Film Critics’ Insufferable Wokeness Is Reinstituting A Moral Code For Movies

Film Critics’ Insufferable Wokeness Is Reinstituting A Moral Code For Movies

Every Oscar loss, every protest, and every mass wave of slanted criticism has an effect on what Hollywood greenlights, and how bold films can be.
Orrin Konheim
By

After Kevin Hart bowed out of the Oscars due to homophobic remarks he made years ago (that he no longer holds), Ellie Bufkin pointed out that virtually no comedian is eligible to host if we abide by the left’s new absurd bar of behavior. Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering no host at all.

If there’s a point where Hollywood can no longer kowtow to the demands of an extremely social-justice-oriented group of film critics that dominates much of the mainstream, this might be it. It’s a good time to realize that the current crop of film critics who guide the way many of us view and respond to films are uncomfortably clustered together on the ideological spectrum, and that can be dangerous if left critically unexamined.

Like any corner of thought in America affected by polarization, film criticism has been lately feeling the effects of a sort of dogmatic thought in which films are judged by a narrow filter of wokeness. In 2007, Roger Ebert reviewed the Wes Anderson film “Darjeeling Limited” and praised its “Indian context,” noting Anderson and his co-writers Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola “made a trip through India while they were writing the screenplay. It avoids obvious temptations to exoticism by surprising us.”

Anderson’s quirky visual style and life-affirming themes of belonging, however, don’t really register to film critics in 2018, as Odie Henderson writes on Ebert’s legacy, RogerEbert.com: “Unlike that Roald Dahl adaptation, ‘Isle of Dogs’ does not have a compelling story, and even worse, it has the most egregious examples of its director’s privilege since ‘The Darjeeling Limited.'” When Ebert passed away in 2013, Ebert’s widow decided to honor his legacy by inviting the nation’s best film critics to contribute reviews, but this seems to be a massively different view of the way Ebert approached movies.

Another example is Glenn Kenney’s review of “Tag.” A similarly innocent comedy about a group of adult friends who have played the playground game continuously for 30 years. Kenny writes: “No one should be surprised, I think, to learn that the actual group of men on which this movie is based are in fact all white. It’s not so much that I’m under the impression that tag is a game most sensible persons of color might consider corny. It’s more that, well, try to imagine a group of African American men feeling safe enough to play ‘adult tag.'”

Kenny is now calling any film that features white people on screen having fun without overt racial commentary to now be racially insensitive. By that same logic, is Ed Helms’ character required to comment on the Flint water crisis when he gets thrown into a pool?

The problem with these reviews is that they focus on a narrowing definition of what’s acceptable: Henderson never gives Anderson the wiggle room to safely delve into the territory of the Japanese director he’s trying to pay homage to in the film. His review echoes those accusing Anderson of sloppy cultural appropriation, which is part of the newfound trend of narrowly defining cultural appropriation as a red flag signaling malicious intentions. This although many have pointed out cultural appropriation has been a necessary ingredient of cultural development that has rarely discriminated between oppressor or oppressed.

Whether one agrees with the criticism above or not, the problem with the state of film criticism is that reviews are written with primary emphasis on the same dichotomy, and when it’s prevalent, it closes the door to other opinions.

The last two Oscar races were essentially decided by which film was “more woke.” Frontrunner “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (a bold film that is ultimately about female rage and mid-American disenfranchisement) faced backlash for allowing a racist character to be redeemed (again, not valuing the obvious fact that narratives are supposed to work that way). As noted progressive critic Sasha Stone pointed out, the idea that blacks hated the movie wasn’t even accurate, but the noise was enough to sideline the film. More disconcerting, such an argument presupposes that movies are designed to appeal to any one moral school of thought. The year before, “La La Land” got criticism for daring to have a white character be a connoisseur of jazz.

One of the dangers of this advocacy is that it’s not reflecting what people want to see. “Mother!” received a cinematic score of 69 percent, with the reviewers by and large undecided on whether they approved of the film’s feminist messages. While reviewers like Alex Bevan at Pop Matters split the difference between the two camps, Jess Joho at Mashable attempts to posit the film as a feminist manifesto — over writer and director Darren Aronofsky’s own explanations for his film. As the headline-making cinemascore demonstrated, audiences cared significantly less than critics about the feminist underpinnings in determining where it’s a good film.

The same phenomenon occurred with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The film was exonerated by film critics for, as one critic put it, being “the most triumphantly feminist Star Wars movie yet,” and “a celebratory inclusiveness that seems entirely in the Jedi spirit,” while the viewer rating on RottenTomatoes went down from 93 percent to 55 percent. Some of the headlines revolved around anger at the social justice messages, and while these arguments of  “feminist propaganda” don’t necessarily represent the majority of audiences either (including me), a strong case could be made again that the critics were judging the film based on its congruity to their pet causes rather than its merit as a film.

One of the problems with this advocacy is that misleading arguments become more misleading when presented en masse. Remember the #OscarsSoWhite Campaign that formed in response to 2014 and 2015 nomination slates that had no non-Caucasian nominees? It was widely assumed that the Oscars had been short-changing black nominees. But as of the first year of the movement, the Oscars had awarded nominations to 30 black actors over a 14-year period, which amounts to 10.8 percent of Oscar nominees.

The black population in America, according to the last census, is 12.2 percent. The proponents of #OscarsSoWhite might have been looking at all of Oscar history when citing low numbers, but such long-form views minimized the improvement that the Oscars voting body made on its own without such advocacy this century.

That a critic with an agenda would cherry pick statistics to suit his argument is not ideal, but it isn’t unexpected. The problem, however, is that when an event occurs that runs afoul of a critical community so clustered together in ideology, the sheer volume of articles that cherry pick can blindside a consumer into losing her critical senses.

Look at what happened when the progressive Netflix series “Sense8” was cancelled a year ago. The outrage extended to Vanity Fair arguing that the cancellation was a step back for the network’s mission statement of inclusion, and The MightyBustle, and Indiewire all echoed similar themes. The network was also accused of everything from insensitivity to outright homophobia in a storm of tweets.

If the critics were to have taken a look at the network’s overall history, they would have seen that nearly every show released at the time met some benchmark of inclusion. Word space would prevent me from listing every single Netflix show, but here’s a brief rundown: “Grace and Frankie” has female protagonists and tackles ageism; “Daredevil” and “Atypical” tackle ablest privilege from both the physical and psychological realms; “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has a female protagonist, and a survivor at that; “Glow” tackles sexism; ”Narcos” features Hispanic actors in a third world setting; “13 Reasons Why” deals with bullying from a female perspective; “Chewing Gum,” “Dear White People,” “The Get Down,” and “She’s Gotta Have It All” tackle the black experience; and “Orange is the New Black” has a little bit of everything. Although headlines of “Netflix does a swell job” don’t make good clickbait, that doesn’t make it any less true.

The danger is that when critics become too restrictive, they start veering closer to the era in the mid-20th century, in which Hollywood was ruled by the Motion Picture Production Code that imposed moral limits on Hollywood. No liberal today would call the motion picture code a positive social development. (The code demanded, for example, that homosexuality never be shown in a good light). However, that’s the kind of development that goes on today all the time.

In the past couple of years, screenings of “Gone with the Wind” were cancelled in New Mexico and Memphis. The informal leader of Black Lives Matter, April Reign, attempted to organize a cancellation of the TV show “The Confederacy.” And the backlash to “Detroit“ (directed by a white woman) made clear that the school of thought that only a black film maker can make movies with a black theme is still strong enough to cause hesitation to green light.

Stone, the influential progressive critic, openly admitted this past week that most movies of the past wouldn’t pass the test today:

Movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, when glimpsed through the lens of the culture that demands every film instruct society on how we should behave, may not be considered right-minded enough to win Best Picture today. It crackles with brilliant dialogue, it tells a truth, but it stars almost all white men and racial epithets are used throughout, from the very first shot. So many great films of the past, when put through the sausage grinder of today, would fail to meet appropriate criteria. … Every so often in American film history you’ll find a movie that accidentally reflects today’s idea of what art should say, but it’s almost like playing the lottery. Good luck.

There’s nothing wrong with expressing concerns about whether an artistic product is handled with sensitivity, but to attempt to limit whether that art can be disseminated comes at a cost, and that applies to objections to Kevin Hart and whatever backlash we will have to brace ourselves for this coming Oscar season. The disconcerting thing about the backlash to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” a year ago wasn’t whether it was progressive, it was the idea that all movies must be designed to appeal to any one moral school of thought.

Every Oscar loss, every protest, and every mass wave of slanted criticism has an effect on what Hollywood greenlights, and how bold films can be. Like most film goers, I appreciate the novelty of seeing different walks of life portrayed on screen. As someone familiar with the evolution of minorities on screen, I can equally appreciate the opportunities that have come with their increased visibility. However, neither of those things coincide with enjoying watching a critical mass coalesce towards a more narrow and dogmatic form of “inclusivity.”

Orrin Konheim is a regional journalist and blogger in Falls Church, Va., who publishes in the Richmond and Washington, D.C., publications, with publication credits including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, Skagit Valley Herald, Falls Church News Press, Mental Floss Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, Weekly Standard and others. He is a Democrat, but remains committed to exploring both sides of the divide on cultural issues. His Twitter handle is @okonh0wp.

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