Leave Sophia Coppola Alone (Sort Of)
I don’t often find myself defending Hollywood on issues of diversity. It has a long and embarrassing history of bastardizing stories by casting white actors to play people of color or simply changing the race of a character altogether. We have a long way to go to get to a place where we have a film landscape that represents the myriad experiences that make up our world, which is due in large part to decisions made by studios and directors to limit the variety of the stories they tell.
But there is a particular controversy brewing that has people hurling allegations of racism and white-washing and that controversy cannot go without comment. Sophia Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, is a remake of a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood. The controversy stems from the fact that Coppola’s version omits two Black characters that were present in the original. She has defended this choice by explaining that she sought to tell the story along gender lines and not racial ones. This explanation has not gone over well. To be clear, Coppola may have just made the whitest film of 2017 and it is set in Civil War Virginia. We can’t not talk about this. But at the same time, we might be better served by a different conversation.
Those most critical of her decision respond by pointing out that it is problematic to say that the would-be inclusion of Black female characters would have nothing to add to the gender dynamics of the film. They claim that the erasure of Black women from stories makes Coppola’s brand of feminism decidedly white and thus deserving of critique. If you must exclude women because of their race, can your film really claim to be interested in the advancement of all women? Further, critics claim that telling stories in ways that don’t accurately reflect the would-be reality does us all a disservice by offering a distorted picture of our shared history.
These are both strong critiques. We play a dangerous game when we start to look beyond people who would likely have been present if such a story were true to life. But in defense of Coppola’s choices, it is important to note that this is a purely fictional story. The characters she severed from her version of the screenplay were fictional. Yes, they are avatars of real lives and real experiences, but it is important to acknowledge that filmmakers deserve greater leeway when they are working in the purely fictional realm.
This is akin to the tour of a plantation that includes no mention of slavery and Coppola deserves criticism for a particularly genteel presentation of the South. These characters would have likely had very ugly interactions with the enslaved women were they included in the film. Thus, I am sympathetic to Coppola’s plight. There is no version of this narrative that includes the enslaved women and isn’t materially different from the story she is trying to tell. If you need Nicole Kidman’s character to come across in a certain way, perhaps telling it in this sterile world she has carved out is the only way. Race is the single biggest overarching narrative in American history. Even in stories that ostensibly have nothing to do with it, it is present. It almost always subsumes any story in which characters of different races interact (and can even do so when they do not). Perhaps we should take her words at face value and just accept that including racial difference would have left her with an entirely different film.
It is, however, fair to say the film may not be the major achievement it otherwise might have been. If Coppola could not figure out how to tell a ‘complete’ version of her story while still getting her point across, it is fair to use that as an indictment of her abilities as a storyteller. The film ultimately winds up being less audacious and thus less of an achievement than some more ambitious version of the narrative. The whiteness on display is stark and becomes even more so when you realize that 1864 Virginia was nearly a quarter Black. That we are so often asked to accept these sorts of portrayals of whiteness as not only entertaining but as some sort of default, is a shame.
But let’s be clear. This is not Mickey Rooney in yellow-face in Breakfast At Tiffany's. This is not the casting of Angelina Jolie to play Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart. This is not an Asian character morphing into one played by Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell. This is more akin to Damien Chazelle’s repeated presentation of a lily-white interpretation of jazz than it is any of the truly egregious missteps Hollywood has had on this front. There is certainly reason for comment, but not for the ‘Defcon 1’ some seem to be suggesting it merits. Hollywood has a long way to go and progress does not seem to be happening quickly enough for many, but it does no good to conflate all of Hollywood’s array of foibles. Being specific in identifying the ill gives us a better chance at finding a solution.
So what is the answer then? What can we learn from this? Beyond the merits of this film, this discussion indicates the need for greater diversity in storytellers. Of course this deserves major side-eye, but in a world with more Ava DuVernays and Dee Rheeses, this is seemingly less of a blight on the film landscape. So much is made of portrayals and stories, but ultimately it is the lens that has the power to change. Once we are seeing more periods and more characters through a more varied set of eyes, we will be making true progress. Demanding Sophia Coppola deal with Black characters (and do so competently) when she is clearly signaling a certain unease with doing so, sounds like a recipe for disaster. We ought to spend our resources championing a broader set of perspectives behind the camera instead of worrying about who is or isn’t in front of it. Representation matters. And the place we truly have work to do on that front is in Sophia Coppola’s chair, not her story.
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