Reader Jackie sent an email this morning about Benedict Cumberbatch that basically boiled down to, “Benedict Cumberbatch seems to be skating along the edge of other people’s bad decisions, so when does that become a problem for him?” (Emphasis mine). Her examples: playing a white-washed role in Star Trek Into Darkness (Khan, who, it should be noted, has never been played by an Indian actor), the whole Fifth Estate situation, and the time he read embarrassing Sherlock fanfic, to the dramatic reading of an R. Kelly song on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Almost all of that can be chalked up to Other People’s Decisions, but when it comes to the R. Kelly thing, yeah. There is some personal responsibility there.
I was SO INCREDIBLY DISAPPOINTED in everyone involved with the dramatic reading, from Cumberbatch to Kimmel to his writers and producers—anyone who didn’t stop and say, “Hey, this probably isn’t a good idea.” I did my best to ignore it, but Jackie has raised an interesting question. What is the responsibility of the actor, a person who is paid to do what other people tell them?
If you’re wondering what the big deal is, here is a great breakdown from the point of view of the journalist who first covered the sexual assault allegations against R. Kelly. It’s a sickening pattern of predatory behavior and abuse, and here in Chicago, there is a long, sordid history of R. Kelly going to court for yet another settlement as more victims come forward. Were you shocked, horrified and disgusted by Jerry Sandusky and Penn State? Look into R. Kelly and Kenwood Academy. It’s every bit as bad.
So how responsible is Cumberbatch? Well, he’s on Kimmel’s show to promote a movie, which is his job. And they ask him to do a bit, which is also part of his job. And he does it, and generally people think it’s funny (but know what you’re endorsing). He’s not really at fault. But R. Kelly is a monster who has never been checked because everyone just keeps excusing him. He makes good music, so everything else is okay. At some point, there has to be a pushback. And yes, at some point actors have to care, too. Cumberbatch has a smartphone and Google, and R. Kelly’s history as a perv is well documented. We all know about the pee tape, and his “marriage” to a then-fourteen-year-old Aaliyah. Cumberbatch is not a dumb man, and given his discomfort with the term “Cumberbitch” as being demeaning toward women and “not very feminist”, I think it’s reasonable to say that he is sensitive to women’s issues. He’s also not some young kid who can be pushed around—he’s thirty-seven. If he said to Kimmel, “Isn’t this guy kind of creepy? Can we maybe do a different song for this?” it would not be unreasonable or out of bounds, and Kimmel, who is a decent dude, wouldn’t have fussed about it. But no one stopped it. No one ever stops R. Kelly, and I’ve hit a point where I can’t excuse anyone for participating in anything that glorifies him in any way.
Will this damage Cumberbatch? No. Again, he didn’t do anything wrong. Or, he didn’t do anything more wrong than the millions of people who buy R. Kelly albums and tickets to R. Kelly concerts. This is just one more part of a larger issue that surrounds R. Kelly. But it does provide an entry point into this conversation. What is our responsibility to this issue, what can we do to better this situation? And does anyone get to be exempt from it, or do we all share in some modicum of the blame for letting R. Kelly continue on as he ever has done?
(Lainey: I share in the blame. I love the song Do What U Want. And I think I have to stop. How do we stop?)
Click here for more on Cumberbatch in GQ.