What Shane Black gets wrong about Mel Gibson

05.20.16 10 months ago

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I just picked up on this Business Insider interview with Shane Black, during which the Nice Guys director discussed Mel Gibson's fall from grace (Gibson of course starred in Lethal Weapon, the film that launched Black's screenwriting career) by stating that the actor has “essentially been blacklisted in the industry,” before continuing: “I think people don't want to work with him.”

As Business Insider notes, Gibson has appeared in only six films since the notorious 2006 drunk driving arrest that saw him engaging in an anti-Semitic rant — none of which were particularly successful either critically or commercially (with the possible exception of the ensemble action sequel The Expendables 3). It's a number that certainly backs up Black's “blacklisting” claim, though it isn't as if anyone needs the help of statistics to know that Gibson has fallen from grace in a big way over the last decade, during which he suffered yet another major public relations blow when secretly-recorded audiotapes of the actor launching a vicious (often racist and misogynistic) verbal assault against his former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva were leaked to the gossip website Radar Online.

But the critical part of the interview with Black comes when the writer/director essentially pleads for mercy on Gibson's behalf, telling the site:

“I've always been a tremendous fan of Mel Gibson, not just as an actor, but I think he's a good guy. I just don't believe in holding anyone accountable for something that they say while they're drunk because if I'm drunk I'm going to be deliberately belligerent, first off. I'm going to say something that I know will piss you off and will delight in the fact that I'm destroying the house and burning it down. That's what drunk people do. So the idea that that's truly who a person is when he's had a few, I don't believe that at all. I just think that's wrong. I know a lot of great people and they are not necessarily great when they're drunk. So I don't trust that.”

A few points:

1. While I agree with the spirit of forgiveness implicit in Black's remarks, I think he's more than a little off here. First, the reason Gibson was “blacklisted” (a characterization I agree with) isn't that he got “deliberately belligerent” in the cases listed above, it's that while being belligerent he spouted some truly abhorrent rhetoric about Jews, women and people of color. A lot of us are “not necessarily great when” we're drunk — and many of us have even “delighted” in (metaphorically) “destroying the house and burning it down” when caught in the throes of a binge — but most of us don't go on racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic tirades in the process. Which is a longer way of saying: what Gibson actually said matters more than just the fact that he flew off the handle.

2. People should be held accountable for the things they say when they're drunk, particularly when those things involve hateful, abusive language directed at another person. To simply brush off statements like “F—ing Jews … the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” as the product of a “drunk mind” ignores the fact that every “drunk mind” is a highly specific organism, filtered through the specific thoughts, feelings, experiences and personal history of the person it belongs to. It's not that you can't or shouldn't forgive a person for saying the kinds of things that Gibson said, but it's impossible to address and rectify that kind of behavior by simply letting the person off the hook because they were “drunk.” 

3. Anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny are learned attitudes, as is homophobia, which Gibson was accused of as early as 1991, when he made derogatory comments about gay men to the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Comments like “You look like a f—ing pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of n——, it will be your fault” don't just come out of nowhere. They're reflective of ingrained attitudes. Whether people who have worked with Gibson think he's a “good guy” are not is sort of irrelevant when it comes down to it.

4. Gibson's behavior has resulted in direct threats of violence against at least one other person, as when he threatened to “come and burn [Grigorieva's] f—ing house down,” but not before “you…blow me first.” While no criminal charges were ever brought, let's also not forget that when Grigorieva accused him of “hitting her twice in the face” while holding their child, Gibson responded simply: “You know what, you f—ing deserved it.” Should we not hold him accountable for threatening a woman's safety (if not more) just because he was hitting the sauce at the time?

5. The “blacklisting” argument only goes so far. Let's not forget that Gibson, in addition to the six films he's appeared in over the last decade, is currently ramping up the release of his WWII drama Hacksaw Ridge starring Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn. While things have inevitably been tougher for Gibson in Hollywood since the 2006 DUI arrest, it's not like he hasn't been given opportunities (and for the record, at this point I think he should be given them).

Black has gone on record about his own problems with substance abuse, and this likely makes him more sympathetic to his friend's plight than others might be. To his larger point about forgiveness, ultimately people should be sympathetic towards Gibson (not to mention anyone suffering from alcoholism and/or bipolar disorder, as Gibson does), and he should be commended for whatever apparent strides that he's made in mending fences and bettering himself as a human being. As former Hollywood “bad boy” Robert Downey Jr. said after Gibson presented him with an award at the American Cinematheque in 2011: “I humbly ask that you join me, unless you are completely without sin, and in which case you picked the wrong f—ing industry, in forgiving my friend of his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame.”

A beautiful sentiment offered in a spirit of friendship, but of course it's more complicated than that. You don't say the kinds of things Gibson said and immediately garner the goodwill of an entire industry; that kind of forgiveness takes work and a sincere commitment to change, and even after all of that there are still people who won't be able to accept the progress you've made. Profound change isn't easy and it shouldn't be easy, which brings me back to Black's suggestion that no one should be “held accountable” for the things they say. Had Gibson not been “held accountable” for his actions, he may never have been forced to confront the hateful attitudes that gave rise to them in the first place. We can only hope he's come through that ordeal a more tolerant person.

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