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No, Shia LaBeouf, forgiveness is not in your power

After admitting his abusive behaviour towards FKA twigs, the actor has been ignored in Netflix’s publicity for his latest film, but the industry has a track record of forgetting abuse. It has to stop, says Clarisse Loughrey

Monday 04 January 2021 06:30 GMT
Shia LaBeouf is being sued by former partner FKA twigs over claims of abuse
Shia LaBeouf is being sued by former partner FKA twigs over claims of abuse (Rex Features)

The final, devastating blow of Alma Har’el’s 2019 drama Honey Boy finds 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe) hovering nervously in a puke-coloured motel room. His father, James (played by the film’s writer, Shia LaBeouf), stands across from him – a tight coil of rage and disillusionment. Otis, a child actor, is under his father’s care, and each night descends into a battle for control. He’s demeaned, humiliated, and attacked. On this night, he’s on the phone, acting as an intermediary between his abuser and a fellow victim, his mother, repeating her words to his father as she recounts the time she jumped out of a moving car to escape him after he tried to rape her.  

Years later, Otis (Lucas Hedges) walks off a film set and into a familiar Hollywood narrative: the drink, the rage, the tumultuous arrest. Eventually, he ends up in a rehab facility. It’s the same place LaBeouf found himself in 2017, when he wrote the first pages of what would eventually become Honey Boy. In interviews, the actor was upfront about how unnervingly close the film hewed to his own experiences – and critics seemed to agree that what they were watching was less autobiography, more art as a therapeutic release.  

LaBeouf had provided his audience with a guide map of how he’d spent his years internalising trauma only to weaponise it against others. It provided the psychological reasoning, he argued, behind the arrests, the erratic behaviour, the on-set confrontations. At the time, such an act of raw honesty felt revelatory. Here was a Hollywood star ready to confront his past mistakes, no longer content to hide behind the deceptive mystique of the bad boy. Here was a man willing to admit that the label of “method actor” had far too easily become an excuse for bad behaviour.

On 11 December, The New York Times reported that musician FKA twigs, whose legal name is Tahliah Barnett, is suing her former partner LaBeouf over claims he subjected her to intense physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The pair first met during pre-production on Honey Boy, in which Barnett also stars, and their relationship is said to have lasted just under a year. The accusations are startling – while on a road trip, LaBeouf allegedly threatened to crash the car if Barnett didn’t profess her love for him. He is also alleged to have knowingly given Barnett a sexually transmitted disease and, when she attempted to leave the relationship, violently grabbed her and locked her in a room.

The lawsuit contains similar claims from another of LaBeouf’s exes, stylist Karolyn Pho, while, on social media, singers Sia and Katy Rose came forward with their own stories of emotional and physical abuse. There’s always a sense of betrayal when an artist whose work we’ve invested in faces accusations of abuse. It’s a rupture of the trust that’s quietly built in the dark of the auditorium, where we come to seek truth and hope to see it reflected back to us. And there’s a guilt, too, in knowing that our money and attention may have shielded them from the pain they inflicted on others. All those feelings are amplified here by the mere existence of Honey Boy, a film which traded in self-reflection and the belief that even the most broken are capable of change.

FKA twigs, real name Tahliah Barnett, dated LaBeouf for almost a year, and is now suing him for alleged abuse (Getty for Bauer Media)

LaBeouf, in his statement to The New York Times, wrote: “I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt. There is nothing else I can really say.” His attorney would later inform Variety that he was seeking long-term inpatient treatment. It’s a test of the film industry’s commitment to the #MeToo movement that would (superficially, at least) seem too easy to pass: the accused was upfront about the fact he’d caused harm in the past and, at least, had shown an intent to seek help. Har’el, for her own part, was swift to voice her support for Barnett. “I am painfully aware of my past investment in his recovery,” she wrote. “I want to send a clear message today that none of the above should excuse, minimise, or rationalise domestic violence.”

Netflix, who backed LaBeouf’s latest film, Pieces of a Woman (out in UK cinemas this week and on Netflix 7 January), scrubbed his presence from their publicity within days. His name is no longer a part of the site’s synopsis, nor is it featured in its “For Your Consideration” ads – its volcanic story of a woman (Vanessa Kirby) grappling with the loss of a child had made it an early awards contender. Certainly, more could have been done, but the swiftness of the streamer’s response stands in stark contrast with how Warners Bros handled claims of abuse levelled at Johnny Depp by his ex-wife Amber Heard in 2016. The studio, and JK Rowling, openly defended the Fantastic Beasts star until this year, when a UK court ruled that The Sun had not committed libel by naming him a “wife beater” – soon after, the actor was quietly asked to step down from his role in the franchise.

LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in the new Netflix film Pieces of a Woman (Netflix)

It may not feel like much of a victory, but studios no longer shrug off allegations of abuse quite as brazenly as they did before. No one has miraculously developed a conscience – the bad publicity has made it more effort than it’s worth to them. Only, what happens next, beyond the initial disavowals and the distancing? The fear lies less with how the industry treats LaBeouf now, but how they’ll treat him in a year or so. Too many alleged abusers have been allowed to crawl quietly back into the spotlight, without forgiveness or absolution from those they hurt.

Less than a year after five women accused Louis CK of sexual misconduct – which, in a written statement, he admitted to – he was back performing in New York City’s comedy clubs. Accusations that Casey Affleck had sexually harassed two women on the set of his 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here resurfaced in the lead-up to his Oscar win for Best Actor in 2017. He made a point of declining to present Best Actress, as was traditional, the next year, but barely paused before returning to work – his latest film, The World to Come, is set to premiere at the next Sundance Film Festival.

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These men, and so many like them, have never faced material consequences for their actions. We’ve become stuck in the same pattern: they retreat, for a short while, then re-emerge as if nothing ever happened. In a way, their self-imposed punishment acts as some strange burlesque of the prison system, where it’s enough simply to extract someone from society for some arbitrary amount of time. But when an artist is accused of abusive behaviour, the desire to remove them from the industry isn’t just an act of punishment, it’s a necessity for the safety of others. Variety reported that, earlier this year, LaBeouf was fired from Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling due to alleged poor behaviour – a violation of the director’s “zero asshole policy”. Wilde was one of the many women in Hollywood who lent their support to Barnett when her allegations were made public.

LaBeouf with Noah Jupe, who played a younger version of himself in Honey Boy (Getty)

In 2017, a video surfaced of LaBeouf making racist remarks to a black cop during an arrest for public intoxication. Another video, caught in 2015, appeared to show him arguing with his then-girlfriend Mia Goth, telling her: “This is the kind of s*** that makes a person abusive.” When he was then offered a lift to the airport by a group of locals, he said to them: “I don’t want to hit a woman, but I’m being pushed.” LaBeouf’s past legal troubles establish clear patterns of behaviour; though he’s enrolled in rehab, and spoken recently about his sobriety, he’s also admitted that it took until 2018 for anyone to tell him that he had PTSD, connected to the childhood abuse depicted in Honey Boy.  

If LaBeouf is sincere about his willingness to work on his issues, and to change, these are not things that can be achieved by someone whose job it is to feed off their own trauma. In the past, the actor has admitted that he would only phone his father when he needed “an excuse to rev up” for a scene. Honey Boy may have been therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. It may have represented LaBeouf’s truth, that trauma begets trauma, but there’s no way to break that cycle unless we’re willing to confront it head on. And there is no pathway to forgiveness – a set number of years of rehabilitation, a ritual of atonement – because no one’s ever been able to prove that one actually exists.  

The accused will simply state that they’ve cleaned up their act, despite being the last person qualified to verify that fact. Affleck, in 2016, wrote that the lawsuits against him were “settled to the satisfaction of all. I was hurt and upset – I am sure all were – but I am over it.” Mel Gibson, in 2016, a decade after his antisemitic rant to an arresting officer, called his behaviour a “dim thing in the past”. 

What Affleck and LaBeouf’s past statements share is a superficial support for those accusing them and some vague admittance of wrongdoing (Affleck said he felt responsible for an “unprofessional environment”), while maintaining that the specific accusations levied against them aren’t true. “I have no excuses for my alcoholism or aggression, only rationalisations,” LaBeouf wrote to The New York Times, followed in another email by “many of these allegations are not true”. Whatever legal protection it may grant them, there remains a simple fact at the heart of all these allegations: forgiveness cannot be achieved without accountability. And, for now, no one seems to be demanding it – certainly not the entertainment industry, which continues to welcome alleged abusers back with open arms. All we can hope is that, this time, things might be different. It’s a small, fragile hope.

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