Former HFPA president faces a backlash over email calling Black Lives Matter a 'hate movement'

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Stacy Perman
·5 min read
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The 77th Golden Globe Awards will be handed out Jan. 5.
The 78th Golden Globe Awards were handed out Feb. 28. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Wire Image )

An email sent Sunday by a former Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. president criticizing Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and likening BLM to a hate group touched off a firestorm among many of the organization’s members.

In the email, Phil Berk, who served eight terms as HFPA president, shared a post that called BLM a “racist hate movement” and described Cullors as “the self-proclaimed ‘trained Marxist.’” It was sent out to the association's members, its staff and the group's general counsel and chief operating officer, Gregory Goeckner.

The email lands at a sensitive time for the HFPA, which has come under pressure for not having any Black members as well as allegations of ethical and financial lapses raised in a Times investigation into the group. Last month, the group behind the Golden Globe Awards pledged to make “transformational change” and retained a strategic diversity advisor, Shaun Harper, a professor of racial, gender and LGBTQ issues at USC’s Marshall School of Business, and an outside law firm, Ropes & Gray, to audit and review its policies and membership requirements and bylaws. The HFPA, which in recent weeks has reached out to the National Assn. of Black Journalists and NAACP, plans to announce a set of reforms on May 6.

Although Berk, 88, did not cite a source or provide a link to his email post, it appeared to have been an article originally published under the headline "BLM Goes Hollywood" that appeared on conservative commentator David Horowitz’s Freedom Center website, FrontPage Mag, on April 12.

The article took issue with Cullors buying a $1.4-million home in Topanga Canyon a year after “race rioters burned buildings and terrorized communities.”

“The house is down the road from one of the homes involved in the Manson murders which seems only appropriate since Manson wanted to start a race war. And Black Lives Matter is carrying on Manson’s work,” says the post.

It continues, taking aim at Cullors and other BLM activists and their purported Hollywood connections. “The founders of BLM have gone to work acting, writing, consulting, and promoting for Hollywood because their racist hate movement was always an entertainment industry production.”

Cullors could not be immediately reached for comment. In an April 13 Instagram post, Cullors called the claims made in the report "false and defamatory," adding, “This effort to discredit and harass me and my family is not new nor is it acceptable. It has taken away from where the focus should be — ending white supremacy."

In a statement, the HFPA said: “Since its inception, the HFPA has dedicated itself to bridging cultural connections and creating further understanding of different backgrounds through film and TV. The views expressed in the article circulated by Mr. Berk are those of the author of the article and do not — in any way shape or form — reflect the views and values of the HFPA. The HFPA condemns all forms of racism, discrimination and hate speech and finds such language and content unacceptable.”

The reaction among members was swift and heated; several asked to be removed from the email thread.

“As a former HFPA President and still a strong and influential voice in the group, this is not the [type] of information you should be disseminating to HFPA members," replied member Rui Coimbra. "Please remove me from any racist email you wish to send to the membership. Dr. Harper has been notified, here, that you are equating the Black Lives Matter moment to the Charles Manson murderous gang.”

“I think that what we need to do is be more tolerant of everyone’s opinions. Stop calling everyone and everything racist! Isn’t that what people who don’t know anything about us are accusing us of?” wrote another member, Noemia Young.

Responding to Berk, board member Luca Celada wrote, “We might as well have circulated the Protocols of the of the Elders Zion. [sic] The vile rhetoric contained in this screed is simply unacceptable. In our association or anywhere.”

HFPA’s COO, Goeckner, weighed in, writing, “Phil — it is not appropriate to circulate material such as this, which many members and staff find deeply offensive, to all members and staff as though it is a matter of Association business. Please do not circulate this type of material again.”

“I only intended to illustrate the hypocricy [sic] that engulfs us I forwarded it as a point of information I had no hidden agenda I now regret having sent it,” answered Berk.

That did little to stanch the flow of replies.

“You are a thundering disgrace Phil Berk,” wrote Patricia Danaher.

To which, Berk retorted, “I'm hearing from my sworn enemies. No surprise”

“The fact that you're not recognizing the gravity of your statement is disturbing,” wrote Husam “Sam” Asi.

Asi, a Palestinian born in Israel, told members during a meeting last year to discuss hiring a diversity consultant (ultimately rejected) that he’d worked in many different countries in many different fields but that he’d never encountered as many “racist comments” as he had in this association.

South African-born Berk has a history of controversy within the HFPA. In addition to his many terms as president, he has served in a number of capacities on the board over the years.

In 2014, he took a six-month voluntary leave of absence after publishing his memoir, “With Signs and Wonders,” which angered a number of HFPA members who took umbrage at the many disclosures he made about individual members and the organization’s inner workings.

Four years later, in an interview with GQ magazine, actor Brendan Fraser alleged that Berk had assaulted him at a luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2003.

"His left hand reaches around, grabs my ass cheek, and one of his fingers touches me in the taint. And he starts moving it around," Fraser told the magazine.

While Berk recalled the incident in his memoir as a joke, he wrote a letter of apology to Fraser after the actor's publicist sent a letter to the HFPA. Berk told GQ that the letter did not admit wrongdoing and later emailed the magazine denying the actor's claim, saying, "Mr. Fraser's version is a total fabrication."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.