I’ve experienced the moment before—when a non-black person makes a culturally insensitive or racist remark about a black person. Like when a white woman asked me why author Malcolm Gladwell won’t “do something” to his hair, or the many times people have told me that I’m “different” from other black people. Sometimes I haven’t said anything, not wanting to make a scene, but sometimes (in my less finer moments) I’ve said something sarcastic like “Why does he wear his hair natural, the way a lot of black people do?”
A couple of weeks ago, Samuel L. Jackson had a similar moment with a Los Angeles entertainment reporter. When the reporter mistook Jackson for Laurence Fishburne, another famous African American actor, Jackson first was confused, then annoyed, then punishing. The interview went viral immediately, headlines reading, “Samuel L. Jackson destroys reporter.”
If you haven’t seen it, and don’t mind viewing a public shaming, take a look
It’s humiliating, right? And so unnecessary. Yes, Jackson was right—what kind of entertainment reporter confuses Samuel L. Jackson with another black actor, let alone any other actor? He’s unique, in how he looks, speaks, and the roles he plays. The reporter’s remark was embarrassing and disgraceful to his profession, given Jackson’s notoriety and the fact that his movies have grossed more worldwide than any other actor in Hollywood, be they black, white, Asian, Latin, or otherwise.
So yes, Jackson was right to call him out (on his lack of knowledge and cultural misstep), joking that all black actors don’t look alike. Yes, it was okay for Jackson to press into the reporter’s mistake by bringing to light the fact that black people in this country are often lumped together, confused for one another, and generally not seen, inside Hollywood and outside.
But Jackson went too far. He pushed ‘til all that the viewing audience saw was the reporter’s mangled, bloodied ego on the screen. And because of it, Jackson ended up playing the villain, and no one even remembered the purpose of the interview—to promote Jackson’s new movie, RoboCop.
Why did Samuel L. Jackson handle the moment this way? Was he so fed up with racism and cultural mishaps that this arguably “little” incident just set him off? Or was he just insulted that he could be confused with anyone, given his mega-movie-star status? Was it a bit of both? Whatever the reason, in the midst of doing what was appropriate and “right,” he ended up being so wrong.