How Would a Black Mel Gibson Be Treated?

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Commentator Todd Boyd suspects Mel Gibson's legal run-in would have been a rougher experience if he were a black celebrity. Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.

ED GORDON, host:

Mel Gibson's recent run-in with the law reminded many of the possible connection between race and privilege. Commentator Todd Boyd wondered, what would have happened to Mel Gibson if the actor were black?

Mr. TODD BOYD (Professor of Critical Studies, University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television): During Chris Rock's short-lived stint on Saturday Night Live his most famous character was a militant, big-afro wearing black nationalist news anchor named Nat X. Once Nat X did a segment where he took some of the topical events of the day and asked, what if the people involved had been black?

I was reminded of Nat X recently, following news of Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic, sexist tirade after being stopped by the police in Malibu for drunk driving. What if Mel Gibson had been black?

I asked this question only after hearing all sorts of apologies and excuses in support of Mel Gibson. Many have suggested that it was the liquor talking when Mellie-Mel(ph) caught this latest case the verbal diarrhea. Last I checked, liquor can't talk, though. Liquor helps people drop their inhibitions. It works like a truth serum. Be assured, that wasn't the liquor talking - it was Mel Gibson. But back to the Nat X question.

Some people assume that Gibson received favorable treatment because of his celebrity, which would imply that well-known celebrities routinely get preferential treatment from the cops. This may be the case, but there's a point at which celebrity stops and reality sets in. Don't get it twisted. Gibson's treatment by the cops was as much about race as it was about celebrity.

Let's say Denzel Washington had been stopped and was suspected of drunk driving. Would the cop have refused to handcuff him? How long would it have taken for this solo cop to call for backup? Would Denzel have been allowed to walk back to his car after he had already been detained? Would they have altered the police report to cover up some inflammatory statements he had made? How long would it have taken for someone to say that Denzel's Academy Award-winning role as a ruthless cop in Training Day was evidence that he had a dark side? I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

Mel Gibson was given the benefit of the doubt. Would this have been the case if the accused were black, regardless of how much fame or money they had?

The answer is, of course, a resounding no. Black celebrity means nothing to the cops. As a matter of fact, in that very instant, Denzel would have quickly found out that he was really not a celebrity at all. He was just black. Just another brother caught up in the law enforcement mix. The Oscars, the staggering box office numbers, all the magazine covers, none of this would have mattered.

I remember hearing the late Miles Davis, a Malibu resident at the time of his death some years ago, say that he had been pulled over by the Malibu cops so many times that he started calling the station before he left home to alert them that he would be leaving in hopes of preventing any more unwanted stops.

This was some time ago, I know. But something tells me that life for male drivers in Malibu, celebrity or not, is probably not a whole lot different than what Miles experienced.

Mel Gibson's race and his celebrity may have offered him many privileges in life, including what amounted to a get out of jail free pass from the Malibu cops. It's true, celebrity goes a long way. But this is America, where race goes even further.

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GORDON: Todd Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television.

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GORDON: This is NPR News.

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