Film festivals shouldn’t just be an opportunity to watch films, but a place where you can attend talks and panels with those working in the industry. And, at this year’s LFF, I got the opportunity to attend ”Where are all the diverse voices in film criticism” panel led by Kate Muir. As you may know, I have been very vocal regarding the lack of diversity in film criticism. To the point that I may have annoyed some people. I have received several comments along the lines of ”why does it matter?”
Well, diversity in film criticism does matter. How people read and respond to certain film, depends on their background. This is just a fact. And, of course, whether we want to admit it or not; film critics do have an impact on whether a viewer goes to see a certain film or not.
Film criticism is not just simple repeating the plot to a film that they’ve seen. A good critic will use their review to expand on issues and themes brought up in the film they watched. They will deconstruct the film, and offer their thoughts on how the film should have been better. And what elements worked and which ones did not. As writerfrom Vox, explained in her article (The Real Reason we Need More diversity in Film criticism), “Criticism is about expanding a work of art, making it part of a cultural conversation and discourse. It gives it air. It opens it up for the reader to have an experience with it.”
Many who would oppose to diversity in criticism (or would state that it doesn’t matter), will overlook the significance and importance of the act of criticism itself. For example, my personal reaction to the film Nobody Knows was a reflection on my own upbringing and experience as being the oldest child of 5 children. For me, that film made a connection to me on a way that I suspect it wouldn’t necessarily would with say a person who was an only child. As a result, Nobody Knows remains one of my favourite films, but one that broke me on an emotional basis (it’s joined my selection of films I have dubbed ”Great Films too Painful to Watch Again” which lists Grave of the Fireflies, Dear Zachary, and Boys Don’t Cry).
As Wilkinson states in her article: “Even when we all sit in the same movie theater, we all watch a different work of art.” There’s no point denying that this isn’t the case and we can see that the diversity in cinema audiences is clearly not being reflected in the world of film criticism. The study conducted by Dr Stacy. L Smith found that out of 60,000 film reviews that were of the 300 top-grossing films of 2017, 78.7% were written by male critics, and nearly 83.2% of the same reviews were written by white men.
It was also discovered that for every single female film critic, there are 3.5 male ones. And, out of all these film reviews; it was discovered that only 4% of critics were women of colour.
The LFF panel was chaired by Kate Muir, who has been The Times chief film critic, and has been a campaigner for Women and Hollywood, Women and Hollywood, which advocates for equality and diversity in Hollywood and the wider movie industry. Muir introduced the panel which was made up of Dr Stacy L.Smith (Founder & Director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative), Jacqueline Coley, (Editor at Rotten Tomatoes); Kaleem Aftab (freelance writer and critic), Anna Smith (who has written for Sight & Sound, Time Out and Empire) and Catherine Shoard, (film editor of the Guardian).
The discussion began with Dr. Stacy L. Smith’s wonderfully informative presentation, into the study conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, entitled ‘Critic’s Choice (the results of which I discussed back in June with my piece: Let’s Get Critical). Smith gave us a background into the study and the results that were of found.
Of course, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the demographic of the top film critics are 77.3% males (88.2% of these males being white), to 22.7% female critics and 11.8% being critics from underrepresented backgrounds. Smith’s study showed that diversity in film criticism can affect the overall critical score of a film. With white male critics scoring films that had a WOC as their main lead or were by a director who was either a female or from an underrepresented background, lower than compared to WOC critics.
Stacy stated that the importance of publishing these results, is to apply pressure on the publications that hire critics from a more divers background. Her solution would be to change the make-up of criticism, so it is more reflective of the world that we all live in (30/30/20/20, which would see a drop in the number of male critics to 30%). It is worth adding that the situation in the UK, is more dire with every British newspaper having a male critic as their leading film critic.
After Smith’s informative and very eye-opening presentation, the panel introduce themselves to the audience. Catherine Shoard has been in the industry since the age of 22, and has found that being a woman had helped her in her role of being critic. And noted that while most of the leading film critics are male, most of the commissioning arts editors have been women. Anna Smith introduced herself and gave an interesting insight into her background, informing us that when she started out as critic she was not given the top 300 grossing films to review but rather art-house and independent films (basically the ones that nobody really wanted to review).
Jacqueline Coley gave some background to her role at Rotten Tomatoes, and explained how the site has changed their criteria regarding their Tomatometer-approved critics, and have also set up a fund to help underrepresented critics attend film festivals like TIFF (something which really makes a huge impact for those critics who don’t come from a privileged background). Kaleem Aftab had a fascinating story to tell regarding how he got into film criticism (and surprisingly, I could really relate to his journey because it was similar to my own), and his words ”that he had the confidence to go for it.” have really stuck with me. In fact, all of the panel’s determination and passion really stuck out to me and their journey’s have all been remarkable and extraordinary in some many ways. Proving that to be a good film critic, you need passion and determination above all else.
The panel made several interesting points which we should consider. For example, it was brought up that often black critics are given films by black filmmakers or films with a POC as the main lead to review, and there are implications of just assigning critics of colour these films because it restricts these critics from reviewing a vast number of films. As Jacqueline put it ”WOC critics only tend to get to review ‘black’ films.”
It was also discussed how publications can change the hiring process. Kaleem mentioned something that I found interesting, that when he has asked about ”where are all the diverse voices in criticsm” he was told that there isn’t any! He also mentioned how he often goes to festivals, he finds that he is the only Asian critic that seems to be attending (something that is very apparent in film festivals in Europe).
As Catherine stated, it’s time that publications worked on providing reviews by writers who reflect the publication’s readership. But, the question is, whether it’s too little, too late? Have newspapers had their day, and should we instead be focusing on new platforms such as YouTube and podcasts to find the next wave of diverse film critics?
All of the panel shared something in common: the fact that they all believe that the industry needs to change to reflect the actual makeup of cinema attendees and that there are plenty of writers out there, but they are being held back. As Kaleem stated, “the whole industry is a club and unless you find a way in, then you can’t join.” The media industry in the UK is still stuck in this old-fashioned view-point where only males from Oxbridge can join ”the club” and of course this needs to change.
Of course, to some extent I agreed with Catherine that we shouldn’t simply dismiss white male critics. But there’s no denying the impact that diversity in film criticism has on the overall success that certain films have. It’s not only media publications that need to change, but the film distributors that need to change too. Hopefully films like Been So Long and Roma will get some much-needed attention by being distributed by Netflix, rather than the standard theatre distribution. By these films being shown on Netflix, it will allow critics, bloggers and reviewers a chance to see them and write about them. Jacqueline made a valid point, that it’s also up to the talent (i.e. the film stars, screenwriters and directors) that also need to help campaign for diversity in film criticism. Because at the end of the day, film critics have the power to make or break a film.
Overall, attending the panel was a huge benefit for me. The advice I got about how to deal with online backlash (I have had some appalling comments made regarding my article back in June) was really helpful, and it gave me the reassurance that I am making an impact in some way. As I discussed in episode 48 of the Filmotomy Podcast, I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the audience was made up of woman, and people of colour. There was a surprising lack of white male critics. We can all benefit from attending panels like these regardless of whether we are female or from a underprivilged background, because it helps to know what those on the other side are experiencing.
This was a real highlight of the LFF for me, and I took away so much. These are discussions that shouldn’t just be restricted to festivals, and it’s something we should be all be discussing. We should all do our part to help those diverse voices be heard. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon, so make sure to keep promoting work from female critics, LGBTQ critics, and POC, and to those writers out there KEEP WRITING. As Molly Haskell once said: The thought that we are enduring the unendurable is one of the things that keeps us going.