The latest conversation from the joyless liberal New York Times movie critics A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis tacked race and class under the benign headline “Big Statements From Smaller Films.” The online headline to the Sunday front page Arts & Leisurestory was provocative to the point of offensiveness: “Watching While White: How Movies Tackled Race and Class in 2016.”
Scott and Dargis make a regular point to squeeze the life and joy and even artistic excellence out of movies for the sake of racial and gender bean-counting.
After dismissing the newest entries from the Avengers and Star Wars cinematic universes, Manohla Dargis, the more radical of the two, proclaimed herself pleased that Hollywood isn’t telling quiet as many lies about American greatness and white superiority, and asserted that "Movie critics, who are largely white and male (see the numbers!), seem stubbornly reluctant to engage with race, at least as it pertains to whiteness."
Today’s corporate cinema doesn’t speak to, and lie about, the United States and its values the way that the old Hollywood did, perhaps because we know better or are more cynical or because it’s hard to know what the country stands for now. Once, the movies could pretend that all men are created equal (as long as they’re white) and that good guys win (as long as they’re white guys), even as offscreen life made a lie of those fantasies. This corporate cinema doesn’t sell an idea of a nation and its ideals; it sells brands and products, and the little diversity it provides onscreen often tends to feel like an extension of its brand. So it will be interesting to see how Ms. DuVernay, a strong voice for inclusion, does with her next movie, “A Wrinkle in Time,” which she’s directing for … Disney!
Scott: "For a lot of 2016, it seemed as if the dominant story was going to be about what, for want of a better word, is often called diversity, meaning the often frustrated, sometimes partly successful struggles of filmmakers who are not white men to work within a system that remains rigged against them."
Dargis demanded: “....All these discussions have made me think that we need to start talking about something we rarely do, which is how to think about whiteness -- our own and the movies.”
'A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.’ Those words, written by Robert Warshow in the ’50s, stand as one of the founding slogans of our profession. Whoever else we may be, we’re moviegoers just like everybody else. But a lot of unexamined assumptions lurk within Warshow’s idea, in particular an unthinking universalism that supposes both the critic and the ticket-buyer to be male. The old Hollywood fantasy of the mass audience -- the dream that movies are indeed for everyone -- ignored and excluded a lot of people. And the struggle for a more inclusive, more representative approach has been going on for decades. The controversies you mention represent the latest iteration of that fight, and the films you name can be taken as a measure of progress....I found myself thinking about my own angle of vision, about the identities I bring to the screening with me and sometimes slough off in the darkness. Race isn’t the only one, but it has been an especially heavy and messy one this year. In politics, whiteness has reasserted itself with an insistence that has surprised many observers.
Dargis couldn’t forgive a well-received movie based on a true story for featuring a white hero:
"Sully" is about professionalism and expertise, specifically those of a white hero, which is true of many Clint Eastwood movies and, for that matter, those of Howard Hawks. Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is about a working-class white man’s tragedy, and his whiteness is as crucial to his identity as class. Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” has several black characters, but it also, exasperatingly, positions a white pianist as the savior of jazz and a black musician as its corrupter. Whatever their genres and stories, these movies are all also about race, because race defines our world.
Movie critics, who are largely white and male (see the numbers!), seem stubbornly reluctant to engage with race, at least as it pertains to whiteness. We may take on racism -- we think we know it when we see it -- but race and racism aren’t the same thing....
After all that, Dargis’s insistence that she’s not enamored with racial and gender quotas was unconvincing:
At the same time, I have no interest in merely tabulating, say, Asian actors in a movie or noting again (and again) how many women don’t have speaking roles. I notice, but I don’t want to watch or write using a checklist. I bet you don’t want to, either.