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“We’re all Africans really”: Meryl Streep on judging films from African countries

Meryl Streep attends the International Jury photo call during the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Hotel Mandala on February 10, 2016 in Berlin, Germany.
Meryl Streep attends the International Jury photo call during the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Hotel Mandala on February 10, 2016 in Berlin, Germany.
Clemens Bilan/Getty Images
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Another day, another awkwardly tone-deaf comment from a Hollywood celebrity about race. Today's foot-in-mouth moment is brought to you by walking, talking award magnet Meryl Streep, who's set to head the international jury at the Berlin International Film Festival, running through February 21.

The festival describes itself as "a source of inspiration in the global film community" and boasts that it attracts "more than 20,000 professional visitors from 128 countries."

This is the jury chosen to judge the films from all those countries:

(Berlin Film Festival)

That's a pretty homogeneous-looking group for an "international" film festival, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed.

Per Pajiba, when a reporter asked Streep about the makeup of the jury, she replied that the festival was "ahead of the game" for including women.

And when an Egyptian reporter then asked whether she would understand films from Arab and North African filmmakers; she responded, "I’ve played a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures."

The situation only got worse from there.

"There is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture, and after all we’re all from Africa originally," Streep continued. "Berliners, we’re all Africans really."

Besides being rather nonsensical, Streep's comments ignore countless very real cultural and experiential differences in a way that would be almost laughable if it weren't so cringe-worthy.

This isn't the first time one of Streep's remarks has garnered controversy; in October 2015, she garnered some backlash for posing, along with her Suffragette co-stars, in a T-shirt that read, "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave." To some, the actresses' actions signaled a disregard of black women's experiences during the women's suffrage movement (the movie received similar criticism).

As Vox's Alex Abad-Santos summed up, "[People] were more upset that she didn't consider how the shirt could be interpreted. They were upset because it's a reference to literal slavery, by white women. And because, well, you expect more from Meryl Streep."

But Streep is far from the only celebrity to make a culturally insensitive remark of late. Following the announcement of this year's once again all-white Oscar acting nominees and attendant #OscarsSoWhite outcry, some actors weighed in with less-than-enlightened comments. Michael Caine told BBC Radio 4, "There's loads of black actors. You can't vote for an actor because he's black. You got to give a good performance, and I’m sure there were very good [performances]." Meanwhile, current Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling opined that the push for more diversity at the Oscars is "racist to whites."

None of this is a great look for Hollywood, which has continued, somehow, to resist championing diversity despite many repeated calls for it to do so. Though this year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it would change its membership rules to accommodate more women and nonwhite members, the Academy is not all of Hollywood. And as the comments made by Streep and others indicate, the film industry still has a long way to go toward achieving a true culture of inclusion and diversity.

Update: Updated headline to more accurately reflect Streep's comments.

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