Silence is always an interesting indicator, signaling a number of varied emotions. After watching the “Hollywood Reporter” clip above, I’m convinced that the silence here is beset by discomfort and also apathy. When asked about the presence of minority directors in Hollywood, a panel of white directors froze up and decided not to “step into that,” as one stated. The lone black director, Steve McQueen, is then mandated to become the spokesperson for this issue by way of his skin color alone. This is a familiar, albeit disturbing experience that I’ve witnessed and have been on the receiving end of. It’s the inability to pass on a question regarding race because your very existence is synonymous with “race,” while white counterparts are relieved of the need to feel or say anything.
So, what if McQueen decided not to answer that question? What if he remained quiet and decided not to “step into that,” as the other directors? Would that be wrong? In my own experience, and numerous instances where discussions of “race” are initiated, I find myself unable to remain quiet, partly because I care about the issue being discussed, and partly because there is a very strong expectation by others that I possess some kind of authoritative position on the subject. There is a very interesting intersection here- on one hand choosing to speak because you have something to contribute, but on the other hand being expected to have the “answer” to whatever issues of “race” are propositioned, while others choose to remain silent and outside of the discussion.
At about 00:55 in the video, we see McQueen physically unable to contain his emotion about the topic of the discussion. The screen is split and Mike Mills looks towards him, with an air of discomfort and his arms folded. There is no effort on anyone else’s part to address either McQueen’s or the moderator’s questions. One director states, “I don’t know.” That’s a perfectly reasonable response. The topic is layered and complex and when faced with that kind of question in a televised roundtable, it may be difficult to formulate an answer. My issue has less to do with their choice not to respond, and more with expectations of Mcqueen and other “minorities” to do so. Sometimes we don’t know either. Sometimes we just want to sit there, absolved and unaffected like everyone else. Sometimes we want to have the choice to not engage in a discussion about “race” even though our skin makes us predisposed to contributing to it. It’s the issue of choice, expectation, and association that make this video fascinating to me.
McQueen becomes the center of that choice- his words become exalted to some position of “knowing” because he is black. But I would argue that the other directors have some of that “knowledge” as well- They know why they don’t want to cast black actors in roles, and some may know why or have ideas about why certain blacks films aren’t funded or green-lit by studios, but they have made a choice to sit on this panel and not engage in those ways. Systems of privilege and whiteness have enabled these types of choices, and the “lack” of choice in the case of people of color. In the book White Lies, Maurice Berger states, “Whiteness implied not a color of skin, per se, but a usually unexamined state of mind…(204).” Here, it is excellently exemplified. McQueen is put into the position of “examiner,” determined by race alone. The other directors, by way of race, are not required to say anything about a situation in Hollywood and the country that not only involves them, but also, holds them at the core of it.
I’ve read some online backlash to McQueen statements, labeling him a hypocrite because he doesn’t cast many blacks in his films, and because he didn’t have a “better” and more extensive response to the question. I take offense to the sentiments for two reasons. One, McQueen’s main film Hunger was about the Irish hunger strike, so why would he cast black actors in that? McQueen is also a Black British person. People forget that his very relationship to race and issues that pervade the “American” cinematic landscape are in many ways different than a Black American filmmaker or director. To negate these differences is to not fully understand his responses. In the beginning of the clip, when asked about the “minority” question, he replies, “I must be in America. Jesus Christ.” This is not to stay that racial issues don’t exist in the UK, because they do, but his understanding and engagement with them may be different from a black American, or even white American director. All of this, coupled with the discomfort and large expectation of being the “authority” on race in film, are reasons I take no issue with his response to this question.
I take no issue with people of color not having the “perfect” answer for every race-related question posed, and it’s been a long journey in learning to do that. I still wrestle with myself when I feel I didn’t represent a certain “racial” issue right. But why is that my duty? If we are going to make any progress with race relations in this country and globally, people- white people, black people, Latino people, Asian people, etc. – must be able to have dialogues. Not discussions where one person is expected, by the default of their race, to have the answer. At 1:37 of this video, the moderator asks of McQueen, “Why is that?” in regards to blacks and other minorities not being cast in movies, and McQueen states, “I don’t know, ask them.” The camera opens to a wide shot and no one says anything.
That is the problem.