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Harvey Weinstein shows Hollywood protects its abusers – until their star begins to fade

Rumours about the Hollywood mogul’s behaviour have been around for decades. Why have the allegations surfaced now?

Abuse of power comes as no surprise. The latest high-profile scandal sees Hollywood producer and studio executive Harvey Weinstein accused of sexual misconduct, harassment and rape, with accusations dating back over the course of his 30-year career in the film industry to today. Actresses as famous as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie have come forward to claim he harassed them, while three women told the New Yorker Weinstein raped them. A spokesperson for Weinstein insists he denies “any allegations of non-consensual sex”.

After the string of accusations against figures such as Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, it’s hard to feel shock or even faint surprise at the alleged behaviour, or that Weinstein’s power and connections allowed the claims to remain a secret for decades.

“This has been an open secret to many in Hollywood and beyond,” Ronan Farrow writes in the New Yorker, introducing his ten-month investigation into Weinstein, “but previous attempts by many publications, including The New Yorker, to investigate and publish the story over the years fell short of the demands of journalistic evidence. Too few people were willing to speak, much less allow a reporter to use their names, and Weinstein and his associates used nondisclosure agreements, monetary payoffs, and legal threats to suppress these myriad stories.”

Why is it only now that these horrific stories have become public? Undoubtedly, the conversation about sexual violence has improved over the last decade, which, hopefully, has enabled more women to speak up with less of a fear of being automatically, overwhelming disbelieved by the public. The shift is clear in how accusations against other powerful men in the entertainment industry - such as Fox chief executive Roger Ailes - have only recently surfaced after many years.

But while a wider awareness of the dynamics of harassment has clearly played a role, there is almost certainly another, less positive reason these stories have come to light. Weinstein is no longer the industry kingpin he once was.

Once one of the most reliably powerful players in show business, Weinstein’s stock has declined steeply in just a couple of years. As recently as 2014, he was still considered the one man in Hollywood who could secure an Oscar win for any film he wanted. By 2017, that reputation had almost entirely faded away.

The Weinstein Company was founded in 2005 when brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein were on a winning streak. Having founded distribution company Miramax in 1979, grown its reputation for producing critically and commercially successful films until it was bought by Disney in 1993, and released a sequence of major successes (Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love), they were extremely well placed to start their own independent production company.

For years, The Weinstein Company delivered what it promised, finding critical acclaim and box office hits. 2009-2014 were particularly successful years for the company, with Inglourious Basterds, The King’s Speech, The Artist, The Iron Lady, Django Unchained, Silver Lining’s Playbook, The Imitation Game, Philomena and more.

Weinstein once prided himself on his ability to win Oscars for his pictures, and has long been obsessed with finding the winning formula that gets a movie an Academy Award. In 2014, Vulture wrote that Weinstein “pioneered the modern Oscar campaign” through a tried-and-tested combination of “big schmoozy events, whisper campaigns, and old-school cold-calling”, running through the campaigns from 1990-2014 that saw him secure “more than 300 Academy Award nominations to date”. 

And then, in 2015, around the same time the company faced massive layoffs, something changed. The company’s most critically successful films of the period (Lion and Carol) aside, TWC it has struggled to offer Oscar contenders or big box office hits.

It’s not for a lack of trying, as usual: The company has been deliberately making awards-focused films. It hoped Woman in Gold would secure an Oscar for Helen Mirren, Southpaw for Jake Gyllenhaal, Gold for Matthew McConaughey and The Founder for Michael Keaton, all to no avail. “This year, to put it mildly, TWC has not been the big-dog awards presence that Harvey Weinstein — who practically invented the campaign fervor that now defines Oscar season — once prided himself on being,” Variety wrote in December 2016.

Box office returns have diminished over the same time period –Jane Got a Gun, Leap!, Burnt, The Founder, Gold were all labelled flops. “The luster of the Weinstein brand isn’t what it used to be,” the LA Times observed, “as the company has dealt with a tough two years at the box office”.

In recent years Weinstein has also developed a reputation for being attached to long-delayed projects, embarrassments hidden out of sight for as long as possible. As IndieWire noted in 2015, it happened to Grace of Monaco, Suite Francaise, Shanghai and The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet. More recently, the release date of Burnt was repeatedly changed for fear of bad word-of-mouth reviews, as was Jane Got a Gun.

Perhaps the most obvious example of all three of these trends converging is in the disastrous release of Tulip Fever, which will now be Weinstein’s last release with TWC. As Vulture explains, it lingered in pre-production for years, only being filmed in mid-2014. In 2015, when “rumors had been flying over the quality of the film and the health of the Weinstein Company in general,” its release was delayed repeatedly from May 2015 until September 2017, where it was revealed to be less than “the Oscar-contending drama… Weinstein had hoped to engineer”.

In two short years Weinstein appeared to have lost his Midas touch, and with it the power to hand out successful careers. It’s not hard to see how that may have weakened his ability to maintain a veil of silence around his behaviour. Many women have have cited his influence, and a lack of support from other industry professionals, as factors in their reluctance to come forward. “If Harvey were to discover my identity, I’m worried that he could ruin my life,” one former employee told the New Yorker. “It felt like David versus Goliath,” another added, “the guy with all the money and the power flexing his muscle and quashing the allegations and getting rid of them.” Had they felt that other powerful men in Hollywood had their back, perhaps they would have felt able to speak up sooner. But for decades Weinstein was more powerful than pretty much anyone else.

Since the allegations have surfaced, Weinstein’s career seems to be over for good. But rumours about his behaviour have been around for decades, and the struggles of The Weinstein Company have been discussed by industry insiders for just two years. This perhaps speaks to a worrying truth: in Hollywood, no matter how many stories about abusive behaviour circulate, the powerful and successful are safe from public exposure – as long as they remain powerful and successful.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist