“While young critics dream of being pull-quoted, I asked for mine not to be used. Here’s why.”
Like some critics, I’ve thought about the feeling of seeing my name attached to a film I loved. It was an unspoken daydream, caught between idealized professionalism and nascent wonder. For Black writers, the chances of being pull-quoted are less, considering the disparity in access to new releases and staff positions. I remember hiding the excitement of my first. It was for Bob Byington’s “Frances Ferguson.” “Play it cool. Act like you’ve been there,” I thought.
Months later, at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, I watched Jason Lei Howden’s “Guns Akimbo,” a film I loved. A few months later, the publicist contacted me to request the use of my quote: “A spectacularly fun and exciting time.” I responded instantly, in the affirmative. A month later my quote appeared in “Guns Akimbo”s second trailer.
However, a few short weeks later, events nearly turned tragic. From the night of February 20th to now, Twitter would convulse with outrage against the use of a racial slur, would condemn bullying, and normalize the usage of that slur. And a director would make dangerous and false accusations of attempted murder against two Black critics, torpedoing his own film in the process. My journey through this initially began through anger: seeing a slur used by someone I know. Then it moved to worry for their safety. It went into overdrive after a visceral reaction to a director using his platform for gaslighting. For lies. For racism. This became a cycle of blindspots, and a constant blockage of discussing race, suicide, and alliance.
To understand this chain, I unfortunately have to start at the beginning. It began when the Editor-in-Chief of the now-defunct Much Ado About Cinema, was accused of using the n-word in one of her direct messages that apparently was written four years prior. She initially denied it, claiming the screenshot had been photoshopped. On Thursday, February 20th, she would admit in a lengthy apology the veracity of the screenshot and her use of the racial epithet. She was quickly denounced, and many of the writers from her outlet (some who were women and people of color) stepped down. The incident created a swift storm on Twitter, with many (white) trolls attacking her.
Her writers’ decision to step down was courageous. Because for a young critic, to leave a steady outlet and position on the basis of morality isn’t the easiest of decisions. They should have been applauded; instead they were quickly made the perpetrators by some, hissed at in the same breath as those hurtful trolls, though their actions weren’t comparable.
They were made the brunt of Twitter’s ire because as cruelly as a timeline can change, the aforementioned editor posted three videos. In tears, she shared her hurt. She also intimated that she was committing suicide, and had been very public about her past and current struggles with suicidal thoughts. Director Barry Jenkins offered an appeal for her safety, and many of her former writers mobilized to find help for her, to call local emergency responders. She was found and saved. Even in this trying moment, her writers were still her closest friends. Once again, they should have been applauded.
Instead, Twitter turned again. Without knowing the full story, only hearing scraps of information, some heaped blame, and did so in a ratcheting battle of self-aggrandizing platitudes struggling between simplicity when discussing mental health, race, and rage. Many perspectives were right at once: Her writers deserved the right to leave. Apologies can be given but forgiveness takes time. Criticism was warranted. Bullying definitely was not.
Worst yet, in the midst of these events, many mostly white writers called for greater kindness when dealing with someone’s mistakes, while ignoring that the anti-Blackness and racism participated in shouldn’t be dismissed as merely a mistake. And asking Black people to react with kindness when someone uses the n-word is thoughtless and damaging. Many white writers composed extended Twitter threads to denounce trolls, but far fewer lines of text were devoted to speaking about the racial implications of this near-tragedy. For many Black writers, it was another example of race either being minimized by our white counterparts or flatly ignored.
Jason Lei Howden (director of “Guns Akimbo”) took the unsettling events further. He denounced “woke Twitter,” though no one has ever defined what woke Twitter is to me. (However, I have a passing dog whistle of an inkling.) Howden then proceeded to post the handle of every writer and editor who stepped down from their respective role at Much Ado About Cinema. He accused them of being “hacks,” essentially targeting and weaponizing his followers against them. Many of these critics are relatively young, though no less professional, and to a point, are as unprepared to face the vitriol from a group of Twitter goons. When the matter was brought to Howden’s attention, he deleted the tweet, but proceeded to double down on his disgust with those writers who left their positions.
He later proceeded to defend his decision, mostly by attacking many of the Black writers who accused him of normalizing the usage of the n-word. Moreover, the crux of his argument rested upon the belief that no one’s perfect, “So who were any of us to judge?”
Such reasoning is flawed and ironic. Specifically because “Guns Akimbo,” his most recent release, follows Daniel Radcliffe in a supercharged hyper-masculine gaming world where humans are weaponized to fight each other for the entertainment of those on the dark reaches of the internet. Radcliffe plays a troll forced into participating after the creator of the game along with his henchmen surgically bolt guns to his hands. Radcliffe’s character finds the ultra-violent audience consuming the game to be abhorrent, and the pumped-up sycophants worshiping a violent lifestyle they’d never commit to in real life are seen as repulsive. The film is meant to target online bullying.
When Howden posted a list of writers to hunt down, he essentially advocated retribution; he was a bully behind a keyboard accusing others of bullying. He used the term “woke culture” as virtue-signaling to condemn Black writers who have spent their whole lives recoiling to the very syllables of the n-word, which from the lips of a white person often dehumanizes or worse. Here, Howden’s worldview thrived on the inherent awfulness of those who denounce him. “Surely, they’re not perfect either,” he intimated. And yet, why must Black victims be perfect to gain the same respect and empathy he falsely regaled us for not having?
For these reasons, on February 21st, I consulted the editor of RogerEbert.com Brian Tallerico for us to contact the publicist so permission for the use of my pull-quote could be rescinded. Ever-present and supportive, Brian to my mind is the model editor. We discussed the ramifications of a film being composed of more than just its director. Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, and a host of others perform at their best in "Guns Akimbo"; they didn’t deserve to be caught in the crossfire as much as the former writers for Much Ado About Cinema deserved it. I certainly contemplated that if a spiral of events caused by emotional knee jerks led to this moment, I might be only perpetuating the cycle with my own hollow act. Because surely the studio wasn’t going to pull past marketing for a film already in theaters. At worst, if I did nothing, my quote could appear on a DVD cover.
Brian said he’d support my decision 100%. Nevertheless, I’m ashamed to say that if I had actually taken the night to think on it, I would have calmed. I would have drawn back. I would have been petrified by the fear that I am a Black writer, and I have a personal worry of losing everything. That speaking out would label me a distraction, a problem, an emblem of “woke Twitter.” Even when a Black writer is given support, these thoughts still race through our or my head.
Later that day, I witnessed Howden briefly unblock a Black critic named Valerie Complex (@ValerieComplex) only to accuse her of bullying and of attempted murder, even though Valerie wasn’t even online when the events took place. A white male accused a Black woman of a major crime, and yet no immediate outcry came against the abuse she suffered. I guess Black wounds aren't deep enough for another censure of “woke Twitter” to occur again. Instead, it festers until the next cycle of controversy, only for white critics to wonder, “Why is she so aggressive?”
So on the morning of February 22nd, I gave the all clear to Brian: “Let’s pull the quote.” Later that day, @DarkSkyLady would write a blog post for Medium on the varied ways white critics minimize racial slurs. From his film’s official Twitter page, Howden harassed her, and also accused her of attempted murder, even though the evidence clearly said otherwise. Over the course of the next 12 hours, he would deactivate and reactivate his Twitter. And then a tweet came to my attention, one present on his then-private account. He tweeted side-by-side pictures of Valerie Complex and @DarkSkyLady, almost like a wanted poster, and called them “disgusting ‘film writers,’” while doubling down on his lie that they bullied. That’s when the dam finally broke, and over the course of Sunday most critics and anyone else on Twitter condemned him, 26 hours after he initially accused Valerie.
I’ve not been able to grapple with the ramifications of the past 72 hrs. It began with a slur, turned into tragedy, then a plea for kindness, and then the complete opposite of kindness ensuing from a director. Through every bit of this there was bullying, the normalization of a word that shouldn’t be, and a very slow-footed response to people of color who were equally as bullied and in trouble. It presents a lot of confirmations of what many think Twitter is, but not many solutions.
I don’t have any either, because some of this began and continued due to oversimplifications of very nuanced issues that are often attacked blindly or with only partial vision or not at all, and typically with a hatchet. I know that we’ve gotten terrible at emotional multitasking, of accepting many truths at once, and delineating the importance of each with respect to context. And that we still aren’t willing to be ever conscious of race and gender, or remembering that there are some who despise that ever-consciousness.
But we can become better at listening; become better at learning the appropriate responses to actions. We can strive to learn the appropriate responses to actions, to not minimize feelings nor slurs. And we can understand that “ally” is a four-letter word whose meaning and action shouldn’t only be understood during moments of crisis, but every day.
Many should look at their timeline. How often do you share a Tweet from women of color? How often do you talk about films from people of color? How many people of color do you actually follow on Twitter? You might be disturbed by the numbers. Twitter’s an echo chamber, but it’s even more so if you curate your feed that way.
Past that, understand that you have a platform, no matter the size. Your voice can be amplified not just for bad—a bad you should be wary of—but for good, too. Don't pass up the chance to use your platform for good, for the people who most need it.