BERLIN/NEW YORK • Meryl Streep, the most admired actress of her generation, fuelled Hollywood's diversity controversy last Thursday when she said that all of humanity originated in Africa.
The three-time Oscar winner, in Berlin heading up her first international film jury, made the comment at a news conference when she was asked if she was familiar with world cinema, particularly films from Africa and the Middle East.
She said she had recently seen the 2014 Jordanian film Theeb, about a Bedouin boy on a hazardous mission in the desert, and also Timbuktu (2014), about Islamist militants taking over the fabled Malian city.
"The thing that I notice is that there is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture," Streep, 66, said. "And after all, we're all from Africa originally, you know. We're all Berliners; we're all Africans, really."
Her comments made headlines and swiftly became one of the top trends on Twitter. They followed an uproar over the all-white Oscar acting nominee selection for a second straight year, which forced the movie industry to confront how blacks, Asians and Latinos are represented in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood.
Some commentators on Thursday expressed disappointment. "You'd think Meryl Streep would be smarter than to say 'We're all Africans, really' in any context, but alas," said journalist Jamil Smith.
Others said her remarks were misinterpreted. "Watch the whole interview before jumping on Meryl Streep," tweeted @EvansArmour. "Her quote was taken out of context."
Black Magic Woman's tweet included a poster of Streep's 1985 Out Of Africa film, where she plays a white land owner. "Now we know Meryl Streep was serious when she made this movie," the tweet said.
In Berlin, the actress said her seven-member, mainly female jury included a film critic and a photographer and that the panel would have diverse viewpoints.
"We will be looking at different things in these films," she said, "but we're human beings, and film is an emotional experience so... we're going to make these decisions based on what our heads want to say. But we're first attacked by the heart, so that's an interesting process. I'm so looking forward to it."
They will award the Golden Bear top prize to one of 18 film contenders from around the world on Feb 20.
George Clooney, with his wife, lawyer Amal Clooney, was at the premiere of the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! which opened the Berlinale. He stars in it, alongside Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton. The premiere turned into a debate about refugees on Thursday as the film-makers and cast found themselves challenged at a news conference to do more to end the crisis.
More than one million refugees arrived in Europe last year, many fleeing war and poverty. Thousands died in the perilous journey, mostly by sea and then land. The influx has put governments under strain and countries are tightening their asylum rules.
Clooney said he was to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday to discuss refugees, and would visit a refugee centre. But he said he was not sure that the cinema was the best place to try to solve the crisis.
"I think it is best told right now in the news media. I think it's not told enough - certainly in our country it's not told enough - and not talked about enough," he said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE