“Thank you Casey Affleck, Casey Affleck, Casey Affleck,” Kenneth Lonergan ’84 repeated in his acceptance speech for best screenplay at the Oscars. Lonergan’s clear admiration for Affleck—who has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women—rings pathetically tone-deaf in the ears of those familiar with sexual violence. The Oscars had some joyous moments of justice, like “Moonlight’s” victory over “La La Land” (the nostalgic story of a predominantly Black musical genre, Jazz, rescued by a white savior, Ryan Gosling), but there were a couple outrageous moments of injustice—injustice that Wesleyan must address.
Most obviously, Casey Affleck’s best actor win is severely problematic. After multiple allegations of horrific, lewd acts, Affleck denied allegations against him and returned to his successful career without any ramifications. In fact, his prospects immensely improved since his disastrous project “I’m Still Here,” leading to him winning the most coveted prizes among actors.
Many may argue that the award of best actor belongs to the actor who gave the strongest performance regardless of their personal integrity. However, winning an award for a profession reflects on not only one’s ability, but implicitly endorses their moral character as well. Affleck’s victory suggests that he is superlative in his job but also generally an upstanding person. If a cashier in a grocery store committed a murder, no matter how well they run the register, they are not going to win employee of the month.
The fact that “Manchester by the Sea” starred an accused perpetrator of sexual violence accurately reflects the ludicrous practices of Hollywood. There are thousands of actors, many of whom possess immense talent, but only a small, elite group of actors receive the majority of roles. “Manchester by the Sea” could have instead featured any number of talented actors that were not accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. But instead, the film afforded the lead role to a well-known white actor, much in the same way “La La Land” opted for the star power of Ryan Gosling instead of casting someone who could actually sing and dance.
Wesleyan has overlooked its complicity in Casey Affleck’s continued success for the sake of heaping praise on itself. The University desperately takes credit for any modicum of success from its alumni such that it congratulates people who transferred out of the school. If Wesleyan is dead-set on bolstering its reputation through Kenneth Lonergan, a former student who apparently disliked Wesleyan enough to transfer to New York University midway through college, then this institution must also acknowledge Lonergan’s problematic relationship with Affleck.
In an awkward moment of his acceptance speech, Lonergan thanked Casey Affleck three times (he mentioned his late father only once). The pair are close; in an interview, Affleck described Lonergan as an “old friend,” and he has worked with Lonergan in the past. Their relationship alone should merit pause from Wesleyan, but Lonergan’s active role in casting should leave the University reticent, if not vocally opposed to him.
Directors and producers play an active role in the casting of a movie, but sometimes they want certain actors regardless of the casting process. In the same interview, Affleck describes receiving a call from Lonergan asking him to star in “Manchester by the Sea.” Casey Affleck did not audition and catch the eye of a casting director; he was a specific choice that was made for the movie.
Wesleyan University cannot insist on claiming credit for Kenneth Lonergan unless they also acknowledge their complicity in the success of a perpetrator of sexual violence. Lonergan essentially won Affleck his Oscar by handpicking Affleck for his movie. A famous actor’s connections enable them to continue their success, and we must be cautious about praising enablers, especially when they help sexual harassers. Wesleyan cannot have it both ways; it can either be true to its progressive brand or it can indiscriminately praise every semi-notable success from alumni (and even students who transferred out).
“Moonlight” signifies an important shift in movie making. Although members of the cast like Janelle Monáe and Mahershala Ali have extensive backgrounds in film, “Moonlight” avoids drawing actors from the trite (often white) pool of superstar actors. And the movie won best film, quickly becoming a blockbuster. Hopefully the practice of casting actors rather than stars catches fire, enabling productions to avoid any of the numerous domestic abusers and sexual abusers among the ranks of celebrity actors.
In the likely event that movies will continue to recruit star power, institutions must acknowledge their complicity in the success of actors involved in sexual misconduct. Wesleyan University has an obligation to reject sexual violence of all kinds. Therefore, it cannot claim credit for Lonergan’s success without also recognizing his role in promoting Casey Affleck’s career. Wesleyan must either be cautious in its alumni praise, or it must admit to its students that it cares only about building the Wesleyan University brand rather than social justice or the well-being of the Wesleyan community.
Connor Aberle is a member of the Class of 2019.
He be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @connoraberle.