Omari Newton calls out on-set bro culture in wake of #MeToo
Editor’s note: Omari Newton is a creative force who has made a mark in multiple cities across Canada: in Montreal, where at 19-years-old he won accolades for his performance in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ with Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company; in Ottawa, where his play ‘Sal Capone’ will run in the second half of the National Arts Centre’s 2017-2018 season; and in Vancouver, where he’s straddled the screen and theatre worlds as an in-demand actor (‘Continuum’), producer (‘The Shipment’), playwright (‘Sal Capone’), and teacher. Social justice issues are important to Omari – he writes about them on his Facebook page, Visible Minority Report – and are central to his work in the arts. Omari will be writing about social justice issues – and how they intersect with the entertainment industry – for YVR Screen Scene. –SF
The #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on the more insidious realities in the entertainment industry.
The sexual assault, coercion, and exploitation of women has long been an industry-wide epidemic. As a man who strives to live his life respecting the basic feminist principle that men and women are equal, lately I find myself reflecting a lot on the horrifying realities in the industry in which I work.
Most men like to see ourselves as “one of the good ones,” and the ridiculous, criminal behaviour of serial predators like Harvey Weinstein offers us a dangerously convenient excuse to pat ourselves on the back, anoint ourselves the nebulous title of “good guy,” and carry on with our lives.
But, are we really good guys?
Famed UCLA coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is looking.”
If we as men use this as our “good guy” metric, would this designation still apply to us?
There are many difficult questions we must ask ourselves as men if we truly want to be allies. How am I complicit in this problem? Am I doing everything I can to be a proper ally? Because not being a sexual predator simply isn’t enough. To paraphrase the great urban philosopher Chris Rock, you don’t get credit for shit you’re supposed to do.
Wrestling with these questions has led me to reflect on the times I lacked the courage to pass John Wooden’s good guy test. While I’m grateful for the career I’ve managed to cobble together, I have absolutely worked on projects knowing full well they normalized rape culture, misogyny, and the objectification of women. I’ve also engaged in or encouraged jokes that perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women. Not on a scale comparable to the infamous Trump Access Hollywood tapes, but, sadly, I think we men should hold ourselves to higher standards than the current POTUS.
In the past I’ve rationalized taking roles on overtly misogynistic projects to myself, my wife, and other important women in my life with arguments like the following: “I’m just an actor on a show. Should Anthony Hopkins feel responsible for murders because he played a serial killer once?”
These days I feel pretty embarrassed for trying to make this false equivalency. Sexual assault and coercion are daily issues for women in ways that are overt and more subtle. Systemic. Serial killers are a very rare phenomena, and portraying one doesn’t perpetuate attitudes that make life harder for groups already fighting an uphill battle.
Reflecting on my role in upholding or dismantling patriarchal BS in professional settings reminded me of a particularly disheartening experience I was part of while working on a TV series a few years ago.
The show was a raunchy comedy meant to mock the absurdity of college life. While I had a great experience working on the series, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the dangerous messages we promoted and the part I played in solidifying them.
While willingly taking part in highly questionable scenes was a regular occurrence on this show, one incident that stands out in my mind involves a time I was asked to rub body paint all over a nearly nude young actress.
The scene took place at a frat house party. The woman who I was meant to essentially grope was playing a character featured as part of the party’s entertainment: an object to be poked and stared at in a hyper-sexualized fashion.
In my regular life, I would never take part in anything like this scene. Aside from being an introverted person with a penchant for social awkwardness and anxiety, in situations like this I can’t help but think of my sisters: how horrified I would be to see them dehumanized by men in this way, and how disappointed they would be in me for taking part in anything like this.
Ultimately, my desire to do a great job professionally, and to continue being well liked socially by my colleagues won out. Like a good actor, I committed to the scene, but I wanted to make sure I let my scene partner know that I knew this was just business.
Growing up in a house with two sisters, I have become attuned to how guarded and cautious women must become around certain men. There’s a secret vocabulary of non-verbal distress signals that women use among themselves when they’re dealing with aggressive, predatory men who won’t take no for an answer. I’ve always feared being considered “that guy.” For this reason, I was extra sensitive to making sure my scene partner felt safe.
My conversation with the actress went something like this:
“Salut, mon nom est Omari. Plaisir de travailler avec vous!”
(I’d overheard this woman speaking to a crew member in French a few moments earlier, and thought speaking to her in her native language would put her more at ease).
“Salut! Mon nom est Sophie.”
(I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy)
I then extended my hand in the most formal, asexual way possible, my nervous voice taut and overly friendly, like a Black version of Ned Flanders. All I was missing was a,
“Nice to meetily-deetily you!”
Mercifully, I didn’t go full Flanders and managed to say something like,
“As tu froid? Avez-vous besoin, comme, d’une couverture ou quelque chose? Ma copine a toujours froide, donc, sit u as besoin de quelque chose, ill suffit de demander.”
She was dressed in a robe that she’d been given by production to wear between takes. This is standard practice when nudity is involved on set. I asked her if she was warm enough. I told her that my girlfriend was always cold, so, if she needed anything, just ask. I really wanted to make a point of being as non-threatening, non-creepy, or generally non-gross as was humanly possible.
“Merci,” said Sophie, thanking me for the gesture. She seemed at ease, much more so than I did to be honest.
“Je veut juste m’assurer que tout va bien? Si vous n’etes pas a laise avec quoi que ce soit dans cette scene, faites le moi savoir, d’accord?”
I told her I just wanted to make sure that she was comfortable, and that she could let me know if anything at all in our scene made her uneasy.
Even though I knew that the details of what would happen in the scene had likely been discussed with her agent and okayed by the union, I felt (and still feel) that it’s important to personally ask permission to touch any woman’s body, even if I’m directed to do so as a character on a TV show. Enthusiastic consent is the only kind of consent that is legitimate to me, even in a contrived interactions as happen on film sets.
“Tu es trop gentil. Merci.”
She said I was too kind, smiled, laughed, and thanked me for the reassurance.
Feeling happily-dappily about my efforts, I walked over to my chair to let the crew continue setting up for the upcoming shot. Before I made it to my seat, the episode’s guest director sidled up next to me with a knowing smirk on his face.
“What were you saying to her?”
He said this with the devious grin of a college sophomore waiting to hear juicy hook-up details from a frat bro.
“Oh, not much,” I said. “I was just introducing myself.”
He stared at me in disbelief and said, “Come on. I saw her laughing and smiling. You were talking for a while...”
This director furrowed his brow and locked eyes with me conspiratorially. His face was loaded with all the smarm of a late 90’s Vince Vaughn at the pinnacle of his douche-bro screen persona prowess.
“No, honestly man. I was just introducing myself, and… I wanted to make sure she felt, like, comfortable with all of this…” I said sheepishly, worried that I’d just tanked my bro cred with this director.
“Dude! She’s fine with it,” the guest director said, laughing. “I thought you were scoring digits.”
“Nah man. I’m not that good. Give me a minute.”
We shared a laugh, and he then walked off.
Despite all of the care I made upfront trying to make this actress feel safe, the second she was out of earshot, there I was, indulging in a conversation that reduced her to a prize meant to be won. I prioritized being “one of the guys” in the eyes of another dude.
Here’s where I, like most men, am part of the problem.
Being an ally shouldn’t be a part-time job. It shouldn’t be something that only extends as far as a man’s comfort zone. If we truly want to help, we need to channel our inner Ned Flanders at the risk of seeming lame in front of other dudes.
This mentality of being “one of the guys” is what allows men at the highest levels of show business to attend high profile award ceremonies and remain conspicuously silent on issues of abuse while every woman present is talking about it.
Like most men, I’m late to the party, but I’m determined to do better moving forward. It would be absurd to ask the victims of a bully to solve bullying alone, and it’s equally absurd to expect women to combat systemic abuse at the hands of men by themselves.
I should have found the moral courage to tell this director how lame I thought he was acting – that I didn’t think it was funny or appropriate or necessary to view this guest actress as a sex object, regardless of the scene she had agreed to do, or the type of show we were on. Sadly, I imagine the director would have laughed and looked at me like I was an insane person even if I did speak up.
Regardless of the outcome, I could have been part of the solution.
Toughing out a career as an actor is no easy feat, especially in Canada where local talent is often relegated to short contracts on American productions. While I have no regrets about the roles I’ve had the opportunity to play, the emergence of movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo have forced me to reflect on what side of the issue I’ve been on.
Our sisters don’t need us wearing pins, retweeting hashtags, or making public declarations of solidarity. Men need to acknowledge that we’re all part of the problem and thoughtfully, actively do better going forward to ensure we are a tangible part of the solution.
This is our mess, guys. We have to work twice as hard as women if we are truly committed to scrubbing the vile stain of rape culture out of our industry for good.
Follow Omari Newton @OmariAkilNewton.