From Film Quarterly, Spring 2022, Volume 75, Number 3
Fifteen years ago, I was in my final semester as a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, preparing to begin a fellowship program at NPR headquarters in Washington, DC. Instead of an encouraging send-off, however, the school’s lead radio professor—himself an alumnus of the network—told me my fellowship was nothing more than a corporate diversity scheme, adding that “diversity hires” were recruited through such programs to increase visibility but that they ultimately failed because those fellows were so underqualified for such roles. Hearing that at the age of twenty-four was both shocking and formative. A blunt assessment by an experienced, respected elder turned into words that I carried into that role, constituting a wounded sense of self even as I became a full-time editor and reporter, still struggling to prove myself worthy.
After the murder of George Floyd almost two years ago, as racial reckonings across America exploded with unprecedented candor, I watched from my post-newsroom life in Dubai. Many sectors sought to address the Trump era’s theater of indignities with a renewed commitment to inclusion and justice. Within mainstream journalism, I was deeply moved by how many stories other reporters of color began to share about their own newsroom exclusions: ambitions interrupted, gaslighting, lack of mentorship, and narrowed expectations. Perhaps these were not acts of physical violence—but they were an extension of structural privilege and entrenched white supremacy. The stories were familiar and resonant. Editors, hiring managers, and recruiters pledged to do better, and some followed suit. But prescribed solutions can become a new kind of entrapment. In mainstream film writing, for example, diversity hires like myself are in danger of becoming the new desired and desirably diverse critics.
In the legitimate application of “critical race theory” to American past, present, and future—putting racism at the core of American identity—there has been an ancillary and often clumsy emergence of what I would describe as mainstream journalism’s Critical Representation Theory: the uplift of the minority critic as a representational and hollow course correction. 1 In the age of insta-criticism delivered at breakneck speed to match the sheer volume of streaming content, there is an undeniable editorial emphasis on, and even advantage to, having fresh eyes with an underrepresented and intersectional ability to problematize pop culture. But amid this overdue push for representation, what exactly are the expectations of those defined as “diverse” critics? By dint of cultural proximity or familiarity with certain stories or themes, does biography become a self-sufficient index of critical authority? Is the purpose of “diverse” criticism to police bad representations or to champion good representations as communal wins? Above all, is this new editorial courtship being enacted in anything like good faith?
In 2020, I was invited to review films for a major American periodical. After years of reporting on film through radio interviews, I was excited to locate forthcoming works with my own gaze. The commissions began with a Netflix Bollywood anthology and continued with documentaries on Yoga and Indian American winners of spelling bees. I obliged, of course. And patiently waited for more flavors. When I submitted the names of future films for review consideration—most of them films without brown subjects or content—my pitches to editors went unanswered; in fact, they were palpably unwelcome. Sure, new bylines in the roster of newspaper critics expect to be offered lesser titles, but it became hard to ignore that my assignments were specifically and restrictively spiced. It bears mentioning that I am neither of Indian descent nor a Bollywood specialist, yet the sandbox into which my thinking was placed had defined boundaries—ironically, since I’d always sought to evade precisely such containment through my expansive love of cinema. I stopped sending pitches to those editors.
By the summer of 2021, the United States was engaged in a protracted culture war between the newly mainstreamed “wokeness” ignited by the George Floyd murder and an increasingly strident antiwokeness camp that included both the customary conservatives of Fox News & Co. and such mainstream, centrist commentators as Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. A backlash to diversification had arisen, weaponized and mobilized to eerie political success in my home state of Virginia, which elected a Republican governor last fall who campaigned on a promise to block critical race theory in Virginia schools.
Pop culture, no longer just a theater for representational progress, became a battleground for family values, revisionism, and unacceptable erasures. Criticism that focused on old-fashioned ideas of form, storytelling, and practice suddenly seemed genteel to the point of being offensive. As a progressive brown queer Muslim critic, was there ever any possibility of my writing criticism removed from political and representational imperatives? Was there a Critical Representational Theory to be followed?
As cinemas reopened, I returned to the first postpandemic Toronto International Film Festival last fall in search of new subjects. I’ve usually covered international film from the festival. This time, though, I left the first IMAX screening of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) in a spellbound daze, pondering the future of the blockbuster. Villeneuve had crafted an epic of tremendous aesthetic and sensual power that submerged even the most legitimate criticism in the bombast of his studio filmmaking, the rumble of Hans Zimmer’s score, and the majesty of its Arab landscapes
I knew that, in light of new norms of outrage, there was a glaring problem on-screen. The moment the film’s central family—the House of Atreides, led by Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, and Timothée Chalamet—landed on the fictional desert planet Arrakis, the camera turned to the wailing, undulating crowds of veiled, brown-skinned native women. These nameless, faceless forms raised their hands in prayer and gratitude for their new rulers, Arabesque chants echoing on the soundtrack as Rebecca Ferguson’s character, Lady Jessica, turned to her son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), to explain why he was indeed the prophetic savior whom these superstitious natives had awaited. West reclaims mystical East, the film seemed to proclaim. Was Chalamet’s porcelain face, then, the rightful heir to desert power? Really, in 2021?
And, Denis Villeneuve, French-Canadian maker of Incendies (2010), et tu? Here it was, I thought: the angle and scene through which this critic could “problematize” a renewed example of white-supremacist filmmaking that was structurally, aesthetically, and politically grounded in the inheritance of Hollywood’s violently racist gaze. Sitting in the audience, I could immediately envision my hot-take essay, hand-delivered to me by Villeneuve’s sloppy choices. But wait. As the film proceeded, my brown rage mysteriously subsided (and with it, the essay that was writing itself as the movie unspooled). Maybe it was the hypnotic “spice” that Frank Herbert described in the original novel, or maybe it was just the simple fact that I eventually saw and felt more in the film than its Orientalist skin. Villeneuve’s Dune became an unexpectedly salient critique, even if embedded within a familiar intergalactic framework, with a tone of questioning, self-doubt, and imperial fatigue. I realized I would have to sit with this film for a good long while before filing my expected Muslim-critic copy. I had a problem: I loved it.
Before long, I began receiving notes from friends about the Islamophobia, racism, and casting failures of Dune. A wave of extremely eloquent essays was published in New York magazine and Slate by fellow critics of Muslim heritage, all describing how the film’s portrayal of the natives of Arrakis was racist at worst and disappointing at best. By centering white saviors yet again, Dune had extended the long shadow of misrepresentation that has long plagued Hollywood’s portrayals of Arabs and Muslims on-screen as voiceless, disempowered subjects of white design and conquest, even if the characters and place were entirely fictional this time.
The Muslim critical position, reflected in several Twitter feeds and forums, was to be offended: reviewers delivered two enthusiastic thumbs down for a Dune that failed to meet the halal standards of Critical Representation Theory. I was clearly out of step with “my people.” I saw a film extraordinarily ambivalent in form and tone about the very question of colonial power, white saviors, and the tragedy of racial divisions. But in lavishing praise on the film in my own review—and finding myself awed by the craftsmanship, performances, and moody politics of the sandy planet, had I failed to see the film’s failures as a blow to minority cultures? Had I so deeply internalized Villeneuve’s seductive white gaze in my fandom that I lost my critical capabilities, or worse, my Muslim mind and, irreparably, my diverse-critic card?
A few weeks after Dune’s arrival in the postpandemic churn, along came Chloé Zhao’s own IMAX debut: her Marvel extravaganza Eternals (2021). A Chinese-born woman filmmaker, favorite of American independents, Oscar winner for Best Picture and Best Director for Nomadland (2020), Zhao had scaled up her moody storytelling to create a cosmos-spanning, Spandex-adorned epic for the mammoth corporate machine that is Disney/Marvel.
On a representational level, it was perhaps the best example of studio filmmaking and inclusion that I’ve seen in the new, post-BLM Hollywood era. From deafness to South Asian ethnicity to queerness, Zhao’s Eternals were a Benetton chorus of possibility—led by British Asian actress Gemma Chan and Latina superstar Salma Hayek. Of course, among Zhao’s supporters in mainstream coverage there was incessant mention of the landmark diversity and representational triumph of Marvel’s new multicultural era. But in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, Zhao herself seemed to shudder audibly when the host continually returned to the “diversity” of Eternals and her own gaze; instead, she repeatedly emphasized her love of the genre writ large. 2 Unfortunately, these many firsts were not critic-proof, and the film opened to lukewarm or even scathing reviews, with the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any Marvel film and muted superhero fandom. Was there a diversity backlash among Marvel’s teenage male core audience? I wondered whether Zhao had simply failed to deliver a popcorn spectacle due to her being freighted with all that representational expectation.
When I finally saw Eternals, I was struck by how genuinely different it felt from any other Marvel film I’ve seen: the naturalism and soulfulness of the performances, the camerawork and pacing, the finely etched interiority and existential angst of plastic creatures looking for meaning in a collapsing world. Zhao was truly bridging genres, scales, and form—and the travails of that scaling process were far more interesting than most critics had indicated. Can interviewers and critics write about anything other than the diverse cast? Say, about how it compared with The Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2019) in ethos? Or about Zhao’s experience working at Marvel? Couldn’t there be a more substantive engagement, something beyond the superficial gestures of inclusion that seem to suffice for studio marketers and the lazy think-piece commissioners who serve their interests?
The title of this essay is a rather blunt play on the tedious debate over critical race theory in American education. And, yes, it is flippant: the structural foundations of white supremacy in the United States and globally should be indisputable, right? But where I take issue, based on my own experience of representational politics today, is with the patronizing intentions, verging on reactionary, that are at play. Critics must be diverse, sure, but then so must be the opportunities afforded those critics and the conversations they are allowed to lead.
To be forced to carry the burden of the mediocre “multicultural” work greenlit within white liberalism’s enlightened inflammation of benevolence is not the responsibility of “diverse” critics. The past exclusions within film reporting are not my burden to bear, for example, by subordination to endless loops of corrective South Asian assignments. For those who are required to cover the most obvious representational progress on-screen (this writer included), there is less opportunity than ever to celebrate quieter, more radical work about identity and otherness.
There is another kind of film made possible by this cultural moment—and by the ascent of a new generation of extraordinary Black actors and a streaming economy that at its best allows for more experimental, idiosyncratic, and inclusive efforts. Rebecca Hall’s Passing (2021) stars Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, and André Holland in a Netflix-produced adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 Harlem Renaissance classic of the same name about two light-skinned black women who navigate the politics of passing as white within a rigid racial caste system. The film marks Hall’s screenwriting and directorial debut.
As the daughter of the former director of Britain’s National Theatre and opera singer Maria Ewing, Hall is the product of white artistic royalty and, yes, privilege, which made her choice of subject an unexpected one. But as she revealed in the course of the film’s release, the project was born of a deeply painful family history of hidden racial identity—and her maternal grandfather’s own choice to pass. The outcome, like the novel itself, turns the whole idea of identity and race into both poetic question and performance. Is it Negga’s charismatic Clare, who passes as white, who is living the lie? Or is it Thompson’s Irene, who has chosen a life among Harlem’s upwardly mobile black classes, as wife and mother, who is performing? The film’s ambiguities and quiet observations make it one of the best and most unusual films about the artifice of race in America. At its core is an indictment of boundaries and an exploration of what it means to be free, even when it’s a lie.
In my own excavation of what it means to be a critic today, I feel profoundly privileged to review art by an ever more expansive and inclusive range of voices. It’s wonderful to see diverse talent and diverse casts given their due. But I also am a critic: I reserve the right to judgment, to resist shallow representations and, more importantly, shallow work. Prevailing moods and trends, however progressive in spirit, can still be disconnected from the requirements of a work of culture. The task of the critic is to unearth the impact and underpinnings of a work, to observe its technology and its language, to assess its impact. Coherence and originality, creativity and surprise, spectacle and sensory intelligence are fundamental to the enduring glow of the best film or episodic series. It is a disservice to “diverse” critics of whatever race, class, or sexual identity to expect only a problematization or championship of work to be rendered through the narrow confines of a single and singular identity. And it is equally a disservice to “diverse” films like Zhao’s Eternals to assess them entirely through such a narrow calculus.
After that long-ago graduate-school radio adviser sent me off into the world as a “diversity hire,” I saw firsthand the glaring absence of people who looked like me in the newsroom, even more so in the authoritative and nondiverse core coverage of art, books, and cinema. I initially pitched immigrant, South Asian, or queer stories, and reveled in my ability to position this prior marginalia at the very center of American broadcasting. But it also grew tedious to see my career become an ambassadorship for “my” community rather than be allowed to think big, about all kinds of work, just like the lineage of critics before me. My exposure to a much wider range of films and artists has expanded my cinematic vocabulary, references, and passions. I have outgrown the role of champion and the need to defend my diversity. I want to follow and write about what inspires, provokes, and challenges, both myself and my societies, rather than that which simply represents. That openness and exploration constitute my own preferred critical theory.
- Jacey Fortin, “Critical Race Theory: A Brief History,” New York Times, November 8, 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-critical-race-theory.html.
- Ailsa Chang, “Chloé Zhao on Directing Her 1st Marvel Movie,” Movie Interviews, audio interview, NPR, November 5, 2021, http://www.npr.org/2021/11/05/1052968143/chloe-zhao-on-directing-her-1st-marvel-movie.
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