The new documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, echoes what the New York Times recently covered on the need for more critics of color in the arts – film, literature, and art. In the documentary, Toni Morrison almost single-handedly transforms the African American voice in fiction while working as an editor for Random House. When she becomes a notable writer, turning out such masterful works as the Bluest Eye and Beloved, she is shockingly passed over for the National Book Award. It took a community of black writers to join together in protest, writing a letter to advocate for recognition for Morrison as a major American author. Morrison would eventually win the Nobel prize and even then, there would be grumbling among some guardians of the status quo that she only got it because of “political correctness.”
The thing is, with fiction and with film or fine arts, it took the perspective of the black community to fully recognize the greatness of Morrison’s work. No matter how valuable the white book critics believe themselves to be, no matter how strenuously they hold onto being the only voice that defines greatness, there is just no way that Morrison’s work could possibly resonate for them in the way it did for black readers. Sure, anyone can read her writing and see it for what it is: brilliant. But black critics would have a grasp of the language, sense how the essence of that world was conveyed, and feel the impact more deeply than readers who didn’t live the experience of growing up black in America.
The Morrison documentary showcases the writer – charismatic and insightful in her own words – talk about why it’s necessary to have the perspective of black criticism, perhaps not in the place of but to balance alongside criticism from the white community. Is that the same thing with film? It absolutely is. How would Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time have been reviewed if there was an abundance of black film critics to write about it as opposed to the majority of them being white? Sure, the Disney film was meant to reach across all demographics, but many critics were unprepared when DuVernay as a black storyteller stepped outside the boundaries of what has been defined as “good and bad” in the realm of white film criticism.
The more filmmaking opens up the map to filmmakers of color, the more important it is to match these new boindaries with film critics of color for a complete evaluation of work that doesn’t depend so predominantly on the white male demographic.
Here’s the good news – never in all of history has it been easier to be a film critic. Anyone with devotion and desire can do it. I tried to explain this in a comment over at Hollywood Elsewhere forgetting for a while that Big Brother is always watching. David Edelstein got fired from NPR for a ill-conceived joke he made on Facebook. One should never forget Big Brother is watching and Big Brother can screen capture your comment and tack it up on Twitter so that people can draw conclusions – out of context – on who you are and what your intentions may be.
Had I remembered that, I would have remembered to be VERY CAREFUL about what I said — very carefully to consider the weight of every word so as not to offend a single person. I failed in that regard. It was easy to look at what I wrote and draw the wrong conclusions. That was my fault. Without going into it, I will just say that I’m sorry if I misrepresented what I meant to say. I do not believe nor would I ever suggest, that more writers of color would mean more “woke” coverage. I have only ever been supportive of more inclusivity across the board, not less. My problem is with much of white-woke-film-twitter who see it as their job to stridently police films (and even past personal history of filmmakers) to vet them for maximum wokeness. My quarrel is 100% to do with white people, as I do not believe it is THEIR job to police art so stridently. It is a troubling, ongoing need to tinker with our utopian diorama – you can say this, you can’t say that, you can wear this, you can’t wear that. Some folks take to those rules like ducks to water. They love that they have a way to prove that they are trying as hard as they can not to offend anyone as a white person. But others don’t. They won’t say anything about it for fear of being called out but they secretly think some of it goes overboard. They see it as oppressive.
What I disagree with, as I’ve written about, is the policing of films by white critics. I think it’s gone too far in the wrong direction and to cite Green Book as an example of why we need more critics of color I’m not sure works either. For one thing, Green Book was liked across the board, not just by white people. It was liked by all kinds of people from every background. That those people who admired or enjoyed the film were continually lectured on why they shouldn’t like it or why they should be offended by it – well, clearly that rubbed many people the wrong way at the end of the day, white and black. Ultimately, the same Academy that awarded Moonlight the Best Picture Oscar also awarded Green Book. If the aim here is to say “no more films like Green Book but only films the guardians approve of” then that is probably not going to be a productive course. If the aim is “let’s have more voices talking about Green Book so we can have the benefit of all perspectives” then I think that’s a more positive approach. Either way, I should have made MY comment at HE more clear so as not to be called out YET AGAIN on Twitter.
Critics of color of course have every right to criticize films or music or fine art as their perspective is essential for balanced appraisal. It doesn’t take away, but rather adds immeasurable value to, the discussion and appreciation of works of art.
The conclusion in the Times is this:
Old-school white critics ought to step aside and make room for the emerging and the fully emerged writers of color who have been holding court in small publications and online for years, who are fluent in the Metropolitan Opera and the rapper Megan Thee Stallion.
We need mainstream newspapers and their culture departments to hire people of color as assigning editors and critics. Equally necessary is to then support them with mentors, resources and management buy-in to create genuine shifts in power, not just different bylines.
I would only add here that I have seen many different outlets working hard to embrace new writers of color. The New York and LA Film Critics have made great strides to diversify their membership, the New York Times and Roger Ebert’s site have made similar efforts, even blogs like Collider, the Daily Beast are making changes in the right direction. Maybe the goal isn’t reached just yet, but the desire to make the change is most definitely there. There are so many opportunities now for film critics – anyone can be a film critic. Anyone. That the job has been so nearly exclusively a man’s game is probably due to how long our film culture was made by and aimed at white men. Now that it’s opening up, perhaps that will usher in a whole new community of voices. I’m sure everyone with open minds are welcoming those new voices with open arms. So if you want to write about movies, just do it. And if you need help getting started, shoot me an email. I can tell you exactly how to do it. You write enough reviews you can become an established voice and a legit critic. That didn’t used to be the case 20 years ago when I started but it is most definitely the case now.
Either way – seek out the Toni Morrison documentary. It is brilliant.