Actor Benedict Cumberbatch has recently apologised for using the term ‘coloured’ on US television in a discussion about the lack of opportunities for non-white actors. The Gryphon asks: was the backlash against Cumberbatch justified?
While it is clear from the context of Benedict Cumberbatch’s interview on the U.S Travis Smiley show that his racial slip up was unintentionally malicious, the current backlash from his use of the term “coloured” is still a necessary reaction, as the comment has caused visible discontent.
Firstly, as a public figure, Cumberbatch is in a position of power. What he says and how he says it is of great significance, as people are influenced by him and therefore the nature of his job requires him to be very careful with his words.
Even though he was speaking in defence of British black actors regarding the limited opportunities they receive in the industry, his offhand comment should be recognized. As an educated man of thirty-eight, this sort of “slip up” cannot be justified by the cliché of old aged ignorance. Having starred in the historical drama film Twelve Years a Slave, Cumberbatch should be even more sensitive as to what terms are appropriate to say, especially in the context of an interview in which he is arguing for the progression of black actors (oh the irony!).
Knowing what is offensive and acceptable is the duty of every person when describing somebody’s race, gender, religion and sexuality.
Although some may view the backlash towards Cumberbatch as nothing but a quibble over semantics, this attention to detail is significant in a modern, multicultural society. Knowing what is offensive and acceptable is the duty of every person when describing somebody’s race, gender, religion and sexuality. It is only by this kind of close consideration that we can ensure the respect of others, and should not be a matter taken lightly or dismissed as political correctness gone mad.
Many have come forward in defence of Cumberbatch, such as black actor David Oyelowo and Guardian journalist Hugh Muir, stating: “Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t cause me to press my outrage button”. However, the fact remains that although some have not being offended by his use of terminology, others have, and therefore reserve the right to air their feelings and opinions.
Although not a direct racial slur, the term “coloured” has carried pejorative meanings for years and its usage should therefore be refrained from, when it clearly still causes upset in the general public. Backlash does not occur without cause and although Cumberbatch has publicly apologised for his use of “outmoded terminology”, offence has been taken.
However, given the circumstances of the event and the sincerity of Cumberbatch’s apology, it is evident that the Sherlock actor made a genuine mistake when speaking with good intentions. Instead of focusing solely on Cumberbatch, his error should perhaps serve as an example of society’s need as a whole to become more attentive towards the feelings of others, in order to promote political correctness.
Benedict Cumberbatch put his foot in his mouth last week and utter chaos ensued. Cumberbatch, a successful and respected actor, used the word ‘coloured’ rather than ‘black’. News of the unfortunate gaffe was reported on all platforms; some enlisting the tiresome ‘-gate’ for ludicrous measure. Cumberbatch swiftly released a sincere apology for the deep offence caused and subsequently launched a fresh round of press to salve the Internet’s fury.
Should Cumberbatch have apologised for offence caused? Yes. The term ‘coloured’ is outdated and along with the likes of ‘half-caste’ simply seems incongruous with today’s society. Was the outrage fitting for the crime? No. While it’s ironic that Cumberbatch used a colonialist term when highlighting the disparity in roles for black British actors and actresses in the U.K, and while it is always pertinent to pay close attention to detail, excessively doing so can serve as an obstacle in allowing us to engage with the main issue. Antiquated terminology aside, Cumberbatch has made a valid and crucial point that has seemingly been overlooked.
The majority of Britain’s leading black actors have indeed received their starring roles across the Atlantic. David Oyewolo was limited to minor roles on British television before joining blockbusters that include Lincoln and The Butler. Oyewolo is now the star of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar nominated Selma. Chiwetel Ejiofor, although a vaguely familiar face, only met international acclaim in 2013 when he starred as Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave. Ejiofor is now filming four films due for release this year. Idris Elba, a beloved figure on British television, is widely known for BBC One’s Luther but was impressing American audiences in 2002 with his role in HBO’s The Wire. Elba’s participation in huge Hollywood productions such as Takers, Prometheus and Thor will have certainly influenced his attainment of the coveted lead role in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. David Harewood frequently addresses the bleak opportunities for black British actors on their home turf and maintains that even after his success in the critically acclaimed Homeland he struggles with substantial work in the U.K.
While it is always pertinent to pay close attention to detail, excessively doing so can serve as an obstacle in allowing us to engage with the main issue. Antiquated terminology aside, Cumberbatch has made a valid and crucial point that has seemingly been overlooked.
The danger with simply shouting down those who speak up is that we restrict the discourse that is necessary to change the circumstances concerning race and it’s relationship with opportunity and success. Cumberbatch is an actor whose words, as this last week has certainly proved, are relayed to a wide audience. His public lambasting over the poor choice of wording that formed a true statement of good intention will only serve as a deterrent against others speaking out.
Black actors and actresses have long been stressing the disadvantages they face in the entertainment industry. While always ensuring that their experiences are shared, the addition of the voices of their white counterparts calling for change can only be a good thing. If all are championing the ideal of diversification, whether on screen or behind the scenes, then the outcome is something unified, resounding and essentially, far harder to disregard. In light of this years Oscar nominations, it is perhaps more necessary than ever.