Last June, Brie Larson took to the stage at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards to accept an award. After thanking her team, she used the platform given to her to issue a public call for representation in criticism. Citing data from a report on diversity in entertainment coverage, she told her audience, “[Of] the 100 highest-grossing movies in 2017, less than a quarter of the critics were white women, less than ten percent were underrepresented men, and only 2.5 percent were women of color.” Larson went on to remind everyone that “reviews change lives,” boldly observing what for many people has been plain to see: that the perspective of the ubiquitous white, male critic may not necessarily be the perspective that best interprets a work of art. Our diverse communities are being shortchanged when the arbiters of taste are not reflective of our collective culture. To truly honor the works of art that are produced by filmmakers, fine artists, musicians, writers — the whole lot of creative souls — the role of the critic needs to be recast.
“I don’t want to hear what a white man has to say about ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’” Larson insisted, after reassuring the audience that she has no vendetta against white dudes. “I want to hear what a woman of color, a biracial woman has to say about the film. I want to hear what teenagers think about the film.” Seems sensible, right? Of course, she earned some loud enemies on the Internet because of this call for diversity — the typical sort of white backlash that pegs any talk of diversity or white supremacy as a politically correct restriction on creativity or white identity — but Larson was simply amplifying, from her platform as an A-list actor, the reality that underrepresented critics have been living in, where their crucial contributions to public discourse go largely unseen.
Inclusive Criticism Reflects Our Cultural Assets
“The problem is not that these critics lack some essential connection with the work of artists of color,” said Aruna D’Souza, a writer who covers art, intersectionality, and politics, in a New York Times interview earlier this year. “It’s that many of them simply are not familiar with the intellectual, conceptual and artistic ideas that underlie the work.” That can seriously handicap a critic in fully assessing a work of art, in all of its merits and failures, a circumstance that ultimately affects whether or not that work of art is given its full due before being presented to the public, or — because having a hot review can draw more critical and public interest — if that work even has a chance to see the light of day at all.
After all, we look to critics to guide us to the films, exhibitions, and performances that are worthy of our viewership and money. As Keri Putnam, the executive director of the Sundance Institute put it earlier this year, “Diversity isn’t just about who’s making the films, it’s about how they enter the world.” If films enter the world through only the lens of white male critics, that limited vision is bound to limit what gets picked up and what gets forgotten. “This lack of inclusion has real world implications to sales, distribution and opportunity,” Putnam concluded.
D’Souza was speaking to Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, who penned the Times opinion piece laying out why underrepresented critics are so essential in generating or upholding culture. Berry and Yang are so invested in this belief that in 2017, the two of them founded an initiative called Critical Minded that supports critics through a broad range of approaches, including consultation and funding to help give underrepresented perspectives access to forums that would have otherwise overlooked their presence. “Think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting,” they explained. In other words, criticism is an essential building block of culture in a society that wants to find lasting value in its artistic output.
Good criticism helps to draw our attention to conversations worthy of our consideration, and this often extends beyond the work of art itself. Berry and Yang likened culture — a concept that is, in part, defined by the art that a community produces and consumes — to a battlefield of narratives. “Whether we believe someone should be locked in a cage or not is shaped by the stories we absorb about one another, and whether they’re disrupted or not,” they contended. “At a time when inequality and white supremacy are soaring, collective opinion is born at monuments, museums, screens and stages — well before it’s confirmed at the ballot box.”
The reason why a healthy critical body necessarily requires diversity is because it is the best reflection of our cultural assets. Without a broader base of criticism, the public cannot listen into and participate in informed dialogue. Take the earliest reviews of Coco, for example. “When Coco was released, not one of the first reviews appearing in major publications was written by a Latinx critic,” wrote Berry in a separate piece for Hyperallergic. “A film full of references to Mexican culture from the papel picado intro to the grandmother’s weaponized chancleta was initially evaluated by people unlikely to catch them.”
I remember making art out of papel picado when I was a kid in Seoul, Korea, but can only add that I thought they were fun to make and pretty to hang. (Now, any time I see papel picado on display, I think of my childhood in Korea.) As for the chancleta reference, that one is just over my head completely: I’ve never encountered the threat of being smacked with a flip-flop, so I could only appreciate abuelita’s wrath from context. And that’s fine! We all bring our own histories and experiences into the consumption of art, are all entitled to drawing our own conclusions on how that artwork affects us. I loved Coco and loved having conversations about it with friends. But, if I were a critic charged with writing a review of the film, a piece to be published in a public forum, how much more important would it have been for me to be able to share an anecdote that had generational depth, to be able to discuss the cultural complexities that build up an immersive, fictional world like Coco’s?
Critical Diversity Enhances Everybody’s Experience with Art
It’s worth pointing out to the establishment that having diversity in criticism doesn’t mean that every mainstream work of art is suddenly going to get cancelled because a newly inclusive field of critics will put any overt messages of racism or tone deafness or damaging media portrayals on blast; what will happen though is that the general public will have the opportunity to talk and learn about our culture through the lens of art.
“I’m not here to make excuses for this movie,” wrote Monique Judge in her review of Green Book for The Root. “I actually enjoyed it, despite all of its flaws. It was funny in the right places, touching in the right places, and even as it erases the true ugliness of racism in its depiction, it provides something of a starting point for white people to wake up.” Judge’s review was nuanced, considerate of the diversity of opinion among critics of color, and guided the general public to how and why it would be worth watching the film despite its “palatable racism.” Other critics of color expressed being fed up with white savior films, craving new narratives. The director Spike Lee summed up best the collective feeling of exasperation that black and brown audiences have been feeling in his post-Oscar interview: “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose.”
In contrast, the most prominent i.e. white critics in the country praised the Green Book for its merits, picking apart this or that cinematic flourish, but failed to recognize the blatant white savior trope that appears again and again in Hollywood. Perhaps the saddest part of the release of Green Book is that many black critics didn’t even have the opportunity to see the film before it hit theaters — because they were not tapped for their input, their voices not valued by mainstream publications.
Elevating the Critical Talent
The critical talent is there. The door simply needs to be held open. Sundance recently has gone out of its way to address the supremacy of white, male critics by making sure that their press accreditation process is inclusive and progressive. Nearly two-thirds of their press passes for the latest festival went to underrepresented voices.
This can happen at the institutional level, but it can also happen with the help of advocates. At the height of Larson’s press tour for Captain Marvel — a female-led film that smashed so many records in ticket sales, earning over $1billion globally — she specifically requested that Keah Brown, a disability rights activist with cerebral palsy, conduct the cover story interview for Marie Claire UK’s February 2019 issue. Larson working with Brown was a commitment to her public call for diversity in film coverage.
“I was thrilled you requested me to interview you,” Brown shared with the actress. “I thought, ‘This is game-changing.’ It’s the biggest opportunity I’ve had. Nobody usually wants to take a chance on a disabled journalist.” Larson replied that after speaking with film critics of color, it confirmed her observation that the entertainment coverage industry needed an inclusivity overhaul; she explained that she wasn’t taking her power for granted, that she felt a responsibility to use it to elevate others.
Brown, too, felt that her visibility through her cover story in Marie Claire serves not just herself but countless others. “I find it so hard to see people who look like me, so if I have any sort of visibility or notoriety, I can lift somebody else up.”