Column: Meryl Streep’s comments on race and film are misguided

Jury President Meryl Streep attends a press conference at the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Axel Schmidt)

Meryl Streep is one of the most lauded actresses alive, with some even going so far as to call her the the best actress of her generation, citing her three Oscars and numerous accolades. Even an actress of her stature, however, is not immune to the racist culture of Hollywood – whether she realizes it or not.

On Feb. 11, Streep attended the Berlin International Film Festival, for which she is serving as jury president. According to an Associated Press report, an Egyptian reporter asked Meryl Streep if she felt knowledgeable about the films submitted from Northern African and Arab countries, considering her lack of experience with the regional culture. She responded by saying that though she had little experience with the region, she had “played a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures,” and that “there 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." 

Her response to this simple question began very well, but ended very poorly, resulting in an immediate controversy, as reported by the Associated Press and other sources. While her comments on a “core of humanity” appeared to steer her in a safe direction, implying humanity’s common origin in Africa somehow makes us all “African,” is a trivialization of culture. Streep’s response is also evidence that Hollywood culture has created a racist system and mentality that many stars do not even realize they are perpetuating.

It appears Meryl Streep did not mean to say something that should be considered racist; yet, her comments are indicative of an underlying and deeply ingrained racist culture within Hollywood. By calling herself an African, she meant to create a bond between herself and those whose work she would be judging, not to alienate any one. Instead, the comments came off as insincere and a portrayed a dismissal of all the works created by those of Arab and African descent through her assertion that “we’re all Africans.”

Streep is of German-Swiss ancestry. Nobody would ever think to claim her heritage if it were not legitimate. After-all, what’s the point? To prove that one is cultured? It would be nothing short of insulting to claim that as false heritage.

Streep insulted all those Arab and African filmmakers who worked hard to create their films and get to where they are now, as well as the unique culture portrayed in their work. She insulted their proud history and all the strides that their ancestors made in saying that “we’re all Africans.” By trivializing the history of an entire region, she removes the individuality, rooted in culture, that makes every person unique.

Meryl Streep also disregards all the struggles in the ancestral histories of those filmmakers. For much of history, Arabs and Africans were looked down upon for a variety of reasons, including the color of their skin, a mindset individuals and groups protested during the period of African independence movements where many people fought and died to earn the respect all of mankind deserves.

Streep herself is a child of the 1960s, the civil rights era in America. In trying to equate her history with those of Arab and African descent, she disregards the struggle for cultural recognition, civil rights, a portion of her own history and the need for a Civil Rights movement at all.

The worst part of this entire controversy is that Meryl Streep appeared to have no idea that what she said was wrong and insulting. She is one in a long line of public figures who have drifted into controversial waters, only to later claim ignorance. Her comments are reflective of a system that ignores and trivializes both heritage and culture.

Countless films have treated the culture of regions as being of little importance, often depicting a fiction that strays far from reality. Meryl Streep might not have been trying to be racist with her comments, as she would have known such comments would elicit a harsh response. However, even if she can claim ignorance, she has shown that she is just a part of this Hollywood machine as everyone else.


Amar Batra is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section, and is also a staff photographer. He can be reached via email at amar.batra@uconn.edu. He tweets at @amar_batra19.