The parade of testimony against Hollywood predator Harvey Weinstein, sadly, doesn’t seem to have an end yet. This time, one of our favorite actresses around these parts, Lupita Nyong’o, has come forward in a personal essay for The New York Times, giving a harrowing and detailed account of an entire spectrum of abuses she received at the hands of the disgraced (and disgraceful) movie mogul.
In The New York Times, Nyong’o recounts how she first met Weinstein in Berlin in 2011 while she was still a drama student at Yale. She was attending an awards ceremony at which he was present, and when an intermediary introduced Nyong’o to him, it was emphasized that she should “keep Harvey in your corner,” because he was extremely powerful and could elevate her career, but that she should also “be careful around him. He can be a bully.”
Though he was a powerful presence in that first meeting, Nyong’o didn’t feel afraid of him or anything. Not yet.
Shortly after that first meeting, when back in the U.S, Weinstein invited Nyong’o to a private screening at his Connecticut home with him, his family, and some other industry folks. Since she was in CT at Yale, she agreed, glad for the opportunity to network with such a high-profile industry contact. When she got there, Weinstein took her out to lunch first, and that’s when things started getting really weird. Nyong’o writes:
“The driver and I met Harvey in the little town of Westport, where he informed me that we would be having lunch at a restaurant before getting to his home. I did not think much of this. It was a busy restaurant, and as soon as we sat down he ordered a vodka and diet soda for himself. I asked for a juice. Harvey was unimpressed with my choice and told the waiter to bring me a vodka and diet soda instead. I declined and said I wanted the juice. We went back and forth until finally he turned to the waiter and said, ‘Get her what I tell you to get her. I’m the one paying the bill.’ I smiled and remained silent. The waiter left and returned with a vodka and diet soda for me. He placed it on the table beside my water. I drank the water. Harvey told me that I needed to drink the vodka and diet soda. I informed him that I would not.
“‘Why not?’ I remember him asking. ‘Because I don’t like vodka, and I don’t like diet soda, and I don’t like them together,’ I said. ‘You are going to drink that,’ he insisted. I smiled again and said that I wouldn’t. He gave up and called me stubborn. I said, ‘I know.’ And the meal proceeded without much further ado. In this second encounter with Harvey, I found him to be pushy and idiosyncratic more than anything.”
Later, when at his home, after beginning the film everyone was there to be screened, Weinstein pulled Nyong’o out of the screening (leaving everyone else in a closed, soundproof room) to “show her something.” That something was his bedroom, where he asked to give her a massage. Thinking on her feet, she offered to give him one instead, so that she could maintain physical control as she figured out how to extricate herself from the situation. He agreed, and as she was massaging him, he said he wanted to get naked. She asked him not to. He got up to do that anyway, and she left.
In her piece, Nyong’o brings up the important point that hers is a profession built on intimacy. As she says, actors are “paid to do very intimate things in public.” She goes on, “That’s why someone can have the audacity to invite you to their home or hotel and you show up. Precisely because of this we must stay vigilant and ensure that the professional intimacy is not abused.”
It isn’t only actors that are asked for a certain level of professional intimacy that is expected. I, as a pop culture writer for this site and others, have attended many a press junket. All of them have been held in hotels. And I have interviewed both male and female subjects in hotel rooms, sometimes with a publicist in the room, other times not. Hotel rooms make a certain amount of sense in that, when you’re not expecting a predator, a hotel room provides comfort for what can otherwise be a stressful situation.
Giving interviews and revealing private details about yourself and your process is not exactly the most comfortable thing in the world. I get that. So, interviewing in a comfortable environment, like a hotel suite, as opposed to in a colder office environment, has its uses. Thankfully, everyone I’ve encountered in this capacity has been completely professional and kind. I have been lucky. Countless female journalists, like TV critic Maureen Ryan, have not been.
But yes, in an industry that trades in people’s most vulnerable moments and emotions, a certain level of intimacy is expected. That said, it should not be abused or taken advantage of. It’s not about “you shouldn’t have gone into that hotel room.” It’s about “I shouldn’t expect to be raped or molested when I get there.” That’s how all this should be framed.
Instead, you have men like Weinstein who trade on the fact that far too many people expect sexual abuse as “just the way it is.” Nyong’o writes:
“Afterward, as planned, his male assistant arranged for me to get to the Tribeca Grill, where Harvey would be joining us. I met a female assistant when I arrived there. I was expecting that it would be a group of us, as it had been for the reading, but she informed me it would just be Mr. Weinstein. She would sit with me until he arrived. She seemed on edge, but I could only imagine how stressful it was to work for a man who had so much going on.
Harvey arrived and the assistant immediately disappeared. We ordered drinks and starters. Again he was offended by my nonalcoholic beverage choice but he didn’t fight me on it as hard. Before the starters arrived, he announced: ‘Let’s cut to the chase. I have a private room upstairs where we can have the rest of our meal.’ I was stunned. I told him I preferred to eat in the restaurant. He told me not to be so naïve. If I wanted to be an actress, then I had to be willing to do this sort of thing. He said he had dated Famous Actress X and Y and look where that had gotten them.
I was silent for a while before I mustered up the courage to politely decline his offer. “You have no idea what you are passing up,” he said. ‘With all due respect, I would not be able to sleep at night if I did what you are asking, so I must pass.’”
His assistant felt scared enough for her well-being and her job to leave Nyong’o alone with him, and Weinstein felt free enough to say all this to Nyong’o’s face, because of the attitude “that’s just how it is.”
There’s a much longer pattern of behavior that Nyong’o describes in her piece, so you should definitely check it out. But if stories like this teach us anything, it’s that 1) there’s power in numbers, and hopefully people feel more comfortable coming forward now, knowing they’re not alone. And 2) at a certain point we have to see that things are so bad that we have to be willing to risk something in order to fix it.
Because yes, at a certain point it’s understandable to want to keep oneself safe, or protect one’s job. However, if you hear about abuses and continue to work with abusers? If you fail to stand in solidarity with the victims of abuse? If you remain silent about things you know that can allow harm to come to others? At a certain point, that’s on you.
Nyong’o recognized the fact that she was not alone, and she spoke up to contribute to a culture of accountability and change. Because yes, one does have to protect oneself, and a great way to do that is not only to ensure that the marginalized feel safe, but to ensure that abusers feel very, very unsafe.
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