A catered luncheon at the Sundance Film Festival, celebrating women in film, turned into a tense discussion of race and privilege Saturday, with former “Daily Show” correspondent and rising star Jessica Williams both caught in the crosshairs and boldly stepping up to educate her elders on the prevailing beliefs of the contemporary feminist and anti-racist movements.
As reported in the L.A. Times, it all started when the conversation turned to the current political climate, and Salma Hayek, at the festival with Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” advised her fellow female Hollywood elite to “be careful that we don’t fall into victimization.” Shirley MacLaine chimed in, urging women to “find the democracy inside” and to explore their “core identity.”
That’s when Williams stepped in, who turned to MacLaine and asked, “What if you are a person of color, or a transgendered (sic.) person who — just from how you look — you already are in a conflict?”
MacLaine responded: “Right, but change your point of view. Change your point of view of being victimized. I’m saying: Find the democracy inside.” Hayek jumped in, asking Williams this doozy: “Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman? Who are you and what have you got to give?”
Williams reportedly took a deep breath, and responded: “A lot. But some days, I’m just black, and I’m just a woman. Like, it’s not my choice. I know who I am. I know I’m Jessica, and I’m the hottest bitch on the planet I know.”
After “Mudbound” director Dee Rees added some thoughts, Williams delivered the A-listers a free lesson in intersectional feminism. “I also feel like the word ‘victim’ — I feel like it has bothered me,” she said. “When I talk about feminism, sometimes I feel like being a black woman is cast aside. I always feel like I’m warring with my womanhood and wanting the world to be better, and with my blackness — which is the opposite of whiteness.”
When celebrity chef Cat Cora interrupted to share an anachronistic childhood anecdote, “Transparent” director Jill Soloway jumped in and re-directed the conversation back to Williams. Williams continued: “I think there is a fear that if we present an idea that, ‘Hey, maybe [black women] have it a little bit harder in this country’ — because we do, black women and trans women do — if we’re having it a little bit harder, it doesn’t invalidate your experience. I really am begging you to not take it personally.”
The entire exchange is uncomfortable to read, especially given the reporter’s observations of Williams’ physical discomfort and carefully measured responses. The story quickly circulated on social media, with many prominent women of color voicing their concern and support.
The author Roxane Gay tweeted to Williams: “I don’t know how you maintained your composure. And you deserved better there from the women who didn’t defend you.” To which Williams responded, “[H]onestly to their credit every single queer person who was there jumped in. Which was really really affirming & helpful.”
— Jessica R. Williams (@msjwilly) January 28, 2017
As Hollywood gears up for Oscar night and its racially inclusive nominees and (hopefully) winners, candid conversations like these do wonders to expose how much work so-called allies must do to raise up marginalized voices.
Hayek, who is of Mexican and Lebanese origin, is certainly a woman of color, one who struggled and faced prejudice early on in her career. However, that does not mean she knows what it is like to live as a black woman in America. She appeared to show little compassion for Williams’ position: “Baby, I’m Mexican and Arab,” Hayek said. “I’m from another generation, baby, when this was not even a possibility.”
Martha Plimpton, currently starring on ABC’s “The Real O’Neals,” tweeted: “Don’t address another adult woman with “baby” in a debate in front of business colleagues. Under any circumstances.”
Don’t address another adult woman with “baby” in a debate in front of business colleagues. Under any circumstances. https://t.co/LPjTBiCyxa
— Martha Plimpton (@MarthaPlimpton) January 29, 2017
“I feel misunderstood on one point: We should be also curious about our brain,” Hayek added. “By being the best that you can be. That’s what I was trying to say to you. Let’s not just spend all the time in the anger, but in the investigation.” Intentionally or not, by bringing up “anger,” Hayek relied on harmful racial stereotypes (the “angry black woman”) to make her larger point.
That larger point appeared to be the fallacious notion that if a member of a marginalized group is simply “the best,” (read: works twice as hard to get half as far), they will be rewarded. Hayek’s background was one of privilege; her father was an oil executive and her mother was an opera singer. Her perspective is one that disregards systemic racism and this country’s history of institutionally sanctioned violence against black people.
Williams, whose speech was roundly praised as the best of the Sundance Women’s March, took on a room full of Hollywood A-listers and came out even more beloved for it. In dark times ahead, Hollywood is lucky to count Williams as one of its brightest young stars. Now it just has to listen.
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) January 21, 2017