White Film Critics Talk Racism in the Movie Industry

This week, the New York Times published a conversation between two white film critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, about the continuing homogeneity of the American movie industry’s offerings. 

The piece begins on the common premise of “look[ing] at where things are and what is to be done.” Meaning, we can assume, let’s diagnose the racism and then set a course of action. That Dargis and Scott are the ones to do it for the Times seems to be part of the more recent shift to have white writers and thinkers do more of the work around analyzing and dismantling racism. And Scott and Dargis are competent, using their knowledge of film, history, and current events to ground the discussion. Dargis says of the whitewashing of American cinema,

It’s an institutional problem, which doesn’t mean it isn’t also an individual one. Along those lines we have to ask how vision—art itself—is used to rationalize and perpetuate racism, inadvertently or not.

She also points out the conundrum of exceptional artists being touted as representative: “The thing is that awards shows—much like most entertainment media profiles—tend to focus on exceptional individuals, while ignoring the institutional barriers that are still in place.” Scott dutifully notes that “[d]ubious assumptions about what audiences want have upheld all kinds of discriminatory practices” and furthers Dargis’s point about exceptional talent, saying that “movies with black protagonists that tend to win awards […] are more often than not about exceptional figures, many of them drawn from the annals of American history.”

In reading this exchange, I recognized that I had heard and read all this talk before. And while almost no conversation on racism is entirely original (let alone any writing or discussions on the internet, full stop), the authority placed upon these two white critics—no matter how sharp and well-informed—to tell us “where things are and what is to be done,” felt undue. That there was no recognition of the work of black critics and theorists (much of which you can find in film critic Fanta Sylla’s thorough “The Black Film Critic Syllabus”), seems disingenuous. Surely, Scott and Dargis did not materialize this thinking on their own, and to obscure its source is not only ironic given the subject at hand–racism in the American film industry–but also given an equally pressing and very much implicit issue: racism and homogeneity in film criticism. In particular, the Times seems to have only ever published one black woman film critic (and woman critic of color, period), Miriam Bale. Wesley Morris, a film critic and now a critic at large for the Times—who’s black—does not write reviews, and his very presence at the paper is illustrative of exceptional representativeness. He’s a star writer, and his position at the Times only came after he won a Pulitzer Prize.

Other major publications have similar or worse records along both racial and gender lines in film criticism. What needs to be done, it seems, is some actual work. These conversations are posturing even when they are perfectly earnest and well-informed because in the end, when the Times laments the homogeneity of the film industry, it’s a string of white, and mostly male, critics who do so.

Header image via Flickering Myth

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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