It’s been a week for unfortunate comments since our last column, perhaps made even more unfortunate because they weren’t entirely unexpected.
In one instance, an ex-President talked openly about fomenting violence on the street should any investigation into the January 6th insurrection lead in his direction, as well as dangling quid pro quo pardons for the same insurrectionists he hopes will act as jackbooted enforcers of his particular social order. Within this same timeframe — and not entirely unrelated to the particular fanbase the former POTUS was addressing — MCU actress Evangeline Lilly attended an anti-vax rally in Washington, DC, saying she was there “to support bodily sovereignty while Canadian truckers were rallying for their cross-country, peaceful convoy in support of the same thing.”
That same rally was described in a BBC article as “including the appearance of swastika flags and footage of a woman dancing on the tomb of the unknown soldier… as well as threatening/illegal/intimidating behavior to police/city workers and other individuals and damage to a city vehicle,” while some protestors, in incidents that also made the news, “harassed staff at a soup kitchen, demanding free meals after they were turned away by restaurants for their refusal to comply with indoor mask mandates.”
Lilly is, of course, the star of Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp along with Paul Rudd, and she’d found herself in hot water before, having made similar troubling comments at the outset of the pandemic. The Lost alum said she would refuse quarantine and go about her life unimpeded (this while living with a father ailing from cancer), though in that instance she later apologized, admitting that her public posts used language that was “dismissive” and “arrogant.”
Of course, that was before the third installment in the Ant-Man franchise had wrapped production. Now that Quantumania is already in the can, perhaps — as with the ex-President — she’s sensing fewer restraints on such inflammatory comments.
Still, as The Mary Sue noted, Lilly’s latest posts were “quickly met with calls for her to be recast in the MCU,” adding that “having stars like Lilly share ideas of ‘pro-choice’ about the vaccine is, frankly, a Republican talking point and a dangerous one.”
Even other MCU actors took to the digital airwaves to denounce the recklessness of Lilly’s remarks, with Shang-Chi star Simu Liu tweeting that he’d “lost [his] grandparents to COVID last year. They were still waiting for their vaccines.”
The point here, though, is not to simply scold another celebrity for putting their foot in their mouth, but to consider how their public ignorance might affect below-the-line workers, especially if the actor making such utterances — or perhaps refusing to get vaccinated — was even more critical to a film’s box office success.
What if the actor in question wasn’t Evangeline Lilly (or Black Panther’s Letitia Wright, who may have cost herself a shot — so to speak — at inheriting the Panther mantle from the late Chadwick Boseman with her own public views on the COVID-19 vaccine), but someone deemed more fundamental to that vaunted “billion-dollar box office” that so many tentpole releases now chase?
What would unions have their crew members do, in such circumstances, when working in front of unmasked actors on set, if the actor was considered key to the jobs existing in the first place?
That question may perhaps become moot over the coming months if we can steer clear of new variants. Denmark, for example, lifted COVID restrictions on Tuesday, though America lags behind “critical vax mass,” so we’d be joining them later, rather than sooner.
But it’s an interesting notion to contemplate how far showbiz unions — and their umbrella organizations, like the AFL-CIO — will go once a lot of their tactics, such as the use of walk-outs (or threats thereof), have already been used to win higher wages and amplified benefits. What about the workplace issues that occur between contract expirations?
This came up in an intriguing compare/contrast scenario between American unions and their foreign counterparts.
When IATSE’s newsletter went out around MLK Day last month, they talked about the union being the first entertainment biz guild to add it as a paid holiday in its contracts. All of which, of course, is entirely laudable.
That same newsletter went on to link to an AFL-CIO alert about legislation in D.C., proclaiming that we needed to sideline the filibuster and pass voting rights, linking to a statement from president Liz Shuler, saying it was “unfathomable that our democracy is dangerously fragile because of the obstructionist tactics of senators who refuse to sideline an outdated rule conceived during segregation.”
A look at history, though, shows that it probably isn’t so unfathomable that American democracy turned out to be more of a Potemkin village than any of us had hoped. Her statement further promises that this “year and beyond, we will put the full force of our federation behind efforts to defeat racist voter suppression tactics and secure voting rights for working people nationwide.”
Intriguing! Perhaps verging on hopeful! But what does “full force” mean, in this context? More links with which to email senators? Perhaps a call-in day to flood legislative phone lines?
Have those, when push came to shove, worked before in making our democracy less dangerously fragile?
Compare this to the role of unions in Chile’s recent elections, where Gabriele Boric, now the youngest President in the country’s history (and the leftmost since Salvador Allende was dislodged in a coup), was running against a corporate-backed rightwing candidate who was the literal descendent of Nazis, and who didn’t stray far from their ideology.
While getting scant coverage in most of the U.S. press, one stark voting repression tactic used there was when “private bus companies had cut service to working-class neighborhoods in Santiago and other cities, preventing potential left-wing voters from reaching the polls. Thousands of people were left waiting at bus stops, while photographs emerged showing hundreds of buses idling at company garages. To vote in Santiago, people would have to trudge long distances in nearly 100-degree Fahrenheit heat.”
As reported in Jacobin magazine, “only public transport was guaranteeing full services. In Santiago, the Metro was transporting thousands of people without inconveniences, fare-free. So was the Regional Metro in Valparaíso and the Biotren in Concepción… The union representing Metro workers in Santiago put it plainly: ‘We will not let them steal the election.’”
Much public transit had been “privatized,” in previous years, but “thanks to both the rapid response of organizers and the reliable service provided by remaining public transportation systems, many of those who were left behind by private bus companies were able to make it to the polls — and Boric won a landslide victory.”
There hasn’t been a true showdown yet over a star’s anti-vax status (outside of musicians pulling their songs from Spotify), at least not one cropping up in the middle of production. And there may never be.
But there will be attempts to steal elections, here in the U.S., in 2022 and 2024. The leader of that movement said as much out loud, in plain language, in recent days. These attempts are already pronounced and obvious in at least one state regarded by the industry as a tax-friendly production hub.
So what will the unions, like the AFL-CIO and others, actually do about it when that moment fully arrives?
After all, as Dr. King himself said, “we are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Actions that won’t always be easy, or convenient. Especially if you thought things were going to remain calm at least until the next round of contract deadlines.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”