The Other Columbus: Jane Campion is every meeting I’ve ever been in

I am Dali telling you that there is a coffin underneath all of the stiff nods and noncommittal smiles that we give you in meetings and conversations

Scott Woods
Jane Campion accepts the Best Director award for ‘The Power of the Dog’ onstage during the 27th Annual Critics Choice Awards at Fairmont Century Plaza on March 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Here is a statement that sounds right but technically isn’t: “I was shocked, but not surprised.”

We’ve all heard it, and if you’re a Black person in this country, you’ve likely said it in response to one row with racism or another. You saw a Terrible Thing, and the Terrible Thing made you feel some kind of way, but ultimately, you know you had no business being surprised by the Terrible Thing. The problem with the phrase as used is that shock is surprise, so the line is trying to capture something very real, but the word choice is redundant. 

In the interest of clarity, I propose the following amendment to this bon mot: “I was appalled by Jane Campion’s remarks about the Williams sisters, but not surprised.”

Campion wrote and directed “The Piano” (1993), for which I am eternally grateful, more for the Michael Nyman soundtrack than the film itself. I’ve only seen one other Campion film since then, and it wasn’t the one for which she received a Critics Choice Award the other night, “The Power of the Dog.” No shade here. I simply determined years ago that I wasn’t the audience for her films. Of course, everyone was the audience for her Best Director acceptance speech this past Sunday, which upon its utterance became the drag du jour.

In her stammering mess of a thank you, Campion proceeded to blow all the good will she previously amassed in calling out actor Sam Elliott, who suggested “The Power of the Dog” wasn’t a real Western because it was too gay, by claiming that she has it harder in the movie business than the Williams sisters have it in tennis because she has to “play against the guys.” 

No one knows if Campion went onstage thinking her untrue and irrelevant comment would be a hot mic drop, or if she just came up with it on the fly. We don’t know if she was consciously or subconsciously responding to the standing ovation the Williams-inspired film “King Richard” received earlier in the evening. We don’t know if she thought her comment was the best way to double-down on her good will chips. What we do know is that none of that Twitter ballast is remotely important. Effect is always greater than intent. What you do is always more impactful and important than what you meant to do. And no matter what case Campion thought she was making on behalf of women in that moment, she stepped on two Black ones to do it.

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The best thing I can say about the audience’s rapturous applause after her trash comment is that they at least paused to consider what had been said before clapping. I don’t know exactly what they were considering: Venus’ puzzled face was pretty much the only reaction that speech should have received. The band shouldn’t have even played her off.

Yes, I saw Serena applauding Campion’s awkward moment. Yes, I saw pictures of Campion hugging Venus at the after party. I do not interpret those as acts of reconciliation. I charge those displays to survival, to get to the "Can We Please Move On" part. I label those moments as such because every Black person I know experiences them on a daily basis. 

We recognize the point in a meeting or conversation where it’s truly easier to pretend to not be hurt or to have an emotional investment in our undoing, moments when it is easier to swallow or bat away the offense because not clapping/speaking up/voting down the bad idea makes life harder. Somehow expecting respect or pushing back against erasure makes us the focus of the meeting, makes us a villain for applying standards to social contracts. And we are painted this way, not because we have done anything wrong, but because it makes white people feel bad, which is pretty much the worst crime anyone can commit.

Black people – women especially – are socialized to not express anger or distress. To do so plays into the stereotype that we are a perpetually angry and overly emotional people. Or the unforgiveable worst: unprofessional. As if there were nothing about which to ever be upset. As if the suggestion that whatever you have achieved in this world as a Black woman was in any way easier than what a white woman who came from money has endured. As if such burying did not almost cost Serena her life while giving birth in 2018, when doctors pushed back on what she knew about her own body.

Campion’s statement is another entry in an already innumerable list of missteps by white people trying to bolster a moment already about them with the additive of casual racism.

A final thought:

Around 1859, Jean-François Millet put the finishing touches on what would become one of his most famous paintings, “The Angelus.” In the painting, two peasants – a man and a woman, presumably a couple – stand reverently over a basket of potatoes, praying (thus the title) in a field at the tail end of a workday. 

The legendary Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was obsessed with the painting (he would publish a book about it more than a century later), and its figures would appear in his own work in typically surreal ways. The most stunning thesis he proposed about “The Angelus” was that the painting was not at all about a peasant couple praying over a bounty of potatoes, but that they were in fact praying over the burial of a child. At Dali’s request, the Louvre took x-ray photos of the painting, revealing a dark coffin-like shape underneath the basket.

I tell you that anecdote to say this: I am Dali telling you that there is a coffin underneath all of the stiff nods and noncommittal smiles that we give you in meetings and conversations. That coffin is everything Black people don’t say at award shows or in interviews or when you ask us if something you know we don’t like is okay. It is filled with the things we cannot say to keep office peace, or to torpedo a brewing Twitter drag that might hound us for years, even when we are the victim.  

All we want to know is how much paint you’re going to slap on that coffin to make it look like a basket of potatoes.