Must Reads: ‘There is room for everyone’: 14 film critics on making media more inclusive
When USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published the results of its study on diversity in film criticism last month, the “news” that the vast majority of film critics are white men surprised exactly no one. The data, however, did provide statistical support to what many have experienced and felt while pursuing careers in criticism and entertainment journalism.
Days later, the Sundance and Toronto film festivals announced that they would be taking steps to increase the percentage of press from underrepresented groups at their upcoming festivals. But the issues of access and support for journalists who aren’t white and male are too nuanced to be solved by film festivals alone.
Historically, the singular way one became a film critic was by being hired by a newspaper or magazine to write about movies. Many of these early positions went to white men, who became identified with their publications and settled in for long-term roles.
White women gained some ground in film criticism with the likes of Judith Crist and Pauline Kael becoming two of the most influential critics of the 1960s and 1970s. But other marginalized groups — particularly men and women of color — struggled to gain any access.
With the rise of the Internet, some of the traditional barriers to entry in journalism have fallen.The web allowed people to create their own blogs instead of beating down the door of a newspaper for a job. And as more publications developed online, some of those voices with self-cultivated audiences have found bigger platforms.
Still, there is a hierarchy throughout the industry that privileges traditional publications to online and “niche” outlets. Those who work for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, among others, receive preferential treatment for talent interviews and screening access. And traditional publications tend to have traditional critics.
The result is a community of discourse around film and art that is fairly homogeneous and ignores many members of the filmmaking and filmgoing communities across all demographics.
But there are also voices out there working to change the system and offer fresh perspectives.
We spoke to 14 critics and entertainment reporters of diverse backgrounds, based in Los Angeles, about their industry experiences, the importance of having a place in the conversation and what can be done to make film criticism more inclusive.
By January 2018, after three years in Los Angeles as a correspondent for BlackTreeTV, Jaleesa Lashay had grown frustrated with an industry that often privileges mainstream news outlets over smaller outlets, including those that cater to black audiences. Her usual coping mechanism involved a text message group of other black on-camera talent where they could “complain about how we’re treated on red carpets and just have these types of conversations,” she said.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna start talking to the actors,’ because we just always complain that they walk past us, especially black people,” the Spelman College graduate from the South Bronx said. “We’re, like, ‘You’re black. Why are you walking past us? There has to be a reason.’ So I said ‘I’m gonna start talking to them about it.’ And, literally, the SAG Awards was that day.”
The first opportunity she had to do so was after “This Is Us” star Sterling K. Brown became the first black person to win SAG’s actor in a drama series statuette. Lashay was selected to ask the first question of the actor backstage in the press room. She admits that she “didn’t intend for it to be Sterling and I didn’t even intend to bring that question up in the press room,” but knowing Brown had been an outspoken advocate for inclusion and diversity, she thought “maybe he can be an advocate for us.”
“As he’s walking to the press room, I’m reciting the question in my head because I know this is a big moment for our brother and I don’t want to take it away from him or put him in a position where he’s caught off-guard and he has to be defensive,” she continued.
Lashay asked Brown if he was aware of the disparities in opportunity for black journalists in comparison to their white counterparts, and what could be done to have the media room reflect the increased diversity Hollywood appears to be experiencing. The actor stopped to look around the room.
“I never paid attention, and shame on me for not having done so, but maybe this conversation is the beginning of something taking place,” he said.
Since then, other black celebrities including Lil Rel Howery, Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield have spoken about how black press are treated. Howery pointedly made speaking to black media a priority at the MTV Movie and TV Awards red carpet in June.
When asked why she thinks so few journalists of color have spoken up about the difference in treatment, Lashay attributed it to “a fear of ‘if I speak up about this, the publicist definitely isn’t gonna invite me back.’”
“It’s, like, ‘Let’s just be happy we’re in the room. Let’s just shut up and not piss anyone off because it’s hard enough for us to even get in the room. Let’s not complain about what happens when we’re in there,’” she said. “But I just want people to feel empowered to share their experiences … because if you have a film or project that is marketed toward people of color or marginalized groups and you’re not inviting us to cover or talk about those films or TV shows, you are doing a disservice to your company.
“You want us to talk about it because we’re the black reporters and critics, but you’re not giving us what we need to do our jobs successfully. We need to put our foot down and speak about it.”
WENDY LEE SZANY (405; 11.5”)
When Wendy Lee Szany began “The Movie Couple” YouTube channel with her husband, Dustin almost five years ago, she added her voice as an Asian American to a still-nascent space of online film criticism, which was dominated by white men.
“I found Chris Stuckmann and Jeremy Jahns and ‘AMC Movie Talk,’” she said about those early years. “I didn’t find another Asian girl, my age, at all. So why not create something so that I could be a part of the voice? Somebody out there is gonna appreciate my review.”
Almost five years later, the channel has more than 18,000 subscribers and almost 4.5 million views, and has seen its videos and commentary used by film studios in trailers. But Szany still finds herself struggling to be seen as a serious critic.
“When people think journalism and film critics, they think it’s on paper or online — that it’s written,” she said. “When they look at a YouTube film critic, they think, ‘Oh, well, it’s just another video’ and we’re not serious or professional enough to be able to go to TIFF or Cannes or Sundance, or South by Southwest even.”
Invitations to media screenings are few and far between.
“I can’t just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, Marvel. I really wanna see “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” I do reviews on YouTube, and I have 18,000 followers,’” she said.
Her day job as an assistant at Collider hasn’t resulted in useful connections either, as “you have to be really careful to not overstep what is personal and what is work.” When a movie premieres that she and her husband are interested in reviewing, they buy tickets to the Thursday night shows or early preview screenings like regular moviegoers.
Szany said she can’t help but feel that digital content creators are the “redheaded stepchild, like ‘YouTube creator’ is a dirty word.” That’s why she joined the Los Angeles Online Film Critics Society, which was founded in 2016 by Scott Menzel, Scott Mantz and Ashley Menzel with an effort to “embrace members that are finding new ways to criticize film whether that be through video, podcasts or on social media,” according to their website.
“Because it’s always the same press [getting access],” she said. “Why shouldn’t we get the same opportunity as other online film critics? We need to start opening up opportunities.”
Every job Tim Cogshell has ever had in film criticism was given to him by a white person.
“Now, it’s true that only white people could give me those jobs because only white people were in the positions to give me those jobs as editors and publishers,” he said.
He notes this because the conversation around increasing diverse voices in media is often posited as oppositional to the current establishment. But true progress, he said, will involve everyone coming together to move forward.
Back in the ’90s, Cogshell often found himself treated as a publication’s designated black film critic. “So when a black movie happened, the brotha was going to see the movie,” he explained. He initially resented it.
“I didn’t want to be a ‘black film critic.’ I’m a film critic,” he said, noting an expertise in French and Italian films. “Then I started thinking to myself, ‘No, that’s the wrong way to look at that.’”
The catalyst was the announcement that Norman Jewison, a white man, was going to direct the Denzel Washington-led “Malcolm X.” In response, Spike Lee was vocal in his belief that not only should a black man direct the picture, but that a white man could not.
Cogshell remembers Jewison’s response: “‘It’s not that I can’t. It’s just that you can too, and your movie would be different from my movie and your movie should be one that’s heard and seen.’”
“That got into my head and I started thinking, ‘Yeah. I do need to write about “Malcolm X.”’ I’m not the only person who needs to write about ‘Malcolm X,’ but if there were no black film critics writing about it, that would have been a travesty,” he said.
To see the industry at large still having conversations about race, identity and access over 25 years later, and now the recent increased focus on media and film criticism, “means that we haven’t really come very far,” he said.
“There are lots and lots more people of color and women writing about film than there were back when I started, that’s true, but it still does not reflect the reality of the world,” he said.
What has changed is the nature of film criticism. Too much of what is deemed “criticism” these day is actually a review, he said.
“A review is what you do on Yelp for a restaurant — it’s nothing but your opinion,” the commentator for KPCC’s “FilmWeek” said. “A critical analysis is a completely different thing. ‘I’ve got to think about this for a while because [the filmmaker’s] intention matters. What is this filmmaker trying to do, say, achieve?’ That’s what [critics] are really doing.”
“The only thing that a film critic really has that anyone who’s writing a blog doesn’t have is an informed opinion, hopefully a deeply informed opinion. That’s the thing that I’m applying … as opposed to if you’re just a fan of movies and you go to movies you like and then you blog about them. That’s not film criticism. We treat it like it is today, but it’s not.”
If there were more critics of diverse background years ago, perhaps film criticism as Cogshell defines it would’ve been more widely sustained. And “this sea change that we’re seeing now, finally, in the [film] academy would have happened 15, 20, maybe 30 years ago.
“If there had been more critics of different colors and genders in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s … a lot of them might have been writing about how there weren’t any women in a movie, for example,” he continued. “There would have been more critical voices about those movies. And we’d think differently about them today.”
In 2009, Nestor Bentancor started Desde Hollywood as a hobby. He just wanted a space to channel his passion for movies, aggregating news from the trades and writing film reviews in Spanish. After leaving his full-time job in e-commerce years later and landing a new gig as an entertainment correspondent for a Latin American news conglomerate based in Colombia, the Uruguay-born critic leaned into making a career out of it.
But as “an independent Latino content producer” — he does more than just reviews, including red carpet coverage and video interviews — “access is getting worse than before, for some reason,” he said.
“We are pretty much marginalized from most of the film press events that are going on in L.A.,” he said. “And getting into a screening is so difficult [that] sometimes we feel like seat fillers.”
What happens, he said, is that outlets like his are not invited to initial press screenings. If they get an invite at all, it’s to the screening just days before a film premieres — after embargoes have lifted and other outlets have already published their reviews.
“It puts you at a disadvantage because you don’t have the early access,” he said. “When you want to be part of the conversation, sometimes you are too late. It’s this feeling of, ‘You can wait.’ I have been doing this for eight years already and always feel like the new kid on the block. … Why it is always a struggle to be on the inside?”
He answered his own question: “It’s just inertia. It’s doing things like they were done before and the fear of making things different, being the one that is risking the formula,” he said.
“And the funny thing is that the minorities are the ones that are going to the movie theaters and paying for tickets.”
According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s most recent theatrical study, released earlier this year, Hispanics and Latinos over-index in theater attendance.
In an effort to reach specific ethnic and racial communities, studios often hire agencies to handle niche (read: non-white, non-mainstream) press. Theoretically, the agency is supposed to be a bridge between folks like Bentancor and the studio.
“But sometimes it feels like they’re a wall,” he said, “because you never get the chance to know the people at the studio. So you’re always a stranger. And when they have an opportunity, they’re not going to call you. They’re gonna call somebody they know.”
This means that indie Latino press hardly ever get a chance to interview the stars of films. (And on red carpets, they’re placed near the end with black media.) When they do get an interview, “most of the time you are given the one Latino that is in the movie,” Bentancor said.
“But they’re usually killed in the first five minutes so there’s not much to talk about,” he continued. “And they’re, like, ‘We cannot give you more access because you are not growing.’ And the question is, How can we grow if we don’t have access to compete with the other outlets?”
When asked what her identity as a first generation American born of Mexican parents brings to her film criticism, Claudia Puig struggles to answer.
“I can’t quantify what it is because it’s me,” KPCC’s “FilmWeek” and former USA Today critic and Times film writer said. And contrary to popular belief, “there isn’t a male perspective, a female perspective, a Latina perspective or a black perspective — but there are different perspectives.”
“The more we have of a multiplicity of different experiences, the more nuanced and more fully formed and comprehensive our analyses are going to be [reflecting] different upbringings, different lives.”
But the industry isn’t there yet.
Puig reflected on a meeting earlier this year of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., of which she is president and the first person of color to hold the position in the group’s 43-year history. The group was voting on award season honors. When time came to choose the best animated film of the year, Puig put her support behind Pixar’s “Coco,” which was directed by Lee Unkrich and inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday. It was the first Disney animated film set in Mexico with an all-Latino cast.
“It captured so much that I felt I had never seen on the screen, not in any kind of American film,” she said.
The votes, however, were in favor of Nora Twomey’s “The Breadwinner,” an international production about an 11-year-old girl who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
“I got really emotional, and that has never happened to me before,” she said. “I got a lump in my throat and had to fight back tears. … I said to the group, ‘This is why we need more diversity in this group’ and everyone kind of stared widely. Some people got it.
“Then one guy spoke up and said, ‘Well, you should be happy we voted for this film that was made by a woman filmmaker.’ I’m, like, ‘OK, so am I more a woman than I am a Latina? Do I have to choose between those things?’ And he just didn’t get it, and this is why we need more women in there too.”
And though sometimes it can feel like she’s alone — she is the only Latina in the group — Puig is proud to be the face of the organization.
“It’s hard, but being in a visible spot, I want to be able to serve as at least a physical reminder of, ‘Hello, we exist.’”
On a recent episode of Carla Renata’s online show and podcast, “Black Tomatoes,” which she hosts with Scott Menzel, she addressed the comments of another critic who, amid recent conversations about media inclusion, said, “I know I’m not popular right now because I’m a white man.”
She responded: “I want to go on the record and say this is not about you being a white man. It’s about the fact that more than middle-aged white men can watch a film and have an opinion and have a discussion about a film. That’s what this is about.”
Renata likened the concern to allegations of fake news and the twisting of facts coming from the White House.
“Don’t twist the facts,” she said. “Look at what the facts are. And if you don’t think they’re true, take a look around. It needs to change, and it needed to change yesterday.”
Renata says the success she has experienced as a critic and entertainment blogger has come from playing the game.
Her advice to those coming up: “Don’t give people an excuse to tell you, ‘No.’ Just do your job. ... If they give you deadlines, meet your deadlines. If they say, ‘Don’t put it on social media,’ don’t put it on social media. If they say, ‘Don’t record something,’ don’t record something.
“Don’t be trying to break the rules because you’re trying to make a name for yourself. That’s not hot.”
That’s how she gained some respect, she feels — and by joining organizations like the African American Film Critics Assn. and the Los Angeles Online Film Critics Society.
“It’s difficult until people meet you,” she admits. “My thing with being a film critic is people have to know, like you and trust you. They don’t have time to get on a phone or send an email and go, ‘Do you know so-and-so?’ and wait for a response back. If they know you, they know you. If they don’t, they don’t.
“I feel like that’s a disadvantage when they don’t know you, but it’s a great advantage when they do.”
She has also experienced being lumped in with “bloggers” — a term derided by the industry — because of her site, the Curvy Film Critic.
“The lines are blurred there because some people that are bloggers are just that, they’re bloggers,” she said. “They don’t have a journalism degree or don’t have journalistic integrity or just don’t have the knowledge and love of film. That, I feel, has hurt bloggers like me [who do] have the goods to back it up.”
Her degree from the historically black Howard University is in broadcast production and journalism with a minor in drama. She’s worked in both journalism and in front of the camera in Hollywood as an actress on shows including “Living Biblically,” “Superstore” and “The Haves and the Have Nots.”
And while she’s very much aware of the barriers folks of diverse backgrounds face in media, she swears by her process.
“I just hope that the other critics of color that are out there, that when they do make their presence known, they make their presence known in a professional way,” she said. “That they send the publicist links. That they’re gracious and say thank you, and they don’t bellyache or complain.
“Because that’s the quickest way out the door, or not in the door in the first place.”
As Joelle Monique has moved from writing comic book reviews on Tumblr to interviewing Hollywood players for Black Girl Nerds to critiquing film and television shows, she’s struck by her white counterparts’ definition of the traditional film canon.
“It’s exhausting, especially when the movies that they’re frequently citing are not even the greats or the movies that change history,” she said. “It’s like a lot of nerd films from the ’80s.”
Her canon is rooted in films like [1922’s] “Nosferatu” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Lilies of the Field” — “a lot of Sidney Poitier,” she said, laughing. But also 1940s gangster movies her father introduced her to.
“When they’re, like, ‘Did you see “The Man With One Red Shoe” with Tom Hanks?’ I don’t know what that is,” she continued. “So it’s challenging constantly. I think the Internet has offered us a really great space and opportunity to talk to like-minded folks and engage them in critique and analysis, but I’m hoping that as we continue to grow and cultivate that audience, that the value of other films, films that are not white-centered and aren’t slave narratives, become important.”
Coming from “the nerd-sphere” and being a black woman critic with hidden disabilities makes Monique a target on multiple levels: of racism, sexism, misogyny and ableism. But she pushes forward because cinema “is my one love,” she said.
“And I love the history of black people in Hollywood because it’s an enduring one of ‘We will be seen, we will be heard and we’re going to entertain the [hell] out of you,’” she continued. “I think that is a lot of the black American spirit. So I really appreciate when people are, like, ‘Hey, I see you and thanks,’ because it reminds me that my voice, that just being there can oftentimes be enough.”
She knows, as someone who is relatively new to film criticism that she will make mistakes — something many folks of diverse backgrounds don’t feel they have the luxury of doing. Monique just wants the chance to grow, and to compete with the voices traditionally known as the default.
“Because maybe not everyone can survive in the industry and not everyone is going to make it,” she said in response to online chatter that welcoming more diverse voices could result in others losing their jobs. “By opening up the doors, yeah, some mediocrity is gonna go, but why cling to that mediocrity?”
“You can’t keep people out because you’re afraid you might not make it. It’s a rat race for a reason; you need to be the best. If we’re all on an even playing field, we’ll have a chance to get the best.”
When Angie Han started working at Slash Film in 2011, it had a staff of all white men. And because the site covered a lot of blockbuster and nerd-sphere films, she’d consistently be the only woman among dozens of male journalists during set visits.
“It was something that’s noticeable, though not necessarily something that I’m constantly thinking about,” she said. “And not every time I go in a theater am I, like, ‘I’m going to look around and count all the people that aren’t white guys.’ I feel like it’s something that’s in the back of your mind, something you notice and [work around].”
As with any kind of art or conversation, she says, it helps to have more people with different perspectives.
“As an Asian American woman there are definitely some perspectives that I have that a peer of mine who isn’t an Asian American woman might not have. It’s not always something so specific as, ‘having grown up in a Korean American household, let me tell you about this movie.’ But all the things that you are, including your race or your gender or your sexuality, add up to a very unique idea of the world, a unique perception.
“You need to have people who can speak to those experiences and bring those experiences to the table when we’re talking about a film.”
Han cautions, however, against using people’s identities to define their work.
“I’m very proud to be an Asian American person who is also a critic. I’m proud to be a critic who is Asian American, but I don’t necessarily want people to look at me and be, like, ‘Oh there’s the Asian American critic. She writes about Asian American stuff,’” she said. “I think that’s the part that makes people kind of anxious. It’s not that I mind speaking about Asian American issues when it comes to cinema. I would just be disappointed if it turned out to be the only thing that people thought I was interested in or thought that I could speak to.
“But I’m glad that we’re trying to change things. We should keep that going because I’d like us to not, in three years when another study comes out, still be saying, ‘Guess what? A lot of [critics] are still white men!’”
To Jacqueline Coley, solving the industry’s inclusion issues is akin to “tackling healthcare or something.
“It’s very easy to be, like, ‘Well, we need to be able to go to the doctor,’ but there’s a lot that goes into that,” she said.
Take, for example, efforts such as those announced by the Sundance and Toronto film festivals to increase the number of folks from marginalized communities with high level press access. Coley has questions:
“Are you upgrading people who are already gonna be there to now get top tier, people that are probably writing for already established publications? Or are we seeking out new voices and adding folks who couldn’t go before? If they are folks that couldn’t go before, and it was because it was cost-prohibitive, how much funding is going to be available for them to go? Is there going to be a gatekeeping process for those funds to get to them? Once the funds get to them, how much of that is going to cover expenses while there? Then, how much would they have to cover the festival? If they are freelancers, are we gonna help them with access to editors to help sell stories?
“It is like peeling a never-ending onion,” she continued, “and I just peeled down to about four layers and didn’t even go the side tangents that we need to talk about. So I love the conversation that’s happening, but I just want it to be responsible.”
Coley, an editor for Rotten Tomatoes and freelancer for Indiewire, knows all too well the politics and proclivities of the festival circuit. She attended her first Cannes film festival earlier this year.
“I was blessed to be there and so privileged, but the minute you start smelling that rarefied air is the minute you’re, like, ‘Why is there not more of us?’” she reflected. “You feel guilty. You feel angry.”
She was one of three black female press members at the festival, she said, and had to turn to Twitter to get a ticket to Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” premiere because of the festival’s tiered ticketing system.
“It sucks to have to be the only person to have to talk about it and feel like I have to be the monolith for black opinion,” she continued. “It’s not cool. It’s not fair and I don’t think it’s gonna get better until it changes.”
But as the industry begins to seriously grapple with questions of access for more voices, Coley shares a cautionary note.
“What always happens with this is, the conversation begins and the most glaring and painful numbers always center in on people of color and marginalized folks, but when the initiatives and the access and the changes start happening, they always center on white women,” she said.
“I think that the work needs to begin in the places with the largest disparity: disabled critics, queer-identified critics, critics of color, both women and men. I want us to not lose sight of the ball.”
For Kristen Lopez, “films are codes of conduct.” They’re how we learn about the world and people we don’t know.
“From them, we know what racism looks like,” she said. “We know what misogyny looks like. But we don’t know what ableism looks like.”
Part of that is because disabled people are the oft-forgotten identity in conversations about representation and diversity.
“We’re still assuming that [film criticism] is just not something that disabled people are doing,” she continued. “It’s been frustrating to me because I feel like there are so many amazing women, writers of color and LGBTQ people who know what it’s like to be marginalized, [but they’re] forgetting a group.”
That’s why Lopez has taken on the banner of being the go-to disabled critic.
“I would love other people to talk about it, ‘cause I know my experience is not the only experience nor should it be, but until more writers who are disabled are able to get the opportunities to write for big platforms, it’s still gonna fly under the radar,” she said. “I still pitch other articles that have nothing to do with disability, so I don’t feel I’m pigeonholed.
“But I’m willing to be pigeonholed for the moment.”
In addition to using a wheelchair for mobility, Lopez is based in Sacramento. This creates a double hurdle of sorts when it comes to industry access issues, as many people don’t travel with adaptive equipment and therefore aren’t aware of the issues it presents.
For example, when she’s done one-on-one interviews with directors or other Hollywood talent in the past, they’ll be at elevated tables directly in her line of site. Or on red carpets, her outlet will have a corner spot that’s hard to get in and out of with her wheelchair.
“I try to email as best as I can before I get [to events] to say, ‘Hey, I’m short. I travel with a wheelchair. I travel with a companion, and if there’s something that we can do beforehand …,’” she said, “and usually they don’t really know how to answer me.”
When Sundance announced its commitment to increase press access for underrepresented communities, Lopez said she called up to ask how disabled folks fit into the pledge and if the buses that transport people around Park City, Utah, were handicap accessible.
“The guy there who was incredibly gracious said he’d never thought of any of that,” she said. “And I was, like, ‘Most people say they don’t think of those things because they don’t know somebody [who is disabled]. But I’m calling you, so you now know somebody and hopefully you can implement something.’”
That’s also why Lopez beats the drum so hard for different ability narratives to make their way onto screens large and small.
“Films are the dialectic. They fuel the culture,” she said. “There needs to be disability in that in a way that’s not reductive, that’s not annoying and offensive, so that people won’t be able to ignore that we’re out there and that we exist and that we can permeate these different facets of the world if we want to.”
Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang has never felt the need to proclaim his identity “as a 35-year-old Chinese American dude.”
“I’ve never felt compelled to call attention to my ethnic background in my work — I always figured my byline was enough of a giveaway — or hold it up as a sign of any unique qualification or sensitivity on my part,” he wrote in a recent piece. “I never wanted to be a good Asian American critic; I wanted to be a good critic, period.”
It’s a feeling many critics, and many people, period, of diverse backgrounds can relate to — not wanting their identity to be used as a qualifier for the worth of their work. Like when some who read his review of Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” or perhaps just the headline, “assumed that I was an angry, screaming Asian person,” he said.
“Sometimes I do think people are apt to jump to certain conclusions about you because you’re whatever,” Chang said. “People do want to bend things to a certain narrative sometimes. They wanna say, ‘Here’s Justin Chang. He’s an Asian American critic and is anti-, taking up arms against this movie. He’s off-base and all about identity politics.’
“But that’s not correct. I just happen to have mixed thoughts on Wes Anderson even though I’ve really loved a lot of his movies. And this is me trying to react as honestly as I can.”
Still, he does contend that more voices of different life experiences, whether they proclaim their identities or not, are needed. But Chang does push back on what Brie Larson vocalized in her now infamous speech about not wanting to hear a 40-year-old white guy’s opinion on a film like Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”
“Actually, you do need to hear what they have to say,” he said. “It’s just they’re not the only ones you need to hear from. I know there are a lot of people who sometimes would love if white men would just shut up and we’d never have to hear from them again — and I understand the impulse behind that, but I’d caution against that.
“Because [while] the history of film criticism is a history of largely white male scholarship, it is not just a bunch of oppressive opinions holding you down. There is a lot of insight, a lot of education, a lot of wonderful writing in that. And I think that if you are so ready to just throw that out the window and say their opinions don’t matter, I really think you don’t value criticism to begin with.”
Yolanda Machado was scared to write her first piece for Marie Claire. She had pitched a story comparing one of last year’s critical darlings, “Lady Bird,” to 2002’s “Real Women Have Curves,” asserting that the former was basically the same as the latter except with white people. She thought her white counterparts in the industry — who largely applauded the film — would hate her. She also thought it might limit her access to films in the future.
“I’m a freelancer, so if by some chance the studio didn’t like what I was saying, I could be blacklisted,” she said. “I’ve even had white publicists say to me that stuff like that is racist.”
She published the story anyway.
“There were so many comments and emails that I received that said ‘Thank you for saying this. Thank you for being a voice for our community,’” she said. “At that point, I was, like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing. This is important.’ I need to be out there representing Latinos and women and making sure our voices are heard, because otherwise nothing is going to change.”
Machado, who has been writing about entertainment since 2012, got her start in the mommy blogosphere. She credited social media with helping her develop a career as a critic.
“Honestly, it’s lifted me up a lot, because I have a large, loyal base of Latinx audience members and diverse critics that follow me and support me,” she said. “But it’s also a double-edged sword because at the same time, because of the faceless nature of social media, I’ve gotten attacked. I get told constantly to go back to where I came from.”
A first generation Peruvian Mexican, Machado was born in Los Angeles.
“I’ve learned to ignore it,” she said. “It unfortunately just comes as part of being a woman, being a minority. I’ve heard this stuff most of my life, it’s just now it’s really vocal and public and out there.”
When asked what the industry can do to solve its access issues, she notes it’s a multilevel problem that needs multiple solutions.
“Publicists need to acknowledge that freelancers, we exist,” she said, and that they often are in Catch-22s where they can’t get event invites without assignments from editors but also can’t get an assignment without access. “Also, the outlets have to start hiring us, and not just for one-offs. That’s not inclusion. That’s tokenizing. Hire us.
“If you didn’t hire one of us after ‘Coco,’ after ‘Black Panther,’ after ‘Wonder Woman,’ then you’re doing it all wrong. And many of the job applications [that are posted] say that you need to have already worked for a major outlet for X number of years. How are we supposed to get there if you don’t give us a chance to even get in the door? That hiring standard has to change a little.
“If we’ve got great clips and they’re well researched, well written, just give us a chance.”
Alicia Malone wrote the book on women in film, literally. It’s called “Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film.” So she wasn’t surprised at the results of the USC study.
“Being a woman talking film, you’re so used to being one of the few, and then if you’re a person of color, even fewer than that,” she said. “But I was surprised that other people were surprised.”
Yet Malone says she already sees a positive from these conversations and efforts: “Even though it’s going to take a long time to make those figures much more equal, for the first time in my 18-year career I’m starting to hear editors say, ‘We need to do better and we need to start reaching out to people and including voices that aren’t on our usual lists.’”
Awareness seems to be shifting, which is a great start, she said, “but I think there’s still the underlying bias behind it all.”
She remembers hearing so many times throughout her career things like, “There can only be one woman on a YouTube show because more than one gets annoying” or that her looks mattered more than her criticism. Those same beliefs are now shared online via social media and comments sections.
“Particularly, it’s hard to be a woman on the internet. And I know it can be really frustrating for a person of color, especially when you speak up for change, you get the backlash,” the Australia-born critic said. “I remember when I started speaking about how the lack of female directors affects all of us and the lack of people of color working behind the camera affects all of us in the kind of content that we get.”
Nevertheless, she persisted with a goal all along to bring more women and other diverse folks with her.
“More voices makes it better for everyone having a wider variety of opinions on a movie, more interesting think pieces and takes,” she said. “I want to hear from a variety of people about movies. I don’t necessarily only want to hear from a woman about a female-centered movie, but I don’t only want to hear about it from men, either.
“And I think we all have to kind of do our part as best as we can, even if we’re not in the position of hiring people.”
A couple of things that Malone does are mentor a number of emerging female critics and keep a running list of voices she respects and supports handy, for when she can’t take opportunities offered to her.
“Suggest people. Try and amplify voices on social media. All of these are little things we can do to keep knocking down the doors,” she said. “Because it needs to change. Time’s up on that.”
Times have surely changed since Duralde took his first job out of college at a newspaper in 1989. Then, only a handful of noted female and queer film critics came to mind — Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Molly Haskell and Vito Russo, to name a few. Fast-forward to 2018 and “now we’re seeing a lot more women, way more people of color — not that we have enough yet,” he said.
The internet can be credited for what progress has been made, allowing traditionally marginalized folks to circumvent the age-old barrier to entry of getting hired by a newspaper or magazine. Duralde highlighted Black Girl Nerds as an example of a digital outlet that has created a platform for black women and LGBTQ people to report and critique film. But “the internet, it’s a double-edged sword, obviously.
“As much as we’ve gotten to hear more voices from marginalized communities, racists have a much bigger megaphone than they had before,” he said. “And I think when it comes to film criticism, you do have a lot of people who don’t have — and it’s not even that you had to go to school for this — but they don’t have an interest in the wider scope of cinema.
“So they want to talk about the Marvel movies and the ‘Star Wars’ movies in the context of the Marvel movies and the ‘Star Wars’ movies and not in the larger field of it. And I don’t think this has to do with race or any of the other stuff. You can love movies or love a specific kind of movie and want to write about it, but I think it’s not the same as somebody who has spent their life trying to absorb as much of it as they can and have a sense of the history of things.”
But that doesn’t mean those people shouldn’t be heard, he said, or that an increase of perspectives from different communities and traditional experience levels isn’t necessary.
“There’s this idea that more voices or more power or more whatever from people of color means the white people are somehow losing something,” he continued. “That’s so much of what’s driving the politics right now that’s so terrifying. But there is room for everyone.
“People have to go outside of what they are locked into as the status quo. … I think there can be a lot of looking at what the current structure is and realizing that you can change the way you’ve always done business. And it works.”
As someone who helps assign freelance pieces for the Wrap, Duralde knows there is more he can do to increase industry access for diverse voices in film criticism. But because he has so many responsibilities — in addition to being a critic for the Wrap, he co-hosts two podcasts and an online show — he admits to leaning “towards writers that I don’t have to edit as much, people who can give me copy that, for the most part, is ready to go.”
“But then of course, that’s where we get into the whole ouroboros” of people needing experience but not being able to get experience, he said. “So I think my trajectory for the next few months is going to be reaching out to people, reading a lot of websites, trying to find new people. … I know there are more voices out there and so that’s on me to make that happen.”
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