Struggles of an Independent Non-White Film Critic
The hot topic in Hollywood right now is diversity. Everyone is talking about Hollywood’s lack of diversity and how that needs to change. From making sure women & other minorities are given not only equal chances in front of and behind the camera but also paid equally, to making sure films include more non-white faces. It’s a huge topic. But as a member of the black independent media, I think there’s one aspect that is missing in these discussions and that’s the lack of diversity in critic circles. Nothing makes that clearer of this lack of diversity like award season and how the critical praise of certain films seems to ignore some legit concerns and criticism from non-white critics (AND non-white audiences).
Let me explain…I’m a Quentin Tarantino fan. I love all of his movies. Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite movies of all times. I spent a good portion of my college years pulling quotables from that movie and using them in real life. When I heard about his eighth film, The Hateful Eight coming out in December, I was excited. I’m always down for a Tarantino film. However, as a movie critic who is also African-American I began to feel torn. I loved Django Unchained but I was also aware of a lot of black people who were not happy with Tarantino’s giddiness over depicting violence against black folks and his well documented love affair with using the word “nigger” in his films. It didn't stop me from seeing and enjoying the film but I definitely understood where they were coming from. Then this year(*edit* I'm leaving this here as my first 2015/2016 mistake*edit) Tarantino made some infuriating comments dismissing black critics of his films while also taking an uncalled for shot at ‘Selma’ directed by a black woman (Even his clarification falls flat to me) and I couldn’t even defend it. Tarantino comes off as the white "ally" who is great as long as you give him praise but then turns defensive and offensive whenever faced with criticism from the group he claims to champion. It didn’t even cross his mind that talking about black critics writing “savage thinkpieces” would come off as not only arrogant but offensive. So I definitely understood any person of color who couldn’t bring themselves to see The Hateful Eight. Even I, as a Tarantino fan, struggled with what I should do. As a film critic and just flat out fan of movies (particularly his) I still wanted to see it but I also felt a bit of shame and betrayal to my own race giving a man this dismissive of legit criticism a dime of my money. I was hoping we would get a screener for it so I wouldn’t have to pay for it. The screener didn’t come but there was a theater showing the 70mm Roadshow version of the film so I broke down and bought 2 tickets and went. And you know what? As a film critic and fan of Tarantino’s movies, I enjoyed the film. It was beautifully shot film, the acting performances were stellar and it felt like a classic Tarantino film with over the top violence, shocking scenes and interesting dialogue banter. But as a black person, sitting in a theater full of mostly white people who laughed heartily every time Sam Jackson’s character was called a “nigger”, I felt a certain way. We all know that Tarantino has no problem sprinkling the word “nigger’ into the dialogue of his movies like it’s seasoning. Ever since Pulp Fiction I’ve heard the complaints. Sure, the cover for Tarantino is that his films are always set in a time period where a white person being fast and loose with the word “nigger” is believable. The Hateful Eight has a black ex-Union solider surrounded not only by white people but ex-Confederate soldiers, so yes, I understand that in the context of the movie, it technically makes sense. However, the use of the word is also more noticeable in this film than any other movie by Tarantino INCLUDING Django. At some point it’s become like that white guy who raps along to Hip Hop songs and doesn’t censor “nigga” and uses “But I’m just singing the song” as cover.
Does this actually affect the quality of the movie? No but it definitely affects the experience I had watching it as a black man. If voters at the Academy can feel some kind of way about white people being villains in Selma then surely I, as a black film critic, am allowed to at least ACKNOWLEDGE the ridiculousness and overuse of a racial slur in a movie. Had Tarantino used the word less in dialogue I don’t for a second believe the quality of the film or impact of the racism displayed by characters in the film is diminished. Tarantino, as much as I like his work, uses the word as a crutch because that's the only way he knows how to convince white audiences that "hey, this guy is racist." I can admit this as a legitimate shortcoming. Now Tarantino’s films usually give some type of agency to the black characters and this film is no different. Sam Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren is given control and power that he exerts it over the same white folks that try to denigrate him. But this only applies to black MALE characters in Tarantino’s films. At best black female characters are damsels in distress. At worse, like in The Hateful Eight, they’re just cannon fodder. When The Hateful Eight has a flashback to show what happened in Minnie’s Haberdashery, I cringed the moment I realized Minnie and another woman were black. I knew their fate and I knew it would be violent and they were just there to be lambs to the slaughter. So yes, while I enjoyed this film as a whole, I couldn’t help but feel some way as a black man about these things and as a film critic, despite my enjoyment of the film overall, I felt the need to also mention these things in my review.
This is the struggle of black (or any non-white) independent film critic. We’re constantly having to juggle our race (and/or gender) with the films we watch. As we move through this award season there are films like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and The Hateful Eight all being praised by majority white (mostly male) critics. But in almost all these cases, when you read/listen to their reviews or praise, you never hear them talk about issues brought up by non-white critics (or non-white audiences). In the case of Mad Max: Fury Road, it is a cinematic masterpiece using practical effects and a high octane soundtrack. I enjoyed it immensely (Even recently bought the soundtrack on vinyl). However, how many critics have talked about the lack of non-white faces in the movie? Honestly it didn't even really hit me until after the movie when I saw other black members of media mention it and immediately get shouted down with ridiculous reasons as to why in Australia in the future, you couldn't find any black people. Again, didn't bother me at the time but the excuses were ridiculous. The only character who is non-white that most can remember is Zoe Kravitz and as Rod from the Black Guy Who Tips has pointed out, you can’t remember a single memorable line by her. Not only that, but I don’t think it’s an accident that Zoe blends in with the rest of the cast. In no way do I mean to take away from her blackness because that does her an injustice. But it’s interesting how the rest of the cast is tanned just enough so that Zoe Kravitz blends in and doesn’t even stand out. Its as if even though she's a black woman in the movie, her blackness is specifically hidden. The Martian is another great film that I enjoyed this year and definitely deserves praise. However, are we really going to ignore Matt Damon’s comments on diversity and his interaction with Effie Brown? On their own I might be able to separate Damon’s comments from The Martian but the director of the film is a man who just a year ago was catching heat for his ridiculous comments on diversity. Are we to forget that Ridley Scott, defended white washing Exodus Gods and Kings then turned around and did it again with Asian characters in The Martian. At the time I watched the movie, it really didn’t hit me how bad that was, but the more I think about it, it’s inexcusable. Especially after including his history, his previous comments and then Matt Damon’s on top of that. Then there’s The Hateful Eight and well, I’ve already covered those issues. White critics have the luxury and privilege to critique these films in the bubble of them just being entertainment and ignoring all the other factors that surround them that non-white members of press don’t get. It must be nice. I wish I could do the same but see the way the melanin in my skin is set up…
Even films that have black casts make me feels some kind of way around this time of year because of the type of films that get praise from white critics. I loved Straight Outta Compton. But once again I felt a little weird about the praise it got over films like Dope and Creed. While a great movie, it is hard to overlook that Straight Outta Compton leaves out the misogyny and abuse towards black women. What makes this stand out so much to me as a black critic is that I remember reading the complaints about Selma not being 100% accurate and fair to President Johnson. Never mind that Selma was closer to the truth than American Sniper. Truth is in Straight Outta Compton black women are nothing more than objects to be used in the film and that’s it. I thought the movie was great yet when I read the complaints of black women who critiqued the film or flat out refused to see it because of their erasure, I couldn’t blame them and I had to at least acknowledge. Yet white critics could praise it like young white kids who thought they were so “hip” because they listen to rap music. It’s on a lot of these critic’s “Best Film” list over Dope and Creed. Not saying you can’t consider it a better film but to do so and ignore these issues is a privilege others don’t have. Speaking of Creed, I even find it interesting how some white critics while praising Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan, decided to focus on the performance of Stallone. Look, I think Stallone’s performance in Creed is one of his best in years, maybe decades. However, praising him while downplaying the vision and directing of Coogler, the acting of Jordan and then completely overlooking Tessa Thompson seems wrong and again steers the critique of the film more towards whiteness than the fact that it is a black film. So even in critiquing a black film, it’s as if some of these critics could only give it props because they were able to look at the film through the eyes of the white character played by Stallone.This struggle hit me even more when Star Wars the Force Awakens released. On its way to becoming the biggest movie of all time, it’s a film that’s centered on a white woman and a black man, with a Latino man playing a bad ass pilot and a diverse mix of ethnicities in the background, foreground, under the makeup, all the while being completely unapologetic about it. The main young white male actor plays a character that in the movie is a whining, entitled man baby who throws temper tantrums about how mommy, daddy and Uncle Luke didn’t give him what he wanted, when he wanted it. It’s funny how now all the sudden, the same critics that couldn’t see the race issues in films like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian or The Hateful Eight, now all the sudden have hypocritical views on The Force Awakens. Dudebro hero Max Landis threw a temper tantrum worthy of Kylo Ren over how Rey is a “Mary Sue” (throwing in that Lando is more developed than Fin using asinine logic). Michael Hiltzik of the L.A. Times wrote a critique of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (mind you he’s not even a film critic) claiming it’s not even a movie. He had this to say on the topic of diversity in the film:
[quote]Abrams' big advance is said to be supplanting the whiter-than-white protagonists of the original "Star Wars" with a young woman and a black male. This hardly is a cinematic breakthrough, as other moviemakers who understand the demands of a gender- and culturally diverse audience have been doing it for years.[/quote]He then goes on to not even name ONE film to back up this claim that moviemakers have been “doing it for years”. This is in direct contrast with what THR, who didn’t put a single non-white woman as part of their Hollywood Roundtable cover, said. THR wrote a piece defending their cover claiming it was Hollywood’s fault for not including non-white women in their films. While it's true that Hollywood needs to do better, THR ignored the black women in Creed and Dope. They also ignored the black transgender women in Tangerine who are campaigning to get recognized for their roles. This is the life of a non-white independent critic. We see these things because we can't ignore them. When we push back against these narratives we’re met with excuses or worse, in the case of Landis or Hiltzik, we’re dismissed as trying to “shut down differing opinions.” So no, this isn’t just about Hollywood studio execs. Devin Faraci asked on twitter for young film critic recommendations and then remarked how he didn’t get any recommendations for black film critics. But he also put in the caveat that he didn’t want “every day man reviews” whatever that is. Whether it was intentional or not, I felt that already stacked the deck against many young black critics in independent media. Many young black critics consider themselves “every day man/woman” reviewers because normal critic circles don’t include us (or any other non-white critics) unless we get a cosign from another white critics. The deck is stacked against us being included. At one point back in 2013 we were associate members of the Washington Area Film Critic Association. They had two tiers of membership and most times your first year was a probationary period as an associate (or whatever the probationary level was called) and then the next year you could be considered for full membership. In 2014 they removed the associate program and said that we didn't make the cut for membership because we didn't have enough reviews. This happened to several minority run, independent critic platforms. The claim for cutting the associate program was to "solidify [the Association's] membership to the studios and PR agencies". Maybe I took it too personally but the truth is it read like exclusion. Mainly because we work with PR agencies and Studio Reps to get the press access we have now, so what did removing the program have to do with solidifying membership for the Association? It felt as if they were trying to exclude some independent media critics as not being "legit". After that I never felt like applying again because it felt as if smaller independent media had been deliberately cut out and while I believe we have a strong case for reapplying, in the pit of my stomach I asked "Do I want to belong to something where I don't believe they welcome me?" Will I ever apply again? Probably, but that feeling of rejection using what feels like an arbitrary criteria that didn't seem to make sense considering the access we gained (on our own) seemed baffling. It angered me because we're just as much part of the press and critic circle as anyone else. We’re going to the same press screeners. We're getting the same press emails. We get credentialed press to events. We get interview opportunities and access. And unlike many of my non-white colleagues, we’ve had to do it without the help of bigger traditional sites. We're not piggy backing off the name of a larger media company or podcast network. Every success we've earned has been by crawling up the ranks without the support others get and this is again, a recurring theme for most non-white members of independent media and critics. When we go into press rooms at Comic Cons, routinely Phenom and I are the only black faces in the room. When we aren’t (and its not folks in our Podcast/Critic circle), we’re usually the only ones there representing a site that WE own. In a way this makes us more legitimate than some of the bigger sites because we have complete control over what we decide to cover and how we cover it. We can pick and choose which pressrooms we want to cover because we’re interested in them and research them. Some of the bigger sites send people to cover a pressroom and the person they send hasn’t even watched the show or knows nothing about the people they’re assigned to interview. They’re just sent in with a list of pre-canned questions to ask and they’re just there to get whatever they can to meet a deadline. Yet when it gets time to recognize our work we’re ignored or labeled as “not real critics”. Look, running Movie Trailer Reviews/MTR Network means I’m: A web developer, system administrator, Podcaster, Host, Critic, Writer, Editor, Photographer, Videographer, Photo/Video Editor, Social Media Marketer, etc etc etc. I’m credentialed member of press. I’ve seen the numbers of some of the Twitter/Instagram/Facebook followers of some of these other “traditional press members” and I top them. Like my fellow non-white independent critics, I've paid my dues and put in the work. I do all of this while maintaining a 9-5. I’ve earned my right to be heard.
Diversity in Film & TV doesn’t stop at the making of films and television shows. The critical opinions considered also need to be just as diverse and I don’t mean in the sense of being contrary just to be contrary. I mean there need to be more women, more black people, more Asians, Latinos, LGBT members, etc. The lens in which we watch film is just different from that of white men who dominate the critic space. Last November at DC Podfest after being on a panel discussing being black podcasters I was approached by a white guy. He was intrigued by a comment I made about how when we review The Flash, we constantly talk about how the show is built on black fatherhood and how it’s so refreshing to see. He was intrigued because he loved The Flash and never considered that aspect. It gave him a new appreciation for a show that he loved. That is why real diversity of opinion is needed. That conversation really drove home how important my role as a member of the independent press was and 2016 is going to be the year I really stand up for the importance of non-white voices in the critic circles. It won’t be easy. There are definitely struggles. But this is a fight that has to be had. You see a lot of larger sites taking shots at comic book films and talking about the need for more diversity but are silent when it comes to movies like Mad Max, The Martian or The Hateful Eight. It’s made me realize that the cause of that is the lack of diversity with critics and TV/Film writers and that must change. We belong just as much as the next person.
*If you need a list of some minority run Independent Media sites, many of whom are critics/podcasts that we've worked with, check out our support page here*
So soon after I click "publish" on this article, Nina over at Project Fandom posts this on Facebook: Oscar Voters Fear Another #OscarsSoWhite Backlash This Year. Call me crazy but maybe if there was more diversity with Oscar voters this would help offset some of the anger at the awards and put it back on the studios. Because while there is a lack of non-white nominations, part of that feels like its because there aren't any non-white voters to champion for non-white movies. Just a thought