It is a rare occasion that news of Meryl Streep’s participation in a theatrical project is met with anything other than joy and excitement. The Oscar-winning actor holds the record for the most nominations, with 21 nods to her name, and is so good at what she does and beloved, that by merely indicating that she enjoyed HBO’s hit, Big Little Lies, the show’s creators wrote a part just for her in the sequel. Her debut on the small screen stirred up as much hubbub as her starring roles in major motion pictures, including a now-famous, often-memed scream.
In his own right, director Steve Soderbergh is his name that quickly evokes conceptual and innovative filmmaking. One of the pioneers of American independent cinema, Soderbergh’s first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), changed the style, look, and voice of the typical Hollywood template. The film, which examines the social constructs of marriage, dating, sex, taboo, and documentation, galvanized him into the godfather of independent cinema, a trailblazer who made space for the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons who would follow.
Since then, Soderbergh has become the darling of big Hollywood stars looking to work within a frame that is different in scope and patina than the vast majority of American films. In his three decades of work, the director has developed a few signature marks that identify many of his projects, such as giant casts replete with celebrity actors, intricate and overlapping plots, and a penchant for finding humor in some desperate, extreme, and unfortunate situations.
Since his first movie, which frames the idea of videotaping someone’s vulnerabilities within a medium could be considered the master videotape, Soderbergh engages with the art of filmmaking both actively and in a self-referentially, with his highly recognizable actors playing both their parts and themselves.
Actors in the Soderbergh universe simultaneously invoke their ability to morph but also the frailty of the fourth wall, unable to contain their recognizability and celebrity. Think of the way in which everyone within the frame turns to stare at George Clooney’s character, Danny Ocean, when he approaches Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Eleven (2001). He is both the dapper con man and himself in that meta moment.
As a storyteller, Soderbergh is primarily interested in either probing serious topics such as social justice, politics, and corruption, as he does in Erin Brockovich (2000, superfund sites), Traffic (2000, the drug war), and Contagion (2011, viral epidemic), or having a grand old time re-Hollywoodizing Hollywood with tricky plots and voluminous casts, like Traffic (again), The Informant (2009) and the Ocean’s trilogy (2001-08).
While some of his more serious pieces, like biopics about Kafka (1991) and Che Guevara (2007) and the ambitious remake of Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris (2002), were met with less receptivity from audiences and mixed reviews from critics, there is a truth-telling nature to his work that has led to one critics description of Soderbergh’s films such as “fictionalized Michael Moore movies.”
Soderbergh’s touch is always perceptible, both in his art-house films and his more current ones, now that he returned to directing after a hiatus, hoping to produce films with broader appeal. Just the other day, my husband and I watched an excellent and entertaining movie starring Channing Tatum and Adam Driver. I’d never heard of it before but wondered aloud a few times while we enjoyed it, only to confirm when the credits rolled at the end of Logan Lucky (2017) that it is, indeed, a Soderbergh film.
Both his super-serious plots and the fun-loving ones are similarly structured with overlapping narratives that involve a few members of the cast at a time but are ultimately interconnected in unexpected ways. A Soderbergh script is likely as labyrinthine as the chains of command in a cartel or the instruction manual for a pack of criminals looking to rip off a casino, but he is interested in making his films more broadly appealing. In this, his latest contribution, Streep returns to the small screen, as Laundromat will air on Netflix.
With Laundromat, Soderbergh reaches for all his usual hallmarks. A star-studded cast, led by Meryl Streep, whose main role, ironically, is that of a regular, everyday kind of woman instead of one of Hollywood’s shiniest stars, fictionalizes aspects of the Panama Papers story, an international money laundering scam into offshore account, and that implicated high government officials from many countries. Streep is joined by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman as the con men at the top of the high-stakes Ponzi scheme and brilliant cameos by Sharon Stone, James Cromwell, Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer, and Will Forte.
The trope of a regular gal caught in a web of international intrigue and high-stakes money laundering stands in for the way in which all of us regular people received the news of an investigation that smeared both the hundreds of politicians around the world and the savvy financier/crooks who stole billions from the pot.
In advance trailers for the movie, Streep is her brilliant self, wholly believable as an American widow who accidentally dips her toe in the immense and international cesspool, as she struggles to complete the lonely and individual mission of collecting on her husband’s life insurance policy. Streep’s character is our double, innocent of the devious plot, eager to get to the bottom of it. The film is an exposé stylized by Soderbergh’s touch, recognizable but blurry as if the perpetrators had taken a mug shot while wearing a prosthetic nose.
Speaking of prosthetic noses, I was immediately worried when I saw the trailer, straining to understand what is up with Gary Oldman’s accent. I seriously thought he was going for Jamaican inflection and thought to myself, wow, I didn’t know anyone from Jamaica was involved in this off-shore banking fiasco. Well, according to some publications, Oldman’s character is supposed to be from France, while others identified his on-screen nationality as German. I placed his cadence squarely in the Caribbean and wonder what Soderbergh was thinking when he didn’t counter with a note, dialect coach, or a change in plans.
More perplexing than Oldman’s accent is a casting call everyone is already calling out, even before we’ve had a chance to see or hear it. Streep plays a second, “Easter egg” role: a Panamanian office worker. Though there is no footage or stills of Streep in this role, and no audio, but only indications that she affects a thick accent, clumsy in its effort to be from no specific place in Latin America. Given Oldman’s own muddled inflection, evident in many of the scenes that comprise the trailer, it appears the production skimped when it came to hiring a dialect coach. As one critic remarked, neither of these accents will “age well.”
But the issues with this second character don’t end there. Other critics have gone beyond just raising an eyebrow at the casting, calling the portrayal caricaturesque, racist, Streep in blackface. Before you think this is an overreaction, consider not just the accent but the costume. In order to transform from Ellen, the widow, to a Panamanian woman, Streep dons a black wig, a prosthetic nose, and “tan” makeup. As spot-on as the fake nose, affected overbite, and nasal Pacific Northwest accent were in her role as the snooping mother-in-law in Big Little Lies, this time it’s difficult to understand why a non-Latina would be cast in the role in the first place.
Those who have come out in defense of Streep’s attempt to play outside of her race claim that within context the performance makes sense. Certainly, there are plenty of excellent reasons to cast an actor in multiple roles within a film: for comedic effect (Coming to America, So I Married an Axe Murderer); to visually represent twins (The Parent Trap, Raising Cain, Dead Ringers); to create an unsettling doppelgänger effect (Dr. Strangelove, Enemy, The Devil’s Double). One of my favorite uses of this device is in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play, The Visit, in which the stage directions call for the same actor to play the role of all three men the protagonist marries in the course of the play, to emphasize the thoughtless repetitiveness of this serial monogamist’s choices.
Soderbergh’s choice here is, at best, inscrutable. Sure, there is humor in the idea that the Panama Papers investigation, which ran in 2016, might have been catalyzed by regular people such as an American widow and a local office worker. And sure, casting the two roles with the same actor emphasizes the relative smallness of the regular folk who uncovered a scam guided by the biggest of the bigwigs. But the easily offensive setup seems too high a price to pay to drive this point home, a cruel joke with an insufficient punchline.
Many who have viewed the movie have felt this choice to be more than just lacking in political correctness; they feel it gives the film the opposite effect, one of treating the tax-evading elites with respect while condescending to the people who were exploited in the operation. As Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson remarks, it is a strange moment to make this “bizarre and rather galling unforced error, especially in an era of heightened consciousness about representation and appropriation. It’s not a huge role, but anyone scene of Streep essentially playing Agador Spartacus’s mom is a scene too many.” For those who may have forgotten, Agador Spartacus is Hank Azaria’s super-over-the-top Miami-Cuban character in The Birdcage, which premiered in 1996.
Not only does this Easter egg role detract from the film, rather than adding any real or symbolic complexity, but we are left wondering how it is that any of the myriad Latina actors of a certain age didn’t get cast in a role they could so easily inhabit. Back in the day, perhaps audiences were less critical of these racial snafus: in 1996, they accepted Madonna as Evita Perón, the singer’s voice and bravado making her somehow suitable as the Argentinean ruler. Even Streep herself was unquestioned as the choice for the 1993 adaptation of Isabel Allende’s novel, The House of the Spirits, the saga of a Venezuelan family that also stars Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, and, funnily enough, Antonio Banderas. But these days, when Scarlett Johansson is scrutinized for landing a part written for an Asian actor, directors need to be a lot more thoughtful.
Instead, directors more often choose to avoid the issue altogether. The numbers show that Jennifer Lopez is the only Latina over the age of 45 to be cast in a leading role in a film within the last 12 years. The only one. This, in spite of the fact that in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black alone, Soderbergh and other directors have a whole bouquet of Latinas to choose from, plus what must amount to thousands of other talented Latino actors waiting for the chance in the wings.
Undoubtedly, Latino male actors enjoy a little more representation than women, with our Andy Garcías and Benicio del Toros. But before you sigh with relief that at least Antonio Banderas was cast in the role of the Panamanian lawyer (and in The House of the Spirits), I will remind you that Banderas is from Spain. Sure, he is Spanish-speaking, and critics had enough to say about the strange decision to cast Streep that perhaps they didn’t even get to thinking about the male lead, but with so many talented Latino actors of all ages, why does everyone reach for the Iberian prince?
Most of the backlash so far has been aimed at Streep for taking the role, but we need to look at directors, producers, and even writers more closely. The power to spotlight a greater diversity of actors, especially for roles that are their own race, culture, and ethnicity, lies in their hands.
As for the argument that acting is all about playing a person that you are not, I prefer to watch a portrayal that rings authentic than marvel at the amount of makeup and diction coaching that goes into transforming a white person into anything else. In Shakespeare’s time, for example, male actors played all roles on stage because women were prohibited from acting. We’ve moved on from that absurdity and I think it’s time we move on from this one, too. Decide for yourself when Laundromat premieres on Netflix on September 27th.