Let’s be clear: Jessica Chastain helping Octavia Spencer is not the biggest story here.
By Candice Frederick
When I attended the fantastic “Women Breaking Barriers” panel at Sundance Film Festival recently, I wondered if a very pivotal moment in the conversation that centered on equality, the #MeToo movement, and creating spaces for women of power in Hollywood would even be mentioned in mainstream publications. Why? Because the moment came from a black woman, Oscar-winning actress and friend in my head Octavia Spencer, who was amid a conversation about the much-discussed pay gap in Hollywood when she interrupted the status quo to simply state, “If we’re going to talk about the pay gap, we have to bring women of color into the conversation.” Mic drop.
I tweeted about it at the time, and it barely got any traction, which I thought was interesting but not unsurprising. All the conversations and think pieces I’ve read about the pay gap in Hollywood have failed to mention that there’s not only a wide difference between men and women’s salaries but also between white and non-white actresses.
"Women of color make far less than white women. So if we're going to have that pay gap discussion, you have to bring in women of color." Octavia Spencer talking about her experience in the industry w/ J Chastain. Octavia says she is now making 5 x she was before #Sundance2018
— Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker) January 20, 2018
Because it seems to be easier to set white women’s challenges as the default for all women in Hollywood, rather than acknowledge any nuance particularly when it comes to race. But, flash forward nearly a week afterward and it was finally covered by mainstream media, and in fact it has become the lead story from the panel. Though, in a way that merely glazes over the main issue.
Being one of the very few women of color journalists in the room listening to Spencer as she followed this statement with the now famous story of how her friend Jessica Chastain “walked the walk” to help her now earn 5 times her salary was significant. Spencer was emotional, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I too was and remain moved by Chastain’s selflessness and diligence to fight against the status quo in Hollywood even though it was not something that directly impacted her. To Spencer’s own admission, Chastain didn’t even know this was an issue. So, bravo. That is what an actual ally looks like. But let’s be clear: Chastain helping Spencer is not the biggest story here.
Spencer spoke out about a singular issue affecting women of color in a very white feminist space that until that point offered a very broad perspective about some of the important issues that women face in Hollywood. It was a poignant pivot in front of a mostly white crowd that was left virtually silent as she told her story. That is nothing to sneeze over. Perhaps only if you have ever been a woman of color in a white space speaking out about a very specific issue about which most of the room cannot fathom, could you understand how boss this was. Spencer didn’t sound angry (though she would have had every right to be). She didn’t sound sad. She was very matter-of-fact about it, determined to express something that to me and many other women of color is our everyday as we navigate white supremacy. And it is usually ignored, discarded, and undervalued in general feminist dialogue.
There I was, in a sea of white faces, quietly doing back flips in my mind. I feebly hoped the conversation would stay on that for a moment, especially after the audience applauded. And I was hopeful when another black woman panelist, actress Tina Lifford, praised Spencer and said, “You stood up and had a vulnerable and difficult conversation with your friend. If we don’t talk about it, and be vulnerable enough and transparent enough…honestly addressing where you are and being willing to share that opened the door.” For a moment, it seemed like the three of us were the only ones in the room, having another one of our black women-only talks. But, we were among many other women, seemingly having the conversation on our own because no one else had anything to say on that topic.
The talk shifted rather abruptly to other matters, which included an emphasis on creating a united front with men on the fight against inequality in Hollywood. But wait a minute? Did we pivot from an issue affecting a historically underserved group of women to talk about the importance of allowing men to have a platform in this #MeToo movement? Why yes, yes we did.
Cathy Schulman, an accomplished producer who I’m sure has had to deal with her own share of ridiculousness in Hollywood, tried to create a more welcoming environment devoid of “witch hunts” and “men-hating.” In fact, during the final Q&A segment, she helped actively encourage men to step forward and engage with the panel—and they ended up dominating the floor. Sure, it’s important that men be a part of the conversation as they still hold most of the power in Hollywood, but particularly they need to support and uplift female voices that have for too long been suppressed.
Similarly, feminists in Hollywood and beyond need to step forward as allies and not only acknowledge but take necessary steps to create the sisterhood they’ve come to celebrate by doing what they can to help support the challenges their sisters of color face. And when a woman of color steps forward with her unique experience in the #MeToo movement especially in a white-dominated space, it’s a moment in which she should be heard, praised, and centered.