Why sexual harassment allegations against the actor shouldn’t just be swept under the rug.
Awards season has officially begun. On Monday, Variety’s Gotham Awards kicked off in New York earning Casey Affleck a Best Actor award for his role as Lee in Manchester by the Sea. Just yesterday, The National Board of Review also honored the film with several accolades including Best Film, a Breakthrough Performance honor for Lucas Hedges, Best Original Screenplay for Kenneth Lonergan and Best Actor for Affleck. Affleck’s journey to nabbing a coveted Best Actor statue at the 2017 Academy Awards still has a long way to go, but thus far he is receiving the right mixture of critical acclaim, industry buzz and awards to shepherd him along the path. Nothing is a guarantee when it comes to the Oscars, but gaining the right momentum early on can sometimes steamroll into the inevitable.
Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler (Affleck), a man broken by a devastating tragedy in his past who must now deal with the fallout from his brother’s death. In addition to trying to find a funeral home and making burial arrangements, Lee must also cope with his teenage nephew, Patrick (Hedges), who is trying to cope with grief while still desperately clinging to his way of life in the face of drastic and inevitable change. One of the triumphs of Lonergan’s screenplay is perfect balance of tragedy and comedy. Lonergan expertly explores the absurdity of death and the unexpected gut-punch of grief using both heart wrenching scenes and the gentle release of black comedy.
When Lee discovers he is unable to bury his brother, due it being winter in Massachusetts and the ground being frozen, he explains to Patrick that the body will remain in a freezer until the spring. In a later scene, as Patrick rustles through the freezer looking for food, a cacophony of frozen chicken spills out onto the floor. The teenager begins weeping and gasping for air in a panic – for Patrick, the sight of frozen meat instantly triggers the flood of grief he has been holding back thus far. He can’t bear to think of his parent frozen like a Popsicle. As someone who has lost a parent, Lonergan’s portrayal of death is as close as it gets to experiencing the chaotic kaleidoscope of emotions that can overtake you in just a single day. It is this moment, which shows how grief can overtake you when you least expect it that hits harder than even the much talked about confrontation between Lee and his ex-wife, played by an always outstanding Michelle Williams.
Overall, Manchester by the Sea is an exceptional film driven by multiple strong performances and Lonergan’s masterful writing and direction. But there is more to the story that we should be addressing. Last week, The Daily Beast published a piece detailing two sexual harassment lawsuits brought against Affleck by two women who worked on his 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here. These allegations are not new, but they have been surprisingly absent as profiles and reviews have begun to surface surrounding Affleck’s performance in the film.
Amanda White, who served as a producer on I’m Still Here, filed a $2 million dollar lawsuit against Affleck in July 2010, while Magdalena Gorka, the film’s director of photography, filed a $2.25 million dollar lawsuit just a week later. The complaints detail disturbing allegations of sexual harassment and humiliation. Gorka had initially left the project due to an unwanted advancement on the part of Affleck, who allegedly climbed into bed with her during the course of filming. It was White who ultimately convinced Gorka to return to the project, as part of her duties as producer, but White too had been dealing with harassment and unwanted advancements by Affleck, who also allegedly encouraged crew members to harass her. The testimony of both women in these complains paints the picture of an unprofessional workplace in which they were constantly targeted with sexual innuendos, threats, intimidation and harassment.
Initially, Affleck threatened to countersue Gorka and White but eventually a settlement was reached out of court, the details of which have not been made public. The allegations have been dismissed by Affleck who said the following, “I guess people think if you’re well-known, it’s perfectly fine to say anything you want. I don’t know why that is. But it shouldn’t be, because everybody has families and lives.” Thus far, as positive reviews of Manchester By the Sea, which opened in theaters on November 18, have begun to dominate the headlines, Affleck’s statement has seemed to suffice for most. The complaints and settlements have barely been a blip in most profiles on the actor and haven’t dominated the conversation or detracted from the film’s success.
And here a question must be raised: why so for Affleck but not for Nate Parker, who saw his own Academy Award hopes for Birth of a Nation derailed as the details regarding an accusation of rape, of which Parker was eventually acquitted, resurfaced in the lead-up to the film’s premiere. Allowing Parker’s past to dominate headlines while ignoring the allegations against Affleck certainly speaks to an ugly double standard rooted in race. As critics and journalists, it is our responsibility to press harder, to have uncomfortable conversations about harassment and sexism in our industry with the goal of improvement. Just as many have demanded that media not normalize the alarming behavior of the President-elect, the film community must not allow allegations of sexism and harassment to become mere footnotes for the sake of art. In doing so, we are complicit in fostering a dangerous workplace for women; this excusability sends the message that these kinds of violations are negotiable.
This goes beyond any individual actor or filmmaker. This means acknowledging that as a culture we reward men who have been accused of mistreating women so long as they counterbalance it with exceptional works of art. It means acknowledging that we are willing to compromise the inherently autobiographical nature of art so that the artists we admire can remain uncomplicated. But when we consider the flip side, the countless women on both sides of the camera who have seen their talents devalued, debased and ignored for nothing more than the sheer myth of inferiority, it is a stance that demands immediate re-evaluation and change.