Critical Inclusions

Brie Larson / Getty
June 14, 2018

There has been much discussion of a recent USC study suggesting that film critics, as a group, are disproportionately white and male. You could quibble with methodology if you wanted to (some say Rotten Tomatoes is a useful, easy-to-access measuring stick but far from comprehensive; I think it's a fair cross-section of the critical community), but, honestly, it feels pretty accurate to me. Women, non-white writers, and, as I have noted elsewhere, conservatives, are pretty underrepresented in the world of film criticism.

So let's grant that the numbers are accurate and move on. The question is, then, what do we do with the information? And, honestly, I'm not really sure. Is Brie Larson right when she suggests that certain critical voices shouldn't matter for certain movies? Here's the future Captain Marvel:

Larson elicited applause when she said she didn't need "a white dude to tell me what didn't work for him about '[A] Wrinkle in Time.'"

"It wasn't made for him," Larson said. "I want to know what that film meant to women of color, to biracial women, to teen women of color, to teens that are biracial. And for the third time, I don't hate white dudes. These are just facts, these are not my feelings."

And while this is very woke of Ms. Larson, I sense two issues with her theory of criticism. The first is that she doesn't actually have to read old white men to find out A Wrinkle in Time is not particularly good; there are plenty of women and minorities who are happy to fill her in on that fact:

But there's a bigger, more troubling issue with Larson's line of thinking: the presumption that certain people are more prone to appreciating specific works of art because they fit into some broader category of gender or race or whatever. As Jessica Ritchey noted in Mel Magazine after an Internet gadfly suggested Vertigo is only considered a good movie because "lol white men amirite," this is kind of gross:

One of the most exhausting aspects of our current cultural moment are the "ugh, only straight white men like this" takes that completely erase the voices of female critics, critics of color and fans who don’t fit neatly into binaries of who "should" like/dislike something. It’s part of a larger and much more pernicious problem — mistaking pop-culture consumption for moral worth as opposed to, you know, how we carry ourselves every day; how we treat other people; and how we support (or don’t) the causes that matter to us. Instead, we equate what someone watches on Netflix as the mark of a good/bad person.

Art is complicated; art is messy; art doesn't fit into neat little boxes. Sure, A Wrinkle in Time got hammered. But Moonlight is a film about a gay black man that was nigh-on unanimously praised by the straight-white-male critical corps. Girls Trip is a film about black women that clocked in at 90 percent fresh. Black Panther? 97 percent approval rating. I'm not sure a more diverse array of voices would actually change that much when it comes to a bad film's reception, at least in the extremely reductive sense of a film's RT score.

In a less reductive sense, however, we can see why more perspectives are better than fewer. The best piece of film writing I've read this year was Moeko Fujii's essay on Isle of Dogs for the New Yorker. Fujii's rumination on the ways translation can add to, or detract from, our understanding of the world, one of the film's key themes, was particularly good:

Anderson is a white, non-Japanese director, but had he not been interested in the power dynamics behind translation, and instead made a twee fever dream imitating Japanese aesthetics, "Isle of Dogs" would have looked and sounded a lot different. His commitment to showing the daily rhythms of a living, breathing Japanese people reveals itself not only in his cast of twenty-three Japanese actors but in his depictions of how exactly a Japanese TV-news anchor transitions to a new topic ("This is the next news"), what milk cartons for elementary schools look like (labelled "extra-thick"), or how a couple of scientists might celebrate—with a clink, "Yo—oh!," and a clap. ...

Language is power. "Isle of Dogs" knows this. It shows the seams of translation, and demarcates a space that is accessible—and funny—only to Japanese viewers. One of the most potent shots in the film is of graffiti on gray cement. A large black scrawl asks, "Douyatte bokura wo korosu tsumori?" How on earth do you plan on killing us? For most viewers, it’s a mark on the wall. For Japanese ones, it’s a battle cry.

So, by all means, try to find a way to achieve a greater level of diversity in the world of criticism. The critical corps could use a better mix of men and women, black and Hispanic and Asian and white, left and right. But let's not presume that critics of a certain race or gender can't see a mediocrity for what it is—or that mediocre works will suddenly become critical darlings once we open up the floodgates.