Politics, Movies, The World, BRB Gone Viral, Pop Culture, Interviews

Sara Benincasa on why she decided to get a journalist to ask Trump about Wakanda, getting paid to write, and using humor against evil

The actress and writer Sara Benincasa joked on Twitter that she would pay the journalist who'd ask Donald Trump about the relationship between USA and Wakanda. That tweet went viral.

If you’re an ace at geography but you haven’t heard of Wakanda, it’s not your fault although, you may need to pay more attention to pop culture. The Kingdom of Wakanda is the fictional Northeastern African home of Marvel superhero Black Panther. The feature film Black Panther is set to premiere in theaters on February 16th.

Amidst the media coverage of the upcoming film, writer and comedian Sara Benincasa joked on Twitter that she would pay the journalist who’d ask Donald Trump about the relationship between USA and Wakanda, particularly about the wave of Wakandan immigration.

We spoke to Sara about the viral tweet and what followed was a fascinating conversation about everything from the role humor can play in the face of evil to the challenges of being a writer and journalist in today’s sometimes surreal political climate.

The Tempest: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Let me start by telling you I think #WakandaGate is a genius idea. How did you come to think of it?

Sara Benincasa: I’m a comedian and writer interested in politics, so I tend to look at many things through a comedic lens. I think comedy can speak truth to power and can heal wounds. It can galvanize us and strengthen us to fight another day and it can provide relief.

I had been thinking about how Trump’s lack of knowledge or interest in the world around him is so damaging to America’s status in the world, and thus to our international relations and security. It’s also damaging to national morale, as is his unvarnished racism.

On another seemingly unrelated note, I’m excited about “Black Panther!” Comic books often reflect mainstream society as it is or as it could or should be, at least in the eyes of writers and the same is true for film.  To paraphrase the great Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., “It’s a big fucking deal.”

It occurred to me Trump likely wouldn’t realize Wakanda is not a real country. I find humor is often the best way to deal with anger and sadness – one must feel the real feelings as they arise, but humor provides comfort and renewal in the face of evil. I don’t mean imaginary evil or evil from another plane of existence. I mean the real-world evil that men do in order to get ahead.

Trump has always employed this form of selfish real-world evil, since long before he was president. He worked hard to prevent Black families from renting properties from his company, so the Justice Department had to sue him. He vilified the Central Park Five and still apparently refuses to accept that they have been exonerated. Several women have come forward to accuse this man of sexual assault.

These are a few notable examples; there are many others.

At the precise moment, I was thinking of all this, I saw a tweet by Franklin Leonard, founder of an incredibly influential film and TV industry site called The Blacklist. I cite his tweet in my original #WakandaGate thread as inspiration.

He asked Trump directly about Wakanda, on Twitter and it was a very funny joke.

Then I thought, “What if a journalist actually did this on video and got the question and the response?” The idea was so far-fetched and ridiculous because Trump does interviews with so few people – mostly just reporters who are sure to coddle him, it seems.  Anyway, the other day, I decided to compose a satirical thread of tweets, a kind of mini-essay or open letter, offering $300 to the reporter willing to ask Trump about Wakanda on video. Now, this is a ridiculous joke – blatantly unethical, and no real journalist would do it. Plus, $300 is a lot to me.

I’m a writer, and I’ve written for newspapers, magazines, websites, books, film, and TV. I’ve also done copywriting, punch-up for stand up comics, and more.

When you write for newspapers, magazines, and websites, you sometimes get paid garbage. If you’re a freelancer, you often have to fight to get these huge media companies to pay you for work completed under contract to their stated satisfaction on deadline. It’s ridiculous. I write political, lifestyle and pop culture stuff, but there are freelance journalists in the world who do incredibly important investigative reporting, stuff that improves our society and saves lives, and yet they have trouble making ends meet.

The thread arose out of my contempt for Trump, my love for humor, and my empathy for reporters who don’t get paid enough to do a difficult job.

The thread includes a few tweets of support for the Committee to Protect Journalists. They help protect journalists around the world, many of whom face injury and even death for their devotion to their cause. Their families, too, often face great danger. CPJ does incredible work.

Has any journalist actually reached out to you to say they would do it?

Sure, but these are people who would never be granted access to any president, much less this one. It’s a highly unethical proposition and anyone who seriously says they’d do it is not a real journalist.

Real journalists have joked about doing it; a couple deluded bloggers have claimed they would actually do it. No one asked them, of course.

When you first tweeted about #WakandaGate, what did you think would happen?

Whenever anything I write goes viral, I get threats. I’ve seen this happen to many women online. It’s worse for women of color, and particularly bad, it seems, for queer women of color. So trust me, I’m not playing the world’s tiniest violin for myself because some people threatened to rape me when I made a joke.

This threat has happened many times before.

I hope I stay safe, but I’m a woman and I know we are targets. It’s frightening and you can spend your whole life hiding as a result. I wouldn’t blame anybody who did!

But to have some joy in my life, I’ve got to stay willing to speak up and have a laugh here and there. My idol is the late journalist and humorist Molly Ivins, who wrote, “Keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it.”

I took that to heart when I was a teenager and that quote opens my first book, “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom.” My mom got a poster with that quote laminated for me, and I look at it often.

I feel very fortunate to have the platform that I do as a writer. I love writing books. I love writing screenplays and TV scripts. I love writing jokes, copy, articles, essays and more. I hope to get to staff as a television writer one day. Writing is my joy, even when I hate it, and I hope I always get to do it.

A while ago, I wrote a piece called How To Treat A Lady On The Internet (spoiler: it’s actually about how to treat anybody on the Internet.) I know I am luckier than many folks when it comes to the kind of blowback I get. It still sucks, but I want to be clear that I’m aware I’m not some kind of martyr, hero or trailblazer.

I just like making people laugh and hopefully feel less alone. That’s my goal, always.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.