When Argo was nominated for Best Picture, it set off a wave of criticism surrounding Affleck’s casting of himself–a white actor–in the lead role of Tony Mendez, who is Latino in real life. Although the issue ended up being high-profile enough that Affleck felt the need to defend himself, it didn’t stop Argo from winning best picture (beating out three nominees with nonwhite leads), nor from having 96% positive reviews, with an average score of 8.4/10. “For 100 minutes, ‘Argo’ is close to flawless,” Timeout’s Tom Huddleston opines in a typical review, going on to criticize the ending but nevertheless awarding the film 4 out of 5 stars.
This highlights a frustrating fact about movie criticism: Marginalization of underrepresented groups is not considered a flaw.
I won’t ask why because we all know. Even when it’s extremely prominent, this sort of issue is either not mentioned in reviews or mentioned in passing as an unfortunate detail that shouldn’t be allowed to mar one’s appreciation of the film. Either way, race and gender issues just don’t feature into the metric.
To see how this works in practice, let’s compare two animated kids’ movies set in fantasy crypto-Scotland: How to Train your Dragon and Brave. They were both good movies and had similar strengths (visual effects, soundtrack), but How to Train your Dragon vastly outrated Brave. One of the key reasons is that, while both movies had some really innovative elements and some lackluster cliches, How to Train your Dragon‘s flaws are often not considered flaws, while Brave‘s strengths are often not considered strengths.
Merida was widely criticized for being just another free-spirited, rebellious Disney princess, but nobody seemed to think there was anything unoriginal about Astrid, a cool action-girl love interest who falls for the gawky protagonist. Many people complained about Brave‘s portrayal of men; Wired, for instance, complains that the men are “incompetent, uncouth, and ill-mannered” while writing off the mother-daughter relationship and lack of a love interest as “absolutely nothing groundbreaking;” meanwhile, I didn’t hear a single complaint that How to Train your Dragon was yet another animated film with a dead mother. Hiccup’s American accent in the midst of an otherwise Scottish cast is an incredibly lazy, xenophobic cliche rooted in the insulting idea that audiences can’t empathize with a protagonist who doesn’t sound American, but the only source I can think of that even mentioned it was a webcomic (and the author still considers it “a perfect movie”).
If you’re tempted to say that it’s not fair to criticize How to Train your Dragon for devices that are used in countless other movies as well (or, to put it another way, you think that something shouldn’t really count as a flaw if it’s in line with Hollywood’s general filmmaking conventions), consider that Brave was criticized specifically because it used devices that had been used in other movies. What counts as a cliche when it’s putting women front and center suddenly becomes a time-honored storytelling device when it’s pushing them to the side.
Every year, Hollywood gives us more examples. Cloud Atlas got middling reviews, but while a fair number of critics mentioned its use of yellowface, few criticized it; James Berardinelli’s review dedicates an entire paragraph to promoting its use:
Much has been written about the use of “yellow face” in Cloud Atlas – the application of makeup to cause Caucasian actors appear Asian. This has been described as racist (or worse). Those who take the time to consider, however, will recognize that both Doona Bae and Halle Berry play white characters. The “yellow face” makeup applied to several actors is done with a non-malicious purpose: it’s to allow the same actors to inhabit different characters across the stories. Case-in-point: Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae. In two of the segments, they are in love. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” requires them to be white; in “An Orison of Sonmi~451,” they are Korean. If anything, Cloud Atlas‘ allowing actors to cross racial lines can be seen as an emphasis of the universality of the human experience rather than a repudiation of it.
Minorities aren’t the only group whose questionable portrayals are met with a shrug. Hugo got excellent reviews, five Oscars, and eleven nominations, but I couldn’t find a single review that mentioned that most of Sascha Baron Cohen’s comic relief revolves around him being handicapped. Sure, the movie trades on nostalgia, but did they really need to transport us back to a time when a disabled guy getting dragged along helplessly by a train was considered funny?
It’s unsurprising that movie critics, who are mostly able-bodied straight white guys, give a collective shrug when movies treat other demographics poorly, but are prepared to throw a fit the instant people like them are treated with disrespect. It’s time to change the paradigm. Excluding, stereotyping, and diminishing marginalized groups is a flaw, and no movie that does so can be considered a perfect film.
My review of Brave further discusses how gender plays into its reception.