Film Criticism’s Identity Crisis
“How can you not be for more diversity?” a friend recently asked me when I was explaining my opposition to the #OscarsSoWhite movement that exploded over the last two awards-season cycles in response to the lack of minority actors nominated for Academy Awards.
Perhaps I am no longer on the side of liberal progress and no longer care about racial representation in film. Or perhaps it’s not an either/or dichotomy. I recognize the value of racial representation and I think that the #Oscarssowhite activism has been counterproductive to that cause.
Why? Because the Twitter movement was simply counterfactual. In the 21st century, roughly 12 percent of acting nominees at the Oscars were black and the proportion of African-Americans relative to the rest of the population, according to the decennial census, is also 12.2 percent. If discrimination exists in Hollywood, I agree with African-American director Spike Lee (who received an honorary Oscar last year), who said it happens in casting rooms and at studios and to blame the Oscars is an act of misdirection. #Oscarssowhite slacktivism has largely damaged its credibility, by lacking nuance in its analysis, by going after the wrong targets, and by a lacking appreciation for the progress that has been made.
This is an awards body that has helped jumpstart the careers of such minorities as Taraji P. Henson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Terrence Howard, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Demian Bichir, Sophie Okonedo, and Jennifer Hudson by awarding them with honors when box-office receipts and other awards bodies weren’t. If you look at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTAs) for example, out of all these actors only Jennifer Hudson was nominated. Consider also that Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman have been nominated 12 times by the Oscars and neither has been nominated once by the BAFTAs.
Aside from the issue of the #Oscarssowhite activists drifting further and further away from the image of racism they claim exists, there’s also the issue of appearing to not acknowledge the accomplishments they have had. When Selma was nominated for Best Picture without a Best Director nomination for Ava DuVernay, it was enough to spark an outrage—but Selma was never a lock for best director or best actor. Ralph Fiennes was nominated for countless awards for The Grand Budapest Hotel and was widely acknowledged to have hit a high-water mark in an already distinguished career, but there wasn’t a school of advocates to rally around his exclusion with the political firepower of there was for Selma lead David Oyelowo. Similarly, Selma had as much buzz as Nightcrawler or Gone Girl, both of which were left out of the Best Picture fold. If the advocates of Selma felt so stiffed, would they have been willing to trade places with those two films and give up their Best Picture nomination entirely? Does it not appear ungrateful to complain about a Best Director snub when so many excellent films didn’t even get Best Picture?
This past year resulted in a grand victory for this class of activists as seven actors of color were nominated for the Oscars. Moreover three of the nine nominees for Best Picture (Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences) were largely “black stories” and one other (Lion) was a story set in the Third World. But to think that this will get sensible discourse about the state of movies and race back on track is naïve.
The strange thing about the new brand of liberal activism is not just that it demands that films pass some liberal test but that it is considerably more picky and arbitrary when it comes to which films pass that muster. In the same year that Selma was championed as “the liberal choice,” the gay biopic The Imitation Game was dismissed as Oscar-bait (a term liberal film critic Mark Harris has rallied against for marginalizing films that are feminine) for being a “white biopic.” Keep in mind that “The Imitation Game” was so effective at depicting the struggle of mathematics pioneer Alan Turing that just two years after its release, the British government posthumously pardoned an entire generation of men and women who had been convicted under the criminalization of homosexual acts.
And then there are those like Arab actor Amrou Al-Khadi, who wrote an article in the Independent threatening to quit acting if La La Land won best picture:
Moonlight NEEDS to win Best Picture. Not only because it is a cinematic feat that is to La La Land what Frida Kahlo is to paint-by-numbers, but because it sends an urgent message. A message that we’re ready to empathise with any story, no matter how far away they are from us, and how much they defy our systemic misconceptions.
Al-Khadi’s view of movie-awards season as an all-important cultural battleground is by no means an isolated one.
TV and film criticism is now dominated by writers who view their role as policemen of diversity and expositors of social justice issues. A recent AV Club episodic review of the TV show Black-ish in which Chris Brown got a guest starring role begins:
“Fuck Chris Brown. Fuck. Chris. Brown. I know, we live in a world where Casey Affleck can win an Oscar and Sean Penn can beat Madonna and go on to have an illustrious career, so why shouldn’t Chris Brown be able to guest star in a sitcom as a rapper trying to expand his career with sponsorships? Well, because fuck Chris Brown. Fuck Casey Affleck. Fuck Sean Penn.”
Reviewer Ashley Ray-Harris goes on to discuss the burden of a black show not to cast a serial domestic abuser, and it’s an interesting read. It should be noted, however, that nowhere in the text does Ray-Harris ever get around to reviewing the TV show. Fellow A.V. Club reviewer Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya’s review of the Documentary Now! parody of Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia includes a take on white First World privilege and her coverage of the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt posits the chipper titular character as a PTSD victim and uses her word space to educate her readership about the coping process for trauma. While readers will respond with differing opinions about just how tenuous Upadhyaya’s connections are to the intent of the source material, it’s relatively clear that at one of the internet’s most trafficked websites for television criticism, using art as a means to preach about social justice is more the rule than the exception.
It’s in this cultural climate that routine negative Oscar campaigning has turned into a new form of hit piece that judges a film by its progressive merits. La La Land was particularly vulnerable because it wasn’t a black film that came out in a year when the uproar for black representation was impossible to ignore. Washington Post critic Emily Yahr aptly pointed out that La La Land was getting backlash from all corners as a frontrunner, but it should be noted that some of the hits were intensely political. One of the criticisms was that Ryan Gosling’s character “whitesplained” jazz to Emma Stone, as if it is no longer acceptable for a person of any race to appreciate jazz and make it their life’s ambition to become a great jazz musician.
In his Fusion piece “La La Land Might Win an Oscar but it has some Bizarre Racial Politics,” Jack Mirkinson writes:
In one scene, he takes Mia to an empty jazz club where, in front of an all-black band, he explains the power of the music to her in mystical and rather torturously written terms. Beyond the male condescension inherent in the scene, the use of a white man as a portal into what is, unambiguously, a black art form lands with an uncomfortable thud. The actual black people playing the music in the scene are not asked to share their thoughts.
These kinds of criticisms once again imagine that a filmmaker needs to create their art in such a way to safeguard against racial criticism. And although Mirkinson does an excellent job of portraying the nuance of the situation, being sure to note the film’s strengths alongside its weaknesses, the criticism gets much more severe in Geoff Nelson’s “The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land,” which makes the absurd argument that the film is an abomination because it treads on “white nostalgia”:
La La Land isn’t the escapism America needs right now, it’s a regressive effort at time travel with no sense of shame for America’s many historical sins. Chazelle engages in the most dangerous type of cultural production: to have an audience feel without thinking:
If you are wondering what kind of extremely specific pedagogical value Nelson expects Chazelle to imbue in his film, Nelson clarifies:
How many in a La La Land audience would be unable to vote, live in their neighborhood, marry their partner, work in their job, attend their school, if Chazelle’s film were successful in landing them in 1940s Los Angeles? Where do LA’s Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when thousands of white folks organized themselves into street gangs to assault people of color, fit in Chazelle’s reverie? Or what of the historical record of housing discrimination, whereby 80 percent of 1940s Los Angeles real estate was off-limits to buyers or renters of color? When Gosling’s character wishes the public to remember the history of jazz rightly, it’s no wonder so much else must be redacted to suspend disbelief.
To Nelson, failure to address these issues, regardless of narrative relevance, is synonymous with guilt, or at the very least “unbearable whiteness” judging by the title of his essay. For a film that never actually takes place in the past, calling it misguided historical fiction is an odd label, though it also opens the question of how restrictive Nelson would be of historical fiction that isn’t specifically about the civil-rights movement.
In an essay for Vox last week, critic Jaime Weinman declared what many of us have already known for a while: Film criticism has entered a new era where it is now standard to assess a filmic work by its socio-political implications in addition to its merits. Weinman doesn’t pass judgment so much as state it as simple truth: “Whether it’s superficial or perceptive, today’s pop cultural criticism can’t seem to ignore social issues.”
If cultural criticism has really reached a point of no return, it bears remembering that calling on films to be responsible also demands a higher level of responsibility from the critic in turn.
This involves being aware that complaints are really tacit demands. When a critic says “I’m disappointed that this film did X or Y,” they really mean “by the power vested in me as a critic, I demand Hollywood should make efforts to X and Y.” Statements along these lines that don’t take into account the context and logistics that go into making a film amount to noise at best and propaganda at worst.
The call for plurality in films is noble, but we also need to recognize that there are many ethnicities and classes that are underrepresented in a way that isn’t particularly proportional to the current level of critical outrage. Conversely, there are multiple ways to make a progressive or thought-provoking film outside the narrow definitions of right and wrong suggested by the new socially conscious era.
Weinman’s excellently researched piece reaches a curious conclusion:
And in a strange way, this new turn of criticism, this emphasis on the politics behind art, may be better for a work’s reputation than criticism that ignores politics. … If critics hate your favorite movie enough to call it a menace to society — well, at least they’re taking it seriously.
In other words, Weinman argues that all discourse is good in the way that all publicity is good. The problem with this argument is that collective space in the zeitgeist is a zero-sum game when it comes to everyday consumers of art. Talking ad infinitum about the Oscars’ lack of diversity eliminates any chance for any other pertinent issues to claim headline space.
The story of Moonlight winning at the Oscars could be so much more than the tired “black film”-beats-“white film” narrative. It’s worth noting that Moonlight director Barry Jenkins cites the 2000 indie film George Washington film as a direct inspiration for his debut film, and he didn’t even know David Gordon Green’s race when he saw it. Would a mutual appreciation of the contributions of both filmmakers be something that flies in today’s climate? I sure hope so.
Orrin Konheim is a freelance journalist and entertainment blogger in the Washington, D.C. and Richmond markets. His work can be found at https://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com.