Actors! They Say the Darndest Things

So Anthony Mackie is the latest actor to make headlines for some rather unfortunate comments around diversity. So unfortunate, he’s being lumped into headlines along with Matt Damon.

Ouch.

This time, I don’t feel quite as icky about the comments, but I still see problems with them.

While doing press for his latest film “Our Brand Is Crisis” The Daily Beast asked Mackie if he thought it was important for a person of color to direct Marvel's upcoming “Black Panther” movie. He answered, “I don’t think it’s important at all.

“As a director, your job is to tell a story. You know, they didn’t get a horse to direct “Seabiscuit”! The thing is, I don’t think the race of the director has to do with their ability to tell a story. I think it’s all about the director’s ability to be able to relate to that story and do it justice. I think men can direct women, and two of my greatest work experiences were with female directors. So I think it all depends. May the best man — or woman — win.”

On the one hand, well done. Mackie is a proponent for merit. He’s making a clear case for diversity not as a sure thing, but as a consideration in a leadership role, one that does not automatically come before talent or skill.

But it’s irresponsible to say that diversity doesn’t matter at all in this kind of situation. Not because it is the end all, be all. It’s not. A white director is perfectly capable of directing a black cast, and vice versa. It’s been done before and done well.  

But to say so definitively that it’s not important that a black director helm a black film is to say just that, that it’s not important. And as in many matters a la diversity, it’s not necessarily what we say but what people hear that counts.

Do we really need more reasons out there to discount the importance of diversity? Do we really need to suggest by any stretch of the imagination that black directors — or black leaders, or brown or female or gay anyone — are unnecessary or should not be given equal consideration when it comes to leading projects of great scope or significance? The short answer is no. We absolutely don’t need to suggest or to say that. To do so is to encourage — to support — the status quo.

Those who would like the whole diversity thing to vanish like a puff of movie smoke will hear: “See? Diversity doesn’t matter. It’s all about insert-thin-substitute-here.” That’s not what we want. That’s not what I want. I doubt that’s what Anthony Mackie wants because it’s not that simple. This isn’t merely a question of race or even skill, this speaks to opportunity.

He said in that Daily Beast interview in different ways, about different topics, that he is quite conscious of what he says, and how he lives, of the contribution he puts out into the world.

Diversity is one of those topics that deserves, no requires, that level of consideration. Until we no longer use things like gender or skin color or sexual orientation to wholescale judge merit, diversity and inclusion must be handled a certain way. They must be fed, clothed, exercised consistently in a certain way. People with a platform, with reach, whose voices we seek out and listen to, must be aware that diversity cannot be dismissed, not lightly, not unintentionally, not mistakenly. Every slip moves the needle back and makes it that much harder to move it forward again. That’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

“Black Panther” is still looking for a director. Comments like Mackie’s might lead Marvel to think it doesn’t need to look very hard for a black filmmaker to lead the first installment of this franchise. That would be unfortunate.