Filmmaker Xavier Burgin: How It Feels to Explain Nate Parker to White Hollywood
Burgin details how he's given frank lessons about race and gender to Lena Dunham, Ellen Barkin and Amy Schumer.
Lena Dunham's September interview with Amy Schumer for her Lenny newsletter ignited controversy when Dunham complained that she was ignored by New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. at the Met Ball, saying, "[His] vibe was very much like, 'Do I want to f— it?' " When Twitter exploded with cries of racism, filmmaker Xavier Burgin, 26 — a Sundance Lab fellow and a mentee of Ryan Murphy's Half Foundation — calmly reached out to Dunham. He agreed to speak to THR about the experience on the condition that we also would include a black woman in the conversation. That part of the interview, with Blackish star Yara Shahidi, is here.
I've been using Twitter (@XLNB) to tell funny longform stories and also to comment on race, gender and sexuality issues for a long time. Some of my stories have gone viral, and actors and filmmakers I really respect have started following me. As a young black boy coming out of Mississippi, I never thought that would be possible. Through social media, I've had the opportunity to speak with Lena, Will Packer, Dana Delany. Ellen Barkin asked about [Birth of a Nation director] Nate Parker's sexual assault controversy, and I replied that black women more often than not are there for black men, even when we haven't been good to them. Here, they were asked to ignore the tribulations of gender to serve the purpose of race. We can't demonize them for either choice.
The day Lena posted her Lenny Letter, everybody in the Twittersphere was talking about it. Then Amy tweeted that men of color tend to catcall more. Catcalling is a pervasive problem, but that's a very racist idea. So I tweeted: "Hey, this is bad, why would you say this?" Amy said someone else was using her account and that the three of us should talk on the phone.
It was a good, honest conversation. I explained the problems of pinning sexual undertones on black men because that has gotten us killed, going back to the slavery era. You cannot push the idea of hypersexualization on a black man because of its ramifications for us. And you cannot make assumptions about someone who hasn't spoken to you, which is what happened with Odell.
I also want to acknowledge that it's a problem that people reach out to me [about these issues] but not to black women. As a man, there are points that I am not completely equipped to explain because I have not lived the experience. Much of what I've learned comes from discourse with black women, but for some reason, many individuals would rather hear it from a black man, a white man or a white woman. Feminism is a beautiful necessity; the problem is when it excludes women of color. It would be great for celebrities who have these platforms to listen to more diverse voices.
When I choose to talk with white people about oppression, some balk — they don't want to deal because many of these institutions benefit them. In that situation, there's nothing I can do. But many others are beginning to deconstruct ideas they've been taught for a long time. If you're willing to have a civil conversation, we might be able to figure out how we connect as people. For me, that was the most important thing with this.
This story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.