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There’s a billboard on the Tel Aviv highway that proclaims “We Love You” under a picture of Wonder Woman. More accurately, under a picture of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. In Israel, she’s kind of a big deal. And if you’re wondering why all you have to do is watch her late night interviews. She mentions her home country in all of them. Jimmy Fallon? Check. Kimmel? Check. Even Conan. And Conan didn’t even interview her. During a segment where she takes him through her workout regimen, he mentions that she was trained in the Israeli army (she served for two years). Now imagine you live in a country like Israel, where United States exposure to your culture is limited. And if somehow you do manage to break into the cultural sphere, odds are the focus isn’t really on where you’re from. It might be mentioned in an offhand question - “You’re from so-and-so, what do you think of America?” - but the bulk of the questions will be fun personal anecdotes about your breakfast, your kids, or that time you met that other famous person and you were just so star struck. But there’s Gal. On American TV. Talking about Israel.
Oh, and then there’s this:
“I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens. Especially all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children...We shall overcome!!! Shabbat Shalom! #weareright #freegazafromhamas #stopterror #coexistance #loveidf”
This is pulled from a 2014 post she made on her Facebook page. The event she's referring to is Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli offensive designed to aid in the continued effort to arrest control of Gaza from Palestine. 2,100 Palestinians, 1,462 of whom were civilians, died in the attack, which lasted almost two months. So when Gal talks about “overcoming”, that's what she’s talking about. The deaths of civilians in a brutal, tragic, unnecessary religious war. When the Late Night hosts talk about her military service, that’s what they’re talking about. Using hashtags like “stop terror” and “coexistence” come across a little hollow when you’re talking about the slaughter of innocent, indigenous people.
That was Gal’s last post about the IDF. Her team must have decided that it probably wasn’t a good thing to have Diana Prince endorsing the murder of innocent civilians. But that was 2014. Two years and $200 million later Wonder Woman is breaking records and making a strong case for the financially viable female-driven blockbuster. Nearly twenty years after superhero films gained mainstream acceptance we get a successful Wonder Woman film. And it looks like good things are coming. Three of the ten top films at the Box Office this week were helmed by women. Megan Leavey, a war movie that made $3.8 million its opening weekend, also featured a predominantly female writing staff. If this trend continues, roles that have been dominated by men in the past may finally be opening their doors to gender diversity. Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures has been responsible for films like The Master, American Hustle, and Zero Dark Thirty. Sofia Coppola just won Best Director at Cannes. Things look like they're changing.
But then there’s that pesky quote from Gal. What do we do with that? In the era of the internet, where everything is written in stone and if you step out of line the social justice warriors will come banging down your door, how can a statement so blatantly jingoistic and racist slip by?
Birth of a Nation won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2016. Fox Searchlight bought the picture for $17.5 million, a record. Leading up to its release later that year it was getting serious Oscar buzz. It’s star - Nate Parker - who also wrote and directed the film had been working in relative obscurity for twelve years, and at thirty-seven was starting to reach the age where you either break through or are kindly shown the door. This was his breakthrough. To his credit, he was smart about it. He tried to get in front of it. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how out in front of it you are.
“I was sure it would come up. It is there, on my Wikipedia page…”
That’s from an interview with Deadline from August of that year. The thing he’s talking about, the thing from his Wikipedia page that would be sure to “come up?” It’s under the ‘controversies’ tab (It’s the first one. There are three). In 1999, Parker and friend/writing partner/wrestling teammate Jean Celestin were accused of raping a drunk and barely conscious woman in his dorm room. Celestin went to jail. Parker did not. Multiple witnesses attested to the intoxication of the victim, whose prescription medication may have mixed poorly with the alcohol she consumed that night, yet the view of the court was that she was able to and did give consent to Parker, just not to his friend.
Things did not go well for Parker after that interview. In appearances he made on Good Morning America and 60 Minutes he maintained his innocence. He would come across as callous and cold when asked about the rape. People pointed to his lack of sympathy for the victim, an attitude which did not go over well when it was revealed that she committed suicide in 2012. Many also criticized the invention of a rape in Birth of a Nation, a biopic, to motivate Parker’s character to action. He would eventually wreak vengeance upon the rapists, in some twisted combination of wish fulfillment and apology.
The film didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. Edward Zwick, a producer on the film, called the situation “painful,” saying that “...obviously, mostly, you feel for a very, very problematic circumstance and a tragic circumstance for a young woman.” Birth of a Nation was about Nat Turner, an African-American preacher during slavery who lead a revolution against the Caucasian slave owners. He is regarded as one of the most important figures of the slave era. His story is one that needed to be told. Birth got a wide release, rare for a Sundance movie. It opened in 2,105 theaters and made $7 million it’s opening weekend, placing it at #6 in the top ten. Ultimately it played for nine weeks, earning $15.8 million. It’s production budget was $8.5 million. Fox purchased it for $17.5 million. The general rule in Hollywood is that you double the production budget to account for advertising, so if you combine that number with the amount Fox spent just to acquire the rights, Birth of a Nation made $15.8 million off of a $34.5 million dollar budget. 46%. Fox was counting on the Oscars to push it into the mainstream. Small movies like that generally lose money on a wide release without awards buzz. More than anything, Fox Searchlight needed it to be a success so they would be willing to spend money on another important film that people need to see. Instead, Nat Turner, the hero, was beaten out by Nate Parker, the villain.
Zarefah is a college student at the University of Washington. She's the Social Justice Coordinator at the UW Bothell Campus. She was recently featured in a fantastic Al Jazeera article called Palestine in Motion, where she talked about her heritage. She’s from Gaza. On May 29th she made a post on Facebook saying to “BOYCOTT WONDER WOMAN” with a link to a Guardian article about Gal’s IDF post. A couple people responded in agreement, thanking her for sharing something they hadn't heard about before. A couple people responded on the opposite side.
“Sooo.. I should boycott a movie because an actress who was in the army supports the army she was in. Right.”
“Well considering Hamas is a terrorist organization, I’m ok with her sending a prayer to Israel.”
I reached out to Zarefah to ask her how she felt about all of this. Not only the movie but the post and the response to it. She brought up a side of it that I hadn’t even considered: race.
“Female representation in media is incredibly important. Not only in media but as well as politics. And I think a struggle that many women face, especially women of color or the LGBTQ community, is the women presented in the media for the sake of progressiveness have never stood with either group of women.”
And that’s a problem. A big problem. There was the chance with this film to make real progress. Not white progress, not passive progress. There was a fictional, powerful, Amazonian character, and she could have been any race. She could have stood for real feminism, not white feminism. And instead, we cast someone who was white. Not only that, we cast someone who was white and endorsed genocide.
Despite the few comments on either side of the spectrum, most of them fell, predictably, towards the apathetic. A majority of the commenters echoed the same statement, over and over: “still gonna see it.” Most people just didn’t care. And I think that’s the real problem with Wonder Woman. We made it so easy not to care. How did Gal get away with her pro-IDF Facebook post? It’s simple. The difference between Gal Gadot and Nate Parker is that Nate Parker was a really obvious target. The woman who he raped killed herself. He couldn’t have been more of the villain of that story if he had been twirling a long, greasy mustache. But how many people here in America even know what’s going on between Israel and Palestine? How many care?
For the wealthy, the white, the apathetic, we gave them another Hollywood blockbuster that they wouldn’t have to think about. So what if the star said some stuff online? Everyone’s just too sensitive these days, and it’d be a shame to miss such an important movie for such a small reason. Except for a lot of people, it’s not a small reason. “The lack of empathy is mind boggling sometimes,” said Zarefah. “If they wanted to make a feminist political statement through the film, they wouldn’t let the member of an anti-African and Arab army that practices the ethnic cleansing of indigenous people play the role of an Amazonian woman. To me, that is sick.” And if you think that none of this really matters anyway, because movies are going to keep getting made and they’re always going to be fighting in the Middle East, what difference can I even make? You’ve forgotten that you have one thing that the studios don’t have. Yet. Your money. And movie studios are businesses, and businesses pay attention to where your money is and why it isn’t in their pockets. No one can accuse Hollywood of being the trailblazers of progress, but they will follow the money. Your money. So spend it wisely.