presidential election, the actress Lizzy Caplan arrived in London for the premiere of her “Allied,” a Robert Zemeckis drama set during World World II, in which she starred alongside Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. She smiled for the cameras and proudly displayed her right palm, where she — or someone — had scrawled “Love Trumps Hate,” one of the meme-worthiest phrases from one of the final speeches of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The slogan, scrawled on her hand, infuriated me. The rage had no logic. It wasn’t directed at Ms. Caplan, whom I have adored ever since she appeared as an awkward misfit in 2004’s “Mean Girls.” My recoil was at the acceptability of such a gesture as bold, or capable of helping anyone other than herself. Love is an emotion that alone is not capable of destroying capitalism, of dismantling centuries of systems that remain in place today.

Ms. Caplan’s passive attempt at protest became fairly common in the immediate aftermath of the election. The president’s consistently anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-[insert marginalized group here] rhetoric had crystallized into something real, and the future was suddenly even more unnervingly unpredictable. A wave of hate crimes swept the country, and his policies promised further harm against groups that had long faced persecution. The desperation and panic were ever-present sour tastes in the backs of our throats. People were eager to establish themselves as allies, united in solidarity. But the fight against what, exactly, was never clear.

A young woman who had taken to wearing a safety pin on her jacket described the action to The New York Times as “a form of resistance to hate and to negativity.” Around the same time, I found myself in Portland, Ore., and saw countless signs in largely gentrified neighborhoods that read: “We welcome all races, all religions, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all genders, all abilities.” Passively waiting for the future to be better is not a strategy — it’s a luxury and a privilege.

Christopher Keelty put it bluntly in an opinion piece for HuffPost: “It’s highly unlikely I’m going to be told I’m not American, or picked up by ICE and held in detention until I’m deported, or beaten or executed by police who decide my mere existence presents a threat to their safety, or denied the right to make my own decisions about my own medical care. For the most part, I’ll go about my daily life the way I always have — and if I want to, I can put a safety pin on my shirt and congratulate myself for being so woke, for being one of the good ones.”

A few days ago, when I heard that several male actors were joining some actresses in their plans to wear all-black to the Golden Globes in solidarity with those who have experienced sexual misconduct, I felt the old flames of anger reignite. There is something unsettling about how little these celebrities have to lose by taking these stances. They aren’t risking financial ruin, nor are they vulnerable to violence, as is the norm for most who take a bold position. It feels completely privileged, and a little complicit, to still participate in the larger system that has condoned sexual violence in their industry. Besides, don’t they already wear lots of black on the red carpet anyway?!

Recently, I was watching “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” the forthcoming documentary about the life of Lorraine Hansberry, a writer best known for her play “A Raisin in the Sun.” On June 15, 1964, she spoke at a town hall of black artists and activists who had gathered to talk about the civil rights movement with folks like Ruby Dee and James Baldwin. A white author named Charles Silberman expressed frustration that the African-Americans were dissatisfied by the meager progress made. He urged them to “go along with the means,” and be patient. Hansberry lashed out. “To be in Mississippi is to be in danger,” she said. “The problem is we have to find some way to show the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” Hansberry knew how high the stakes were, and whose lives were in danger. She had seen buses and churches firebombed, children horribly beaten during nonviolent sit-ins. They were not people like Silberman.

As the Golden Globes approached, more people announced their plans to don all-black. I kept trying to imagine an entire sea of actors, lined up silently in black, women and men. Nonviolent, visual protests have a long history of forming images that can quickly go viral and set a powerful tone for a moment. There is a physicality to them, a choreography, that when done right, cannot be underestimated. My mind kept returning to the idea that they were still planning to attend the events altogether. Why not sit it out? Stay home? Boycott everything altogether?

I remained unmoved until Mary J. Blige confirmed her plans to attend in all-black. “I am one of those women, so, you know, I stand with those women. I champion them,” she said. “There’s so many women that don’t get a chance to speak in other industries that are not the film industry, the music industry. It’s important for us to stand up for them so they can get a chance to speak.” Ms. Blige was nominated for her stirring portrayal of Florence Jackson, the head of a sharecropping family in Mississippi, and she deserves to be there to accept the award if she wins. She deserves to be on television, in all-black, signaling to the women at home who were fans of her music for years that she recognizes and cares about them. And who knows — maybe enough people will show up in black, and it will look like a mass funeral, grieving a death of something old and decrepit that needed to die.

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