“But freedom is somehow always conditional here. You’re free, they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so …free.”
Jesse Williams’ powerful words spoke directly to the Ali-sized hole in our hearts. His freedom and unapologetic Blackness stroked us in areas where we are often cut. Those of us who are no stranger to Williams were not surprised by the unflinching truths he delivered in his speech at the BET Awards because the actor and activist has always spoken candidly about these issues at length. However, what we saw Sunday night came right on time. Similar to the surprise release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade on the heels of the death of Prince, Williams’ speech provided comfort in the wake of Muhammad Ali’s passing.
When Ali died, the world mourned the boxer, yet for the people he fought for outside of the ring, the loss represented something so much greater. Ali risked his personal freedom for his beliefs and his people, and because of it, his platform became our spotlight. Ali’s voice was our microphone, but last month, Parkinson’s disease finally achieved what racism failed to do—silence him forever. Our broken hearts found comfort in Williams’ speech, but it also shed a spotlight on his peers, too.
From violence against Black bodies to manipulating the way stories involving people of color are portrayed, the need for social activism is huge, but the silence by some celebrities is deafening. People-powered hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite have led to increased conversations, and actual improvements, in Hollywood about the need for diversity and how it impacts the way stories are told. Media matters. Stories help shape how people view the world, and often, how they views those in it. The lack of inclusion in Hollywood has ramifications beyond the screen, and often affects those behind the scenes too. Shows like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black recently came under fire for incorporating the Black Lives Matter movement in its storyline while having no visibly Black writers on staff. Many felt the OITNB writers missed the mark on such an important issue. Instead of capturing the nuanced lives of Black folks, critics accuse the show of capitalizing on Black pain for the sake of a storyline—and the bottom line.
Since Hollywood’s diversity problem came to the forefront, Black actors have been asked to weigh-in. While some, like David Oyelowo and Viola Davis, have been extremely critical of the film business for its lack of inclusion, others have suggested that Black actors just need to work harder if they want to make it in the film industry. In a recent interview with People magazine, Kevin Hart said, “People will look for any excuse to play the race card in Hollywood." Hart, who has been giving Samuel L. Jackson a run for the “hardest working man” title, credited his non-stop work ethic for his box office success.
"You want it to be more diversified, you want to see more diversity, but a lot of people make attention and draw attention by talking about it whereas if you just work and progress, you eventually put yourself in a position to help the problem by bringing more people into the business,” Hart said.
While Hart is correct—all actors need to work hard to makes it in the business—the lack of quality roles for Black actors, coupled with the lack of diversity behind the scenes often make it difficult for actors of color to find work in the first place.
In the face of police brutality the lack of diversity in Hollywood seemingly pales in comparison. But if Black celebrities won’t speak out on so-called frivolous issues like the film business, how can we expect them to advocate for life and death issues like racism and oppression?
In all fairness, perhaps some Black actors understand the cost (financially and otherwise) of being as “free” as Williams. Perhaps they are aware that their freedom in Hollywood is conditional. After all, they have freedom of speech…but acting too free, or speaking up too much, may cost them jobs, and ultimately, their livelihood.
Thankfully, this threat has not silenced everyone. Recently, the Blackout for Human Rights has used their platform to discuss police brutality, the water crisis in Flint, and prison reform. The group is comprised of artists, activists, and filmmakers who use their “energy and resources to address injustice against Americans.” This amazing collection of people includes Nas, Nate Parker, John Legend, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Williams, and more. The aim of Blackout is to “raise awareness that builds and maintains pressure on the instruments of power until we are satisfied that the current threat has passed.”
If Blackout’s goal is to be achieved it certainly requires each participant to challenge the “conditional freedom” Williams spoke about in his speech. This sounds like a huge task and risk—huge but conceivable…and not in the hereafter. Word on the streets is the hereafter is a hustle anyway.
If we want freedom now, collectively and individually, we have to step up. Applauding from the sideline is easy, carefully crafted public statements are common, and allowing others to be your social justice mule is simply out of the question.
The only question now is who will stand with Jessie? As the chatter around his speech dies down, let’s hope the real response has only just begun.
Shanita Hubbard is a mom, writer, traveler, speaker and social justice advocate. Her background includes juvenile justice reform, nation-wide consulting and collaborating on multi-million dollar grants. However, she is most proud of her title as the Mom of an amazing black girl. Follow her on Twitter