Culture with a cause: Will Smith, Hozier and Beyoncé and when doing good looks bad
It’s been a big week for culture with a cause. Three of the world’s biggest artist’s each threw their respective cultural weight behind projects that weren't just for entertainment but that actually meant something. But sometimes, doing good can look bad.
As the barriers between celebrities and us have reduced, their influence has increased. To see these towering figures of our society engaging with culture by picking up causes and doing good in this way is massively encouraging. But having a cause is hard. Even for cultural behemoths like these. As this week showed, it’s a difficult line to tread.
This week saw the UK launch of Concussion, the latest film from mega-star Will Smith. It’s a film focused on the NFL concussion crisis. A hugely significant issue threatening the sport itself, it's based on evidence that a career in the NFL caused several athletes serious brain damage and in some cases death. For a Hollywood film to pick up this issue is undoubtedly a good thing. However, the thing that stood out most to me watching a trailer, the pretty poor accent put on by Smith. Smith plays a young Nigerian doctor named Dr Bennet Omalu, but his attempt to mimic the doctor stands out like a sore thumb. Watch the trailer below, and judge for yourself.
This speaks to an issue that has been doing the rounds in film circles recently, the under-representation of black actors in major roles, that has led to some boycotting this year’s Oscars. Sadly, in reality, Concussion is a film that probably wouldn’t have been made unless Will Smith was attached. It feels like a major missed opportunity for a younger actor, maybe even one with an actual African accent. A great cause, but in its execution, Concussion revealed another huge issue in society.
Another tremendous cause this week was picked up by Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. Working alongside Saoirse Ronan, Hozier released a single and video ‘Cherry Wine’ aimed at raising awareness for domestic abuse, proceeds of which will go towards multiple domestic abuse charities. An incredibly worthy cause. But in some ways the video itself speaks to part of the problem. Ronan stars in the video as the victim of domestic abuse, incredibly moving and certain to illicit a response.
But listen to the lyrics, and it’s clear that the song itself was written from the perspective of a male domestic abuse sufferer. But that wasn’t the video they made, probably because it wouldn’t have raised as much money and might not have been made at all. Male domestic abuse remains a taboo. On the one hand a wonderful cause and the more money made to support those charities the better. But similar to Concussion needing Will Smith to be made at all, Cherry Wine needed that video to serve its hugely positive purpose. Both incredibly noble causes, but each equally reveals themselves as part of a different problem.
And then there is the queen of pop culture herself. Beyoncé, a cultural figure so significant that she was even able to overshadow the Super Bowl itself. Ahead of performing at the halftime show, Beyoncé dropped a surprise release of her new single Formation and with it a video that shook the Zeitgeist like very few can. The video for formation includes references to the Black Lives Matter movement, civil rights generally, lyrics such as “Stop shooting us”, riot police and the notoriously slow official response to Hurricane Katrina (where poor, predominantly black lives were seemingly deemed not to matter).
If that video wasn’t shocking enough, Beyoncé stole the show at the Super Bowl with a live performance that sent shockwaves through the country. Performing her new single alongside a troop of dancers in Black Panther attire, Beyoncé put black rights issues on a global stage. But as you’d imagine, the performance wasn’t without its critics. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani criticised the star, saying that her performance undermined the police. There was even a protest at NFL headquarters protesting against Beyoncé’s own half time protest! In this case however, it feels like the positive sentiment has far outweighed the negative.
Three examples of culture with a cause, each with lofty ambitions, but each that in their execution, revealed issues beyond their intention, particularly the examples of Smith and Hozier.
Now don’t get me wrong, these are all absolutely worthy causes and actions, and each should be commended. The biggest takeaway though, is just how important having a cause really is. The more connected world has had many consequences, but one of them is greater accountability. We see more and more of the lives of those we look up to, and it shines a greater light on what they do and don’t support. We all also have our own platforms to publish and comment. Whether we believe or not in what our favourite celebrities are doing, we all have the ability to express it.
The result is that having a cause is more important than ever. Celebrities, athletes, politicians and brands - they all need a cause. So while the cultural causes picked up by these three celebrities may have had some issues in their execution, they are both necessary and vital. What the Beyoncé example in particular shows, is that one of the key attributes for a person or a brand picking up a cause, is having thick skin. With any statement worth making, there will always be a backlash, or a reason to row back and not make that point so strongly. The key is having the strength to stick with it. There may be issues with the way these three celebrities picked up their causes, but ultimately, the key thing is that they did. Whatever the criticisms, whatever the issues, long may they continue.