Cine-mea Culpa

How Film Reinforced My White Privilege


Hey, remember when all us white film critics saw QT drop a billion N-bombs and shrugged our collective shoulders? We gotta do better.

I promoted racism.

I know we all do, but I did it, like, professionally. Pretty recently.

Ibram X. Kendi argues that confession can be an antiracist act, and that dude is way, way smarter than I am. So I confess: I stood in front of a room full of mostly white people, as an authority figure—well, as a film critic, if that counts—and celebrated Pulp Fiction.

You remember that movie, right? That’s the one where the writer and director, Quentin Tarantino, shows up in a small role just to say the N-word a bunch. You know, for laughs!

What kind of abject privileged insanity led us white male film critics—who comprise virtually all of the film critics—to think we could give ole QT a pass on doing that again and again and again? It is palpably insane that I did that, knowing the entire time it was wrong. The idea “good art” can be forgiven for such bullshit is a fallacy that only seems to apply to white artists.

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This is just one of I don’t even know how many awful, explicitly racist fuck ups I have made in my nearly 20 years reviewing films.

I promise you, right now, someone reading this is rolling their eyes at me and my “performative wokeness.” I definitely can’t verify whether I’m properly following Kendi’s antiracist guidance now, I can only tell you that those eye rollers can get properly bent.

Here’s why.

Film Is a Gateway Drug

Education isn’t something that only happens in underfunded, overcrowded public schools. Cultural education is as much a crucial component of our collective identity as any crusty, musty textbook. They still use textbooks, right? We don’t digitally download info straight into brains in schools yet?

As a kid, my first defining exposure to police officers was pretty much pop culture propaganda. Black parents often have to counsel their children about interactions with the cops. My dad showed me Die Hard on Fox, since the swears were cut out. Because that is the problem with the police: Swears!

As a kid, every hero in movies looked like me. My biggest dilemma was whether I pretended to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker that day. That cinematic reinforcement of white privilege was shockingly subtle compared with other examples. Gone With the Wind remains the highest grossing film (adjusted for inflation) of all time. Birth of a Nation still gets credit for “pioneering” certain aspects of cinema. Goddamn Green Book won Best Picture like a year ago. Tarantino fans still go cross-eyed and rabid, grabbing social media pitchforks when I accurately state the fact that he explicitly engages in racism.

This isn’t to say I think movies are the problem with race in America. Other than Crash. They are, however, a largely ignored contributor that often casually reinforce racist ideology and typically get let off the hook for it.

I Think I’m Going to Do My Job Now

If you want to know if you should watch a movie or not, Netflix has an algorithm that knows you better than you admit. There is a 95% chance you’ll like that new reality show about butts or whatever, even if you deny it. A critic’s job isn’t to tell you what to watch. It’s our job to tell you how to watch and what to watch for. It’s our job to do the work of critically engaging with art.

I have patted myself on the back for far too long, smugly confident in my non-racist style of criticism. Only, I was racist. Oh, and as Kendi points out, non-racism isn’t even a real, actual goal. You have to be anti-racist.

I am not positioned to tell anyone how to be an anti-racist movie critic. I literally just finished reading How to Be an Anti-Racist like a few hours ago. I can only tell you how I am planning to start.

First, nobody gets a pass anymore. I don’t care if they do make an awesome modern samurai movie where Uma Thurman fights Lucy Liu and… Goddammit, that one’s racist too, isn’t it? For real, we have to normalize pointing out racist behaviors and things that empower and reinforce white privilege. It is not outside the scope of a critic’s job, it is the job. We are supposed to be the tip of the spear that pops the “shut your brain off” bubble when it comes to approaching movies. I’m ready to do that.

Second, I have to read more diverse critics and elevate their voices. I am going to do my best to include links on the site to other such reviewers at the end of my pieces, which is something I should have been doing for ages. These pieces are supposed to be conversations, but I’ve been monologuing to the air like a supervillain.

Third, I need to make sure I am ingesting cinema from a wide range of creators. Too often, I only review the “biggest film of the week” because it is what “most people” want to hear about. All of that is privileged nonsense. That just means I typically follow what studios run by white folks put out because that’s what other white folks want to hear about. It is on me to seek diversity in the cinematic content I consume.

That’s a start, and only a start. We are at one of those moments where we can admit our role in the way things are or keep doing the same bullshit because it has always served us to do so. I’m sorry for all that I’ve done wrong before. Here’s to the next 20 years of my reviews being something I can be more unreservedly proud of writing.

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