Recently, filmmakers Sofia Coppola and Ana Lily Amirpour have both come under fire for their most recent films’ (The Beguiled and The Bad Batch, respectively) treatment of Black women. In Coppola’s case, the critique notes that her picture (a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel movie starring Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier taking refuge in an all-girls boarding school in Mississippi during the American Civil War) excludes Black women entirely, going so far as to excise a character from the original film. That the picture takes place in the South, during a conflict fought over the issue of Black enslavement, and that the character who was removed was a female slave makes Coppola’s choices all the more suspect, despite her claim that she felt inclusion of such characters and the issues associated with them would complicate the story she trying to tell. For Amirpour, critics have pointed out the disproportionately gruesome violence The Bad Batch delivers unto its Black characters, further noting the filmmaker’s defensive and dismissive response to a Black woman who asked about this issue during a recent post-screening Q&A, as well as an incident in which the filmmaker was photographed in blackface. Similar criticisms have been lobbed at Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which upon release was heralded as a much-needed breath of inclusionary air for the superhero genre, and a welcome escape from the onanistic grim-darkness of DC Comics’ developing cinematic universe. Writers of color, particularly Black women, noted that while Jenkins’ film did include a number of women of color in the picture’s, their roles were relatively minor, and often haunted by the deeply problematic tropes that have long limited portrayals of Black women in media.
Response to these critiques has been unsurprisingly quick and predictably fierce, as is often the case when white film fans feel as though Black critics have somehow stepped out of line by daring to note flaws in the work of a filmmaker these fans cherish. In many of these retorts, there’s been a familiar sort of sanctimony—the haphazard argument that not only should artists not be told who and what to include in their art, but that the choices to exclude or include should then be spared criticism once enacted.
So far, there seem to be two major ways in which defenders of these directors (and most artists who have come under such criticism) frame their objections, and paint themselves as protectors of whatever artistic integrity they claim to be staning for. As with so many drawn out scuffles about making space for noxious speech in the so-called “marketplace of ideas” (not that any of these filmmakers are equivalent to a Milo Yiannopoulos or a Richard Spencer; that’s not the point), those opposed to the charges leveled against Jenkins, Amirpour, and Coppola have painted them as a sort of censorship—the enactment of some insidious agenda to shape art into a “politically correct” homogenous whole, governed by a set of moral principles that, if violated, disqualify the art’s existence. This, of course, is absurd. The equation of artistic and political critique with crackdown on expression seems to neglect the fact that Wonder Woman is currently available in theaters worldwide, The Beguiled is in limited release, and The Bad Batch is available to watch in theaters or stream online. No one’s being stifled.
The second argument against critiques of these filmmakers is less outright unhinged, but markedly grosser: that those who have chosen to gesture towards deficiencies in these filmmakers’ work have shown themselves to be critically myopic, and unable to appreciate the work of talented creators. The logic, here, contends that, in missing the forest for the misogynoir trees, these critics are being unappreciative or dense. In a particularly wrongheaded piece for the website Birth.Movies.Death entitled “Support Female Filmmakers (As Long As They ‘Behave’)” (don’t worry—we will get to that title), writer Jacob Knight even goes so far as to depict these critics as working against the cause of women in cinema.
Put as gently as possible, the essay is a masterclass in condescension and apologism, repeatedly downplaying the actions of the directors it’s defending (Amirpour’s mistreatment of the woman who asked her a question is blatantly mischaracterized and then lumped in with all other criticisms of her, blackface included, under the label “perceived bad behavior”), and misrepresenting the critics from whom it’s defending them (at one point Knight argues that there’s some sort of hypocrisy at play when Coppola is criticized but Jenkins is not, apparently missing the fact that both were discussed, often by the exact same critics). On the whole, the piece is about as concerned about the societal opportunities afforded to women as thinkpieces claiming that liberal women who refuse to support a bigot like Marine Le Pen are not truly feminist. It’s the equivalent of Taylor Swift saying that Tina Fey shouldn’t make fun of her, because women have to stick together. That’s what it is, at best.
At worst, it’s a privileging of white women over Black women, arguing that opportunities afforded the former should be celebrated unconditionally by the latter, even when the fruits those opportunities yield contribute to the further erasure of Black women, thus continuing to limit their own opportunities and avenues for storytelling. It’s difficult, then, not to sneer at the title, which introduces the piece as a defense of a vulnerable group’s right to act outside of an oppressive norm, but fails to recognize that the actual content reveals Knight has something quite different on his mind. In truth, he is contesting the right of People of Color to have a say in their representation, and delegitimizing the means by which they choose to protect that, while defending filmmakers―who, by benefit of their platform, have more privilege than the people their elected narratives choose to erase and desiccate―from any sort of accountability or criticism.
None of this is helped by the fact that the article often reads as though the author feels it is his duty to defend fragile white artists from the overreactions of Black women, whose reasonable critiques now constitute some inane form of violence. This, troublingly, echoes the history of racist rhetoric across disciplines, particularly in its association of Black women with irrationality and unreasonable anger. While it’s, most likely, safe to say this was not Mr. Knight’s intentions, the presence of this sort of characterization of Black women as unhinged (for simply asking that their experience be emotionally and artistically acknowledged and validated, no less) is important to recognize because it gestures towards the general problem of putting your love for an artist over someone else’s concern regarding that artist’s work, and the implications of how that work depicts and characterizes the world.
Before diving further into this, it’s important to establish something up front: none of the critics who have discussed Sofia Coppola, Ana Lily Amirpour, or Patty Jenkins have said anything about their critiques making the films in question valueless. In fact, many of these critics found things they liked, whether in the directors’ most recent films or their filmography prior. You might not get that from reading the work of those who came to these artists’ defense, because most of those rebuttals seem to suggest that, embedded in the argument that the films in question have issues with representation and depiction of Black women, is the belief that we must never watch a Coppola picture, a Jenkins picture, or an Amirpour picture ever again.
No one is saying that. It’s absolutely crucial to acknowledge this. No one is saying that Coppola, Jenkins, and Amirpour are suddenly worthless irredeemable artists.
This seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding when it comes to critiquing problematic aspects of an author’s work, whether they be an actor, a filmmaker, a musician, an author, or a painter. To call out facets of a film that reflect ugly racial ideas, outmoded ideas about gender and sexuality, or troubling political structures is not an attempt to align those who enjoy those films with their unsavory components, but to provide an understanding of the ways that racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and other such problems are embedded in our culture. Consider film critic Angelica Jade Bastien’s review of The Bad Batch, in which she writes: “That there is continuous, grisly violence isn’t surprising considering the dystopian setting the characters find themselves trapped in. But how this violence is shot proves telling. Amirpour and Vincent are never more gruesome or detailed than when it comes to the deaths of two black characters.”
The point of this observation is not to accuse viewers who leave Amirpour’s film satisfied of sanctioning or enjoying the excessively voyeuristic murder of Black characters on screen. It’s not to automatically align the audience with the disturbing undertones of these scenes. Rather, observations like these serve to problematize our blind acceptance of certain features of the art we consume. Why did Amirpour amplify the violence in these instances? Did she do so intentionally? If she didn’t, what does that say about how numb we are to violence against People of Color, specifically Black people? Did you as an audience member notice the discrepancy in violence? Did the violence as it was inflicted upon different characters of different races affect you or the film in different ways?
In considering questions like these, we are asked to confront the implications of the problematic aspects of film, and how their proliferation in art and society influences the way we interact with those most affected by them. Critics such as Ms. Bastien are not asking you to disavow your enjoyment of the film, some of which you might not even connect to a specific facet that grabbed you. They are simply providing a more holistic vision of the ideas on display, and suggesting that it’s important to recognize the destructive and negative ideas that persist in art, especially in the art we love.
This is what people mean when they say that a film is problematic, an artist is problematic, “your fave is problematic.” They are not demanding that you disavow what moves you, but that you responsibly recognize the unpleasant aspects of that art, that you simply don’t consume the art you love blindly, lazily, or unquestioningly. Often times, what you love about an artist and what makes them problematic may be two disconnected elements; other times, they are linked in ways you might not have realized. In either case, conscious and mindful consumption of that artist demands that we use our passion for them to examine rather than excuse their failings as creators and as people.
It’s often said that, when you get down to it, every single person loves an artist with sizable faults. This is most likely true. But, it’s important not to use this as an excuse to shy away from uncomfortable engagement with critique, on the pretense that whoever leveled those critiques is some sort of a hypocrite. If everyone has strong connections with problematic art, then that level of engagement is even more necessary, ensuring that everyone doesn’t simply retreat into excusing what they love, simply because they love it.
Really, the main issue with the consumption of problematic art is when those problems are treated as unimportant, invalid, or petty, when we choose to ignore the legitimate concern or pain of another because it interferes with our enjoyment of a song or a film. This is where things become truly toxic. Looking back momentarily to Jacob Knight’s essay, one can see this attitude of full display. At its core, the piece is less interested in engaging with the issues raised by critics, than painting them as silly or naïve or destructive, anything but legitimate. Despite the fact that most voices in the debate made no attempts to bar Mr. Knight from enjoying the work of his choice of directors or even punish him for doing so, he felt the need to write a piece as if they did. The argument was never about the legitimacy of one’s enjoyment of a director, but retorts such as Mr. Knight’s decided it was necessary to frame the entire issue around the legitimacy of a historically underrepresented population speaking to their ongoing representational struggle. What began as a conversation about a specific failing of a specific filmmaker, was misrepresented by defenders of said filmmaker as a conversation about artistic integrity and then transformed and weaponized by those same defenders into an assault on Black women for having the gall to speak about their own experiences.
This is not a unique trend, nor is it a benign one. The refusal to acknowledge minority critiques of art and the reflex to run to the defense of the artist by undercutting the critique and the experience of the critic, is, at its core, a tactic for dehumanization. While, perhaps, not always consciously employed as such, this pattern is ultimately about asserting that the appropriate, dignified, and honest representation of Black individuals, their history, and personal complexity is secondary to the preservation of white comfort, and entrenched artistic norms.
Neither art nor its creation exist in a vacuum; that much borders on cliché. But, embedded in that, is something just as important, if perhaps less spoken: if we want to valorize art as something truly powerful, something honest and human and remarkable for its capabilities, then we must take it seriously enough to level truthful, sometimes harsh critiques. We must recognize its potential for toxicity as much as we recognize its potential for transcendence. We must admit to ourselves that the power of art is not governed by what we see and enjoy alone, that dismissal of critiques that threaten our comfort and status are not defenses of the art, but of our right to be solipsistic, selfish, and lazy. Assuming we genuinely subscribe to the notion that art is redemptive, transformative, and elemental, we cannot suddenly demand criticism that treats the problems in the medium as trivial or manufactured for the purpose of “outrage culture.”
If we refuse this, and choose to settle on blind and dangerous apologism, then the supposed power of art is wasted on us.