LaKeith Stanfield Comes Clean on His Anti-Semitism Controversy: ‘I Don’t Stand by Louis Farrakhan’
The Oscar-nominated actor was criticized after moderating a Clubhouse room where anti-Semitic hate speech ran rampant. He tells The Daily Beast where he went wrong.
LaKeith Stanfield found himself in the midst of a storm of his own making last week when he decided to sit for hours on end in a Clubhouse room that quickly spiraled out of control, as dozens of people spouted off anti-Semitic rhetoric.
While the 29-year-old actor never said anything anti-Semitic, his presence in the room, allowing himself to be a moderator, and his self-admitted lack of knowledge about Louis Farrakhan’s well-documented history of hate speech toward Jewish people was roundly criticized.
But Stanfield now says he wants to set the record straight. “I definitely don’t align myself with Louis Farrakhan, I don’t stand by him,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Any kind of hate speech, I vehemently reject. That’s not up for debate, hate is not up for debate.”
However, hate speech was indeed spread in that Clubhouse room last Wednesday under the guise of having a “balanced” conversation about whether Farrakhan’s legacy had been tarnished by his anti-Semitic views. When that first room was shut down by a moderator who deemed that the conversation had gotten too inflammatory, a second room popped up to pick up where the first one left off.
Stanfield, who is currently in London filming the upcoming season of FX’s Atlanta, said he was intrigued when he came across the room because while he had heard of Farrakhan before, he “wasn’t sure to what extent” Farrakhan had courted controversy. “So, I was curious to kind of educate myself more on the topic,” he explains.
If it was an education that he was looking for, there was none to be found in that space. The Daily Beast spoke with one Jewish man and three Jewish women who were in the room, each confirming that what they heard was vile anti-Semitism, and the talk wouldn’t go for more than a few minutes without hearing some form of hate speech.
Hosting the room was Sam Bito, a Clubhouse member who joined in October and often leads discussions on a variety of topics—sometimes trivial, other times controversial. The Daily Beast reached out to Bito, but he declined to be interviewed over the phone if he couldn’t record the conversation and have the ability to publish the audio on his social media platform.
The room was billed as a conversation to help “bridge the gap” between the Black and Jewish communities, according to a video Bito published on Instagram. While the room was about 90 percent Black and the rest Jewish, he attempted to give equal speaking time to both groups, he claimed.
But the Jewish Clubhouse users who were in the room described the discussion as more of an attack, wherein they were forced to defend themselves against—and try to explain why—what was being said was considered anti-Semitic, over and over again.
“It was like the worst vile anti-Semitism that you can imagine being spewed and the Jewish community trying to defend [themselves] to no avail,” recalls Ari Ingel, director of Creative Community for Peace, which works to counter anti-Semitism within the entertainment industry. “It was an extremely troubling room and an extremely disturbing amount of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, from Jews running the slave trade, to Jews controlling the slave trade, to running all the banks, to running all the studios—you name it it was in there.”
A Jewish woman who listened into the room and did not wish to be named out of fear of further harassment is adamant that there was no debate to even be had, especially not a debate over Farrakhan. “There’s no other perspective,” she says. “I’m not going to debate anyone for my humanity or be told that Hitler was right or that my identity and my heritage is not real.”
“I’m so tired of this other side. Whenever someone’s sentence starts, ‘Well, Hitler had a point’ or ‘Hitler was wrong about a lot but here’s something he did that was right,’ you have no point, there’s no leg to stand on.” (Farrakhan has repeatedly called Hitler “a very great man” and Jews “Satanic.”)
It was this heated and divisive environment that Stanfield found himself in. “I was much more interested in sort of uncovering this information, so it wasn’t about Louis Farrakhan per se,” he says. “Me going into the room, it was more about trying to uncover more information about these things that he said or didn’t say, because I wasn’t quite clear on it.”
Upon entering the room, Stanfield says, he had a question, so he was brought up on stage and Bito quickly gave him the badge of “moderator,” which allows a user to move people from the audience to the stage and vice versa, overall helping control the discussion.
Stanfield admits that at one point he was playing a somewhat active role in moderating the conversation. “It was so chaotic in the room, there were a couple of outbursts,” he says, before taking a beat to gather his thoughts. “I think I remember someone saying something about ‘All Jews run the world’ or something kind of crazy, and that was one of the people I put down in the audience. But for the most part, one outburst would happen and then the conversation would kind of go back into a normal rhythm.”
At one point, a Jewish woman took to the stage to directly call out Stanfield for his presence in the room, pointing out that his 79,000 followers on the app can see he’s moderating the room, join in and hear the anti-Semitism being spread, and think he condones it.
“I was really caught off guard, because first of all, I didn’t host the room,” Stanfield says. “But I also didn’t feel that the conversation was really headed in a direction that was completely attacking Jewish people. At that point, I thought there were still people saying their points and then other people saying their points. So, I explained to her that I know that this is a very tense and emotional conversation to have, and I just want everyone to have the time to be able to engage in conversation. So, that was part of me trying to moderate this conversation that was happening.”
From there, Stanfield says, he wandered away from his phone, as it was already in the early hours of the morning in London. It was while he was away, he claims, when a “whole bunch of chaos started to erupt and people are saying all kinds of crazy things, apparently.”
“I come back to my phone and the room is sort of dying down,” Stanfield adds. “So, then I leave. The next couple days, there’s conversations about what happened in that room. I was really surprised by a lot of the things that I was hearing that were happening in the room because a lot of those things I just simply wasn’t present for. So, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s terrible.’”
By Thursday morning, the anti-Semitic conversation and news of Stanfield’s presence made its way to Twitter. Shortly after The Daily Beast reported on the Clubhouse room and the actor’s involvement, Stanfield posted what many viewed as a dismissive response to the scrutiny.
“Thinking outside the box comes with a cost,” he posted on Instagram, along with the caption, “They’ll always try to discredit and attack you… futile.” He later deleted the post and replaced it with a full apology.
“At some point during the dialogue the discussion took a very negative turn when several users made abhorrent antisemitic statements and at that point, I should have either shut down the discussion or removed myself from it,” he wrote. “I condemn hate speech and discriminatory views of any kind. I unconditionally apologize for what went on in that chat room, and for allowing my presence there to give a platform to hate speech.”
When asked what he meant by his initial post on Instagram in response to the criticism, Stanfield maintains it had nothing to do with the backlash he was facing. He alleges that he was simply reposting song lyrics, although The Daily Beast could not confirm what song he was referring to. “That was just actually a nice little lyric I heard, and I reposted it,” he says.
When pressed on if the caption was also a song lyric, Stanfield insists the post “had nothing to do with the context of this conversation.”
“It’s definitely plausible to me that’s how it looks,” he concedes. “But that was not the reason at all.”
Adamantly denouncing the rhetoric that occurred in the room, Stanfield says, “Let me just make it clear: I don’t support any form of hatred whatsoever, any kind of anti-Semitic statements that were made, anybody that tried to single out a group of people and make up allegations and say crazy things about them or their people? I don’t support that in any way whatsoever. Never did, never will.”
Although facing a brewing controversy, Stanfield says he never feared he was at risk of being “cancelled” or that his career could be in jeopardy, simply because he says he knows he’s not anti-Semitic.
But Stanfield must have felt some worry—because this interview was granted after we asked his team for comment about a potentially damaging music video that he made when he was 21 years old.
The video in question, which was obtained by The Daily Beast, was posted on YouTube in 2013 and has since been removed. Titled “Swastikas and Bones,” the aspiring musician raps as he leans back against a wall with his shirt off and a swastika digitally superimposed on his forehead. Eventually, the symbol fades away but then is shown in the upper-right-hand corner in bright yellow.
“I actually forgot about it,” Stanfield says. “Honestly, it wasn’t something that I did for a public viewership, like I have now. I did it a long time ago before I had even done anything. So, I kind of forgot it existed really.”
Using the symbol, Stanfield contends, was an attempt to flex his artistic muscles after he learned the Nazi emblem had been twisted from its Hindu origin and meaning.
“I found out that the original definition of the symbol was something completely different, that it represented the sun,” he says. “So, I attempted to use that meaning within the video, while also trying to be mildly provocative and try and get people to see my message through imagery.”
“It was stupid and that was dumb,” he admits. “That was a terrible mistake for me to even try and use it, even to try to get across a point that had nothing to do really with hatred. So, I’d never do that again. I’d never use that symbol again.”
Stanfield’s career quickly took off after appearing in the critically-acclaimed film Short Term 12. Praised for the intensity he brings to his projects, he went on to nab compelling and adrenaline-filled roles in Get Out, Sorry to Bother You and Uncut Gems, which ultimately landed him his Oscar-nominated supporting role of FBI informant William O’Neal in Judas and the Black Messiah.
The California native’s oddball antics were always destined to stand out in manufactured and tidy Hollywood, but he sometimes does push things a tad too far, especially online.
Stanfield says he views social media as an “instantaneous uploaded, kind of scrapbook,” and although scrapbooks are normally the exact opposite, he uses the analogy to explain his post-and-delete approach to Instagram,
“I think it’s interesting, the impermanence of things, how sometimes the internet can appear to be permanent and last forever,” Stanfield muses. “It’s interesting to play around with the idea that things are being updated as we sort of evolve and update ourselves. I don’t know, it’s some sort of internal thing I think about.”
But the internet is forever and does tend to keep receipts, mainly in the form of quick-fingered fans who manage to take screenshots of his posts before they are removed from his page. Sometimes, it’s innocuous, silly memes; others are more worrisome.
Last August, he sparked concern when he posted a series of photos of a pill bottle and an equally troubling caption, which read, “I like to be by myself because U can hurt myself and no one tells me to stop or fakes like they care.”
A flood of fans and industry peers began questioning his well-being and Stanfield eventually wiped the posts from his account, issuing an explanation of sorts and an apology. “I’m ok everyone! I appreciate everyone checking in on me but I’m good. I’m not harming myself. Much love… I apologize for making you worry.”
In February, after a public spat with radio personality Charlamagne tha God, he alarmingly filmed himself waving a gun around, pointing it at a photo of The Breakfast Club co-host and an image of William O’Neal, the man he portrayed in Judas and the Black Messiah.
When these two instances of his questionable social media behavior were brought up during the interview, his publicist quickly shut it down, despite previously saying everything was fair game. She then repeated the wish in a follow-up email.
But Stanfield is willing to confess that he’s taking a step back from social media and will be rethinking his online presence, agreeing that he should be held to a higher standard because of his platform.
“There are certain expectations that come with anyone that has a large viewership and there’s a responsibility to be aware of it,” he says. “I think I’m learning more and more [about] my relationship to fame, and my relationship being under the public eye and what that means, and how I relate to people and how much weight my words and my expressions have.”
“So, I’m being careful as I move forward, to make sure I’m expressing the things that I really feel, and that I can’t even be put in a situation where it can be misconstrued or be situated next to things that don’t reflect how I actually feel,” he adds. “There’s a big responsibility now for me, and I realized there are all kinds of different people looking at the things that I do, and I hold that of high importance.”
Stanfield admits that if he did want to learn more about Louis Farrakhan and the divisions between the Black and Jewish communities, Clubhouse was not the setting. He says he’s now been continuing conversations privately, including with influential Rabbi David Wolpe, to “try and expand my awareness and learn from perspectives that I haven’t had before.”
“Clubhouse is not a place that you want to go,” he says. “It doesn’t qualify for a place that can teach people accurately about things. At its best, it’s a place that allows for conversation and allows people to come to understand viewpoints that they may or may not have been aware of. At its worst, it develops into rooms that facilitate things like what happened in this incident.”
The audio-based app has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to rein in hate speech on its platform and currently lacks a way to verify users who are hosting rooms under the guise of educational discussions. In his Instagram video, Bito responded to questions about his leading a conversation on such an inflammatory topic by saying it was anti-African to even ask about his credentials.
This is a massive problem, according to Ingel, who also works with the Black-Jewish Entertainment Alliance, which has been co-signed by the likes of Tiffany Haddish and Billy Porter.
“It’s problematic to begin with [if] you have someone that’s not an expert, that’s sort of moderating a room on a very divisive topic. It sort of almost gaslit the situation because you get a room that he didn’t know about either side, he wasn’t an expert in Farrakhan or an expert in antisemitism. He was sort of pitting Farrakhan supporters against Jewish supporters.”
As for Stanfield, Ingel thinks it’s a wake-up call. “He didn’t do anything anti-Semitic. He is a celebrity that entered the room and I think it’s a cautionary tale because it’s like the Wild West on Clubhouse right now.”