It’s been a week since Jane Campion received backlash for her now infamous Critics’ Choice Awards speech. As she accepted the accolade for Best Director for her film The Power of The Dog last Sunday, Campion started out by acknowledging the “incredible women” in the room. She playfully declared that Halle Berry “had already done [her speech] and really killed it.” Then she set her sights on Venus and Serena Williams (King Richard, the film about how their father shaped their career, was nominated for 6 awards).
Campion shared with the audience that she had personally taken up tennis before inviting the pair to her house to give her lessons. As if all of this wasn’t bizarre enough, she somehow managed to put her foot in her mouth even more. Right after sending “love” to the guys, she said: “Serena and Venus, you are such marvels. However, you do not play against the guys like I have to.”
The cameras then immediately turned to the audience to gauge a response. Viewers saw an uncomfortable smile flash across Venus’ face while Serena chose to clap along with her peers in the room. Campion finally thanked the cast and producers of the film as well as Netflix for bringing her idea to life. However, the damage was already done. If her intention was to promote feminism and solidarity in Hollywood, then why humilate Black women to do it?
Shortly after her speech, the internet was ablaze with anger, confusion and disgust. Author Saeed Jones tweeted: “That Jane Campion whiplash is a perfect distillation of white feminism.” Writer and actor Ryan Ken noted: “It’s so revealing when you attempt a point about sexism and your first thought goes to minimizing Black women. Into a microphone. While accepting an award. Looking at them in their faces & smiling. This is exactly why you have to wait a few business years to clap for white women.”
The day after the ceremony, Campion issued a statement in which she explained she “did not intend to devalue these two legendary Black women and world-class athletes.” Whether her apology was steeped in sincerity or simply a strategic PR move is irrelevant. It will never erase Campion’s insistence on diminishing the achievements of Black women to feel important. Only a privileged white woman–the daughter of a famous theater director and actress no less–would find it appropriate to compare her “plight” to two Black girls from Compton who’ve competed in the white world of tennis their whole lives.
As the smoke clears from the fire Campion set and then attempted to put out herself, Black women won’t forget it anytime soon. It was just another cruel reminder that the world will always punish us for just existing. Though King Richard was nominated that night in several categories including Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Screenplay, Reinaldo Marcus Green was not up for Best Director; Campion went out of her way to ridicule the Williams sisters. The way Serena and Venus have been treated on and off the court for decades is common knowledge. It includes everything from having their femininity attacked to racial slurs being hurled at them from hecklers during matches. Campion knew about their mistreatment–King Richard literally underscored it–but chose to harass them anyway.
The New Zealand native–like other bigoted white people and non-Black people of color–participate in anti-Blackness whether they choose to admit it or not. It’s why sports commentators make derogatory remarks about the bodies of Venus and Serena like clockwork. It’s why newspaper cartoonists portray Serena as an animal. And it’s why she nearly lost her life after childbirth– doctors didn’t believe Serena when she told them she had a pre-existing medical condition that could kill her.
The problem with Campion’s words wasn’t thoughtlessness, as she stated in her apology. The problem is the complacency of global white supremacy, which has always been very well thought out. The director–and people like her–will do or say something discriminatory, insist they’re remorseful and then move on to their next endeavor with no consequence. This cycle is as old as time itself.
The truth is Campion is not an anomaly–she is the norm. The world will coddle her racism because that is what it is built to do: protect whiteness at all costs. And while she is plotting her next film treatment, Black women–the group of people that are always the lowest hanging fruit–will be forced to brace themselves for the next casually racist encounter.