Discourse on social media tends to follow a pattern. When it comes to Hollywood, the cycle starts with a casting announcement or a new trailer or a movie release — some high-level choice is publicized. Depending on the politics or representation involved, fans and critics react on social media and news sites with either celebration or vehement backlash. Sometimes Hollywood responds; mostly it doesn’t. Then we wait for the next choice to be made. As consumers in this era, our relationship to art tends to be reactive because we’re not privy to the decision-making process, much less the internal struggle an actor might face when deciding whether or not to sign onto a potentially controversial project. Over the weekend, Daredevil actor Vincent D’Onofrio subverted that pattern by opening up a discussion on Twitter about whether or not he should take a role — specifically, that of a real-life “irredeemable racist.”
When it comes to race, the American political climate right now is, in a word, awful. Racists openly rally and murder people, policemen routinely kill the people they are paid to protect, the government endorses a group that is a modern-day gestapo, and people who dare to protest this reality are relentlessly misrepresented by right-wing media. In light of this, anyone producing art right now carries a responsibility by default to consider that climate when producing work that involves race; when they don’t, that discourse machine kicks into high gear, often bringing overwhelming backlash online and in the media. D’Onofrio has clearly seen this happening — to Scarlett Johansson, Ed Skrein, Joseph Fiennes — and now, given an opportunity that could put him in that camp, seems to be giving the moral dilemma a lot of thought.
On Saturday, he asked his Twitter following whether or not it would be appropriate to take on the role of a non-fictional “irredeemable racist” in a show, given what’s going on in the world. “I’ve never asked a public question like this,” he added in a follow-up tweet, later explaining that “right now it is important [to] pick a side whether it’s art or not.”
I am going to ask a question to everyone that cares to answer it. I have an opinion which I will not reveal. Is Now the right time (considering the world in which live right now) for me to play a real to life characte who is irredeemable racist in a dramatic series?— Vincent D'Onofrio (@vincentdonofrio) August 11, 2018
Since posting, the original tweet has amassed over 3,800 replies and counting, including several from other actors like Dane DeHaan, Michael McKean, and Carl Weathers. Opinions have been all over the place: some argue that acting doesn’t reflect on the morals of the person taking on a role; others say now is not the right time to contribute to a project that might make a destructive character relatable in any way. Some are horrified that an actor might be so fearful of their audience that they feel the need to ask something like this in the first place.
I don't want to live in a world where racists can't be redeemed. That would be a world not worth saving.— Jason A. Quest (@jasonaquest) August 11, 2018
Everything depends on whether you’re promoting racist behavior or illuminating its effects on society. #BePeace— Carl Weathers (@TheCarlWeathers) August 13, 2018
Hope you read this! pic.twitter.com/JhmqMRLkr6— Christian The Actor (@CAJostTheActor) August 13, 2018
How much of that trepidation is based on your concerns about the project itself? Obviously the climate is different today, but I presume you wouldn’t turn down the part of an irredeemable racist in a movie like BlackkKlansman, right? If you aren’t 100% certain it’ll work, bow out— Greg (@waltisfrozen) August 13, 2018
when considering playing darkness i think it’s important to consider if the consequences/retribution they pay for their behavior matches the bad they put into the world in a realistic way - if there is human justice equal-to-or-greater-than their evil - then i consider it...— ptolemy slocum (@ptolemy) August 11, 2018
Even ‘redemption’ stories make me cringe because it’s usually the oppressed having to teach racist lessons instead of racist learning on their own. I’d tread very carefully. You’re a great actor and thanks for asking, prompting dialogue on touchy subject.— Westworld Auntie (@DPMCanty) August 11, 2018
D’Onofrio couched his original question in the caveat that he already had an opinion, though he does not say where he landed on the decision after receiving copious Twitter feedback. In follow-up tweets, however, D’Onofrio responds to many fans that give us a look at where he might stand. “I am a bleeding heart libtard snowflake who wears his heart on his sleeve,” he says to one tweet. In another response, D’Onofrio says that while he has played evil characters in the past, the growing racism he’s witnessed has left him wondering how he can “help turn it around & stop this rise of hate.”
The fact that he’s struggling with the decision, let alone that he’s choosing to publicize it, is more or less unprecedented for a prominent Hollywood celebrity. In the past, actors who have taken on white supremacist roles, such as Edward Norton in 1998’s American History X or Patrick Stewart in 2015’s Green Room, didn’t have to contend with the potential social media backlash that actors right now face; in a pre-Trump presidency world, those films and the attached performances were critically acclaimed. Today, the public would unquestionably devote a far higher level of scrutiny to the day-to-day minutia of a project like these, which center neo-Nazis.
In other responses, D’Onofrio further underscores this era’s markedly different tenor: “Our souls ... are at stake right now ... We are in trouble. Our civil liberties are being threatened.” “Racism is rising it’s ugly head & getting normalized in the most cryptic & insidious ways,” D’Onofrio reasons, adding that he believes it is time to “pick a side.”
It makes sense that such a heavy subject was weighing on D’Onofrio’s mind over the weekend. It marked the first anniversary of the killing of counter-protester Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally last year in Charlottesville. White nationalists also held an anniversary rally in Washington, DC, where some openly donned Nazi imagery.
By having this discussion with fans, D’Onofrio shows that he’s actively reflecting on his impact as a celebrity and actor, while at the same time dramatically reducing the likelihood he’ll face a Scarlett Johansson-level backlash should he take on a dubious role. Most of all, though, he’s got people thinking about the role of art in a world that feels like it is on fire: there are no easy answers, but the fact that powerful, visible people are willing to talk at all about what they don’t know is a good start.
The fact that I am receiving so many opinions tells me that I asked the right question. This is something thats on our minds. Racism is something that is truly happening&rising in our society. If it's not in your house then it's in your neighbors house. It's down your street— Vincent D'Onofrio (@vincentdonofrio) August 12, 2018