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After Sexual Misconduct Allegations, Race Colors Stars' Reputations Differently


Casey Affleck is a front-runner for a best actor Oscar for his performance in "Manchester By The Sea." Allegations of sexual harassment by two female crew members have surfaced from his past, but these accusations have not derailed his career at all. In contrast, Nate Parker, director, writer and star of the film "The Birth Of A Nation," was accused of rape in 1999 when he was a student at Penn State. Parker was acquitted. His accuser later committed suicide. And the story clouded the promotion of his passion project earlier this year. Anne Helen Petersen, senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, wrote about the public images of these two actors.

ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Well, one of the interesting things about Nate Parker is that his image was somewhat unformed until this film, "The Birth Of A Nation," was released at Sundance last January. He was well-known amongst the black movie-going public and had been in several, you know, mainstream Hollywood films, including "The Great Debaters" but still wasn't a household name.

Casey Affleck has been a household name almost since the late '90s. He was in a supporting role in "Good Will Hunting," which was the movie that made Matt Damon and Ben Affleck household names, and it was a very memorable role. He was kind of a smart aleck-y (ph), backseat brother. And then as Ben Affleck got more famous, Casey Affleck's career was developing, you know, not nearly in the same way, but he was still someone that people knew who he was. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role in "The Assassination Of Jesse James." So he's been part of this Hollywood cognizati for a very long time.

CHANG: Yeah.

PETERSEN: And I think that, you know, the way that either of the Afflecks or Matt Damon, like, the likelihood of a white, working-class guy succeeding in Hollywood is just more than a black guy. There are more roles for white people. There are more ways to find connections, find mentors, become producers - all these sorts of things. Even though we think that there's no barriers in Hollywood, absolutely there are.

CHANG: When you look at celebrity profiles in trade publications like Variety and Hollywood Reporter, they barely mention the allegations against Casey Affleck. But that is not the case for Parker, who has had entire articles devoted to the allegations. Is this about, also, the PR strategy on behalf of these two actors? Did Parker's PR team just fail?

PETERSEN: I think Parker's PR team decided that they were going to meet the allegations head-on right away. This movie comes out at Sundance. It's a huge hit. No one really knows about this guy. But if you even look at his Wikipedia page, it's like - oh, he was accused of rape. So what are we going to do? We're going to put it out in the open and say, you know, there's nothing to be ashamed of here. This is - you know, he was found not guilty. Let's put it behind us and talk about the movie. And that was their strategy that started in late August. And it just completely backfired on them.


PETERSEN: Because they made the conversations about the rape front and center. I don't think they had fully considered that the accusation and the trial and everything that was endured by this woman who accused him of rape would become part of the public record, would be readily accessible online. There's no way you can spin that. And Casey Affleck's PR strategy has been, let's just not talk about them at all. You know, maybe people will feel like they need to put a paragraph in there about them or ask one question, but by decentering them from the conversations that he's having, that also decenters them from his image.

CHANG: Would that have worked for Parker?

PETERSEN: I don't think so. Affleck has enough things to talk about with this film. You know, there's all of these conversations about your craft in this film - right? - and how did Kenneth Lonergan end up casting you instead of Matt Damon? There's these larger conversations of, you know, tortured artists and that sort of thing, whereas Parker, because his image was so unformed and also because "The Birth Of A Nation," the film that he produced and directed and starred in - you know, the plot of it hinges on the rape of a woman.

CHANG: Right.

PETERSEN: Rape is central. Sexual violence is central to this film.

CHANG: So Casey Affleck is married to the sister of Joaquin Phoenix, a famous actor. He is the little brother of another famous actor, Ben Affleck. And he grew up a block away from another famous actor, Matt Damon. To what extent is his success - and the treatment of him after all these allegations - a product of privilege?

PETERSEN: I think it's all about privilege and its very myriad manifestations. So a lot of people, right after this article came out, would respond to me on Twitter or something. And they'd say, the difference between these two allegations is so simple. It's all race. And absolutely, race is part of it. But it's about white privilege but also all of the privileges that are clustered around being a powerful person in Hollywood.

CHANG: And to what extent is this also about women's place in society? Is it easier to dismiss behavior when the behavior is allegedly targeted at women?

PETERSEN: Oh, absolutely. And I think it's also easier to dismiss this sort of behavior when it doesn't involve rape because one thing that was said to me a lot in the aftermath of this article was that well, of course, you know, people aren't mad at Casey Affleck. He's just doing what guys do, locker room behavior. He is excused because that's just how patriarchy works. And I think that within that scenario, women are taught over and over again that this is just the way things are.

CHANG: Anne Helen Petersen, senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PETERSEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 26, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier headline and Web summary for this story did not make it clear that Casey Affleck was accused of sexual harassment, not sexual assault.
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