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Pulling back the curtain to find representation in film criticism

Hidden Figures

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]I[/su_dropcap]n the opening paragraph of her February 2017 review of MoonlightThe Sunday Times’ Camilla Long wrote of the film that would days later win an Academy Award for Best Picture:

The received wisdom on Moonlight, a film about gay love in the black ghetto, is that it is ‘necessary’ and ‘important’. It is an ‘urgent’ and ‘relevant’ examination of forbidden attraction in a world, ‘the streets’, that is largely hostile to gay men. Only, relevant to whom? Certainly not the audience. Most will be straight, white, middle class. Nor is it particularly ‘urgent’: the story has been told countless times, against countless backdrops.

Long—a white writer—is not the first critic to confuse a film’s lack of appeal to them personally with the falsehood of an audience-wide rejection. And this thinking is not limited to the big screen. In a 2014 review of CBC television series Canada’s Smartest PersonThe Globe and Mail’s John Doyle divulged a strange fixation on the arm of host Jessi Cruickshank, whom he described as “the equivalent of the traditional ‘ta-da! girl’ who accompanies a magician and goes ‘ta-da!’ when the magician makes the rabbit reappear.” He noted, dismissively, that her dress was short and her heels were high, before writing that Cruickshank’s co-host, Jeff Douglas, “rocks a nice suit with a dashing pocket square” and “seems to do most of the work.” In fact, as Cruickshank stated in a March 2020 video posted to Instagram for International Women’s Day, she had been heavily involved behind the scenes, researching and writing her own scripts. In 2017, Doyle used the word “feyness” to describe Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy, who was then a co-host of the Great Canadian Baking Show. In his own statement, Levy called the word choice “offensive, irresponsible and homophobic.” At Flare, Russ Martin wrote that, “Even if the motivation wasn’t malicious, it points to an unconscious bias. Doyle sees men like Levy as ‘fey’ and feels entitled to describe them as such. That’s a problem. What’s important to recognize here is that there are some words that carry perilous weight when you pair them with a gay man’s name.” (Eleven days after Doyle’s review was published, the Globe’s public editor, Sylvia Stead, told readers that Doyle “used the term to mean preciousness,” did not know Levy was gay, and did not know the word might be considered homophobic.)

After the release of his 2018 drama Widows, director Steve McQueen called out what he perceived to be widespread racism and sexism in reviews of the film, telling BuzzFeed that these types of reviews are what happens “…when 90% of the critics are white males.” In November 2018, Variety published a review of American Son, a play starring Kerry Washington, which has since been adapted into a Netflix film. The story follows a Black mother and her white, federal agent husband as they sit in a police station, hoping to uncover what has happened to their missing son. Commenters on the review chided critic Marilyn Stasio for failing to observe the racist way Washington’s character was treated, arguing that the review focused on the character’s gender but skipped any consideration of her race.

In October 2016, Toronto Star movie critic Peter Howell attracted viral attention following the publication of an interview with Moonlight director, Barry Jenkins. When discussing writer-director Barry Jenkins’s use of the term code-switching—the act of moving between two or more languages in a conversation, or in the case of Moonlight, two or more language personas—Howell unintentionally revealed that he had misinterpreted, and not further investigated, the term’s meaning, calling it “coat-switching.” While the gaffe was not ill-intended, it did—like many missteps before and after it, from many different critics—reinvigorate the conversation about the need for more diversity in arts criticism.

In 2018, Academy Award-winning actress Brie Larson called for precisely this kind of diversity. “We are expanding to make films that reflect the people who buy movie tickets,” she said during her speech at the annual Crystal + Lucy Awards, hosted by advocacy organization Women in Film. “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about A Wrinkle in Time. It wasn’t made for him.” Larson’s comments were in response to a study conducted that year by the University of Southern California Annenberg, which found that 77.8 percent of reviews of the top 100 highest grossing films of 2017 posted on Rotten Tomatoes were written by men, and 82 percent of reviews were written by white critics. The study went on to show that white men wrote 63.9 percent of reviews and white women wrote 18.1 percent. Men of colour wrote 13.8 percent and women of colour wrote just 4.1 percent of all reviews. (The report did not include trans and non-binary critics in its data.)

Thanks to the Internet, technically anyone can be a film critic. But the rise of free online film criticism coincides with, and may partially be the cause of, the decline of robust arts coverage at legacy media organizations. The journalism industry as a whole continues to face a financial reckoning, with job opportunities disappearing as traditional funding models crash due, in part, to online media giants like Facebook and Google absorbing most of the advertising dollars. The same is true for film criticism. When a critic retires or moves to another beat, the critic’s position often goes unfilled, with management categorizing arts coverage as non-essential. It is not uncommon for entire arts sections to now be composed of wire copy (from Canada and the United States) or to be staffed by only a few people. This means that opportunities to improve diversity in these sections become stifled. Everyone may be a critic, but who really gets to have their voice heard?

[su_quote cite=”Barry Hertz”]…It’s a difficult situation. How do you increase diversity in criticism if no one is hiring? [/su_quote]

The problem of homogeneity in arts criticism cannot be addressed without considering the financial realities of journalism today. In February 2020, the Star announced the shuttering of its entertainment pages, with staff writers taking buyouts or relocating to other desks. Howell, the Star’s resident film critic since 1996 and one of the writers who took a buyout, says he is dismayed by theStar’s decision to remove its arts section. It’s hard to track where Canadians are turning to consume film content, with abundant free American options such as trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, culture websites like Vulture, and multimedia options like YouTube channels and podcasts such as “Filmspotting,” “You Must Remember This,” and “How Did This Get Made?” (Some film critics on YouTube have audiences in the millions, with top channels such as Chris Stuckmann’s and Jeremy Jahns’ boasting subscriber counts of 1.75 million and 1.7 million respectively.) “The current powers that be seem to be of the opinion that entertainment isn’t something that leads to subscriptions, and [the Staris] becoming a subscription model,” says Howell. He says that he and his colleagues were unable to convince management of the section’s importance, and adds that reliance on American media will not serve a Canadian audience. “I’ve been around long enough to remember when having a Canadian perspective on something was considered to be not only a good thing, but a mandatory thing. That particular attitude seems to have changed quite a bit in current circumstance. I think having a Canadian perspective on things is essential,” he says.

Toronto-based freelance journalist and podcast producer Aparita Bhandari says while there may be a rise in free, online criticism, there is still a need to understand a critic’s credentials, and what predispositions they bring to a review. “This is not to say that a YouTube review is not as valid as a New York Times review, but who are these people? How long have they been watching [films]? Do they have a certain perspective?” A critic’s perspective, repertoire, and lived experience, along with their understanding of film history and the lens through which they view the world, forms the backbone of their work. Without substantial research, if the lived experience and perspective of a critic vastly differs from the subject of a film, it is likely that critics will miss, or fail to understand, crucial references or conclusions. Bhandari notes that underrepresented viewpoints within film criticism may be just as thoughtful as reviews from formally educated critics. “If there’s a queer reviewer and he or she or they are giving their perspective, that’s important. That [review] might not be from a film studies background…but it’s a perspective.”

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]F[/su_dropcap]ilm criticism has existed since the advent of the moving picture. For as long as people have been telling stories, others have been commenting on and debating their merits. Over time, critics started to become central figures in their reviews, with their own life experiences anchoring their opinions. As the level of identity-driven nuance within film continues to evolve, straight, white, male critics often struggle to explain their interpretations, or unwittingly reveal what’s problematic about their gaze. For example, in a 2017 review of Wonder Woman, David Edelstein, senior film critic for New York Magazine, wrote, “‘The only grace note in the generally clunky Wonder Woman is its star, the five-foot-ten-inch Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who is somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness…(Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation).” He went on to compare Gadot to former Wonder Woman actress, Lynda Carter, degrading them both in the process. “I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup, though,” he wrote. “It was worth waiting for Gadot.’”

Smaller, niche publications, like the recently retired Clèo journal, often allow for more depth. Former Cléo contributing editor Lydia Ogwang, who currently works on the programming team with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Cinematheque programme, saw her role at Cléo as filling a void she had experienced in her own life. “As a racialized woman editor I can’t say that I’d worked with a Black woman editor myself, so it was nice being that person for someone else,” says Ogwang. At Cléo, Ogwang and her team had the capacity to make editorial decisions that were unlikely to be carried out at legacy publications, resulting in stories such as “No Vagina in Sight: The Queer Case of Junior” by Julia Cooper, “Love in Two Cities: Romance and Ritual in Rajnigandha” by Kanika Katyal, and “Laying Bare the Implications of Touch in Blissfully Yours” by Katrya Bolger. (Full disclosure: Bolger is the editor of this magazine.) “I think that was a situation where you realize what you can do when you have a group of women, or non-binary people, come together, and [use] our power to make decisions about what narratives we want to elevate,” says Ogwang. “That was a really positive example of enacting the change you want to see.”

Cléo founder Kiva Reardon started the magazine in 2013 because she felt that due to her gender, she didn’t have the same opportunities that were afforded to her largely white, male counterparts. Reardon, who is now the lead programmer of Contemporary World Cinema at TIFF, acknowledges her own privilege, telling TorontoVerve in a 2017 interview, “Although I may complain about gender issues, I’m still white, and that gives me a huge leg up.”

In the recently published Cléo reader: 2013-2019, a best-of print issue containing articles written during the journal’s six-year history and financed by a donation from Moonlight director Jenkins, Reardon notes the benefits of online self-publishing, especially for smaller publications. “The Internet, with all its flaws and frustrations, was the most immediate way we could create a journal dedicated to reshaping the film landscape and reach a global audience,” she writes. Though the journal wound down in 2019 due to provincial budget cuts, there are other publications creating similar spaces: bi-annual multi-media magazine SVLLY(wood), queer publication Little Joe, British indie cinema magazine Little White Lies, horror publication Fangoria, cult and obscure film publication Shock Cinema Magazine, and Canadian film quarterly Cinema Scope.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]M[/su_dropcap]anori Ravindran, who is based in London as the International Editor at Variety, has also found that alongside the Internet’s potential for liberation, the online sphere can be alienating to freelance critics who are women, and racialized. Prior to becoming editor Ravindran says she found online interactions frustrating. “You go online, and especially the Toronto Twitter thing, it’s just a weird little echo chamber of male film critic bros shouting on Twitter,” she says. “You feel like you don’t really have a voice. Your work gets lost.” The past few years have seen a turn for the better, says Ravindran, who began her career at Toronto-based entertainment trade publication Realscreen. “Now there are some really good accounts that do a great job promoting and retweeting women’s writing in film, really getting people’s voices out there just by sharing the work.”

While the Internet and independent publications have made room for greater representation, legacy media staff positions are still highly regarded. They have also become increasingly rare. Now Magazine culture writer, CTV Your Morning, and News Channel film critic Radheyan Simonpillai is one of the most prolific players in Canadian film criticism. But it took him a long time to get there. A critic for over a decade, Simonpillai found that his name was a deterrent to even getting in the door. While he watched his younger, less established colleagues find seemingly steady work, Simonpillai had a side hustle delivering fish to restaurants out of the back of a truck. “From 2008 until about 2015 I just felt like nothing was happening, and I was ready to jump ship and leave the business,” he says. “Because I saw all these white guys come in after me, write a few articles and all of a sudden they’re getting hired. I’ve never, ever been called in for an interview for the Toronto Star or The Globe and Mail or CBC. The only outlet I’ve ever been interviewed by was CTV, and I got the job. Before that, I never got an interview. So it’s my name, right?”

How do we move towards a new future of even representation within film criticism? “The old joke was the only way you got a desk at the Toronto Star was if somebody died at it,” says Now’s senior film writer, Norm Wilner. “You had to wait and wait and wait and wait.” For Wilner, this joke is more literal than it might be for others—he was hired in his current role after his predecessor and mentor John Harkness died in 2007. He says that Now actively aims for greater diversity within its writing team, and acknowledges that his hiring did not exactly improve representation. “I’m probably part of the problem in that I am the senior film writer at Now,” he chuckles. “But thankfully Now Magazine has always tried to be an incredibly diverse publication and look for voices that aren’t being represented.” In the last year, Now has published arts-related cover stories about racialized comics changing stand-up comedy, the rise of Indigenous horror, and sci-fi films, the groundbreaking new wave of Indian cinema exemplified by the work of Canadian director Richie Mehta, and the integration of traumatic experiences into art, the latter written by artist, author, and musician Vivek Shraya.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]C[/su_dropcap]ameron Bailey has been a leading figure in Canadian film for decades. The artistic director and co-head of TIFF since 2018, Bailey spent roughly 20 years as a freelance film critic with Now, CBC Radio One, and CTV Canada AM, before leaving film criticism for film programming full-time in 2008. Bailey was one of the first prominent critics of colour in Canada, and became visible during his on-air work for TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies, CTV, and The Showcase Revue. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Bailey would often find that he was the only Black person at film screenings. He remembers going to a press screening of Do the Right Thing and being the only Black person in the theatre. Reviews of the now-celebrated film, written by mostly white men, speculated that the movie was likely to incite riots within Black communities, a take with which Bailey disagreed. That violence never occurred. The film went on to receive two Oscar and four Golden Globe nominations, and cemented writer, director, and actor Spike Lee as a legendary name in cinema.

Bailey says that having a wide variety of voices, specifically citing critics Simonpillai and freelance writer and Black Gold film series curator Sarah-Tai Black, will help give more nuance to conversations about race in film. “I hope every sensible critic realizes that their own perspective, their own worldview, has boundaries, has limits, depending on what they’ve experienced where they come from, and how they’ve been formed in the world,” he says. “You can see it, I think most visibly, in the way men write about women in movies and how so much is dependent on physical attractiveness or descriptions of their physicality.” Bailey says this bias is also clear when white critics review films with racialized narratives, using Moonlight as an example.

Though he is no longer a staff critic at the Star, Howell remains involved in film criticism as the president of the Toronto Film Critics Association (TFCA). He says that the shifting landscape is challenging, not just for those entering the business, but for people who have been working in it for years. “We have 39 [sic. 36] members in the TFCA and very, very few of them now are working full-time as movie critics,” he says. “If I were to go down a list, I could maybe find two or three at most who are exclusively movie critics. Most of them have various other jobs.” TFCA member, member of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival Advisory Board, and critic at Fairchild Radio Alice Shih echoes Howell, noting, “A lot of us have to take on part-time jobs. A lot of us started in [film criticism] as a part-time job. Because it’s just not enough to sustain our lives.”

To become a member of the TFCA, a critic must write 10 paid pieces of film criticism each year—not an easy feat in the current market. Currently, TFCA membership is slightly more diverse than the numbers in the USC Annenberg report, with roughly one-third of members identifying as female. The demographics are still predominantly white and male. Howell and Shih both highlighted the organization’s dedication to increasing diversity within the group, and are hoping to improve representation. Howell notes that this will take time, and that membership requires options for critics to be paid for their work. To support this goal, the TFCA created the FCA Emerging Critic Award, under which an emerging critic is offered one year of mentorship from TFCA members, access to TFCA meetings, and a $1000 stipend.

[su_quote cite=”Cameron Bailey”]You can see it, I think most visibly, in the way men write about women in movies and how so much is dependent on physical attractiveness or descriptions of their physicality [/su_quote]

Other film organizations are also implementing opportunities for representation. In 2018, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival each announced that at least 20 percent of press passes would be allocated to underrepresented critics. While the impact of these endeavours is limited to those already in Toronto and those with the monetary means to travel to Toronto, Bailey says TIFF is looking to expand its Media Inclusion Initiative in order to provide more funding.

Bailey says it’s not just getting these critics to the festival that is key—it’s getting them into the right space with the right people. Bailey says that, “Sometimes [A-list stars] will have people around them that are actually trying to exclude the very people that [they] may want to speak to.” He adds, “You go online and there’s lots of journalists of colour, Black journalists especially, talking about how they were trying to get an interview with a Black star for a Black film and they were prevented by publicists…because the publicists are just looking at the reach of your publication.”

As an attempt at resolution, the Annenberg report called for the industry to correspond to the demographics of film critics with the gender and ethnic makeup of the United States, “by increasing the access and opportunities given to women of color as film reviewers.” The “30/30/20/20” rule would see the number of white male critics drop to 30 percent, while white female critics, underrepresented male critics and underrepresented female critics would rise to 30 percent, 20 percent, and 20 percent respectively. While this idea would improve diversity, it would not account for the matter of attrition in employment, or ongoing cuts to arts section budgets. In order to fulfill the need for greater diversity, as Howell and the TFCA have noted, priority must be placed on ensuring paid opportunities for critics. In a 2019 Variety article, Reardon says that while progress is being made, there is still a long way to go. “I do think that the needle will start to shift….I’m hopeful. I just know that it’s going to take a really long time.”

Barry Hertz, film editor and deputy arts editor at the Globe, says the closure of the Star’s arts section is an indication of Canadian film criticism’s “dire” scene. Hertz considers himself lucky for having a freelance budget, but says that he is not in a position to hire full-time writers, and is still limited in how much he can assign. “I do make a concerted effort to ensure that those freelance assignments are going to new voices, younger voices, and underrepresented voices,” he says. “…It’s a difficult situation. How do you increase diversity in criticism if no one is hiring? The status quo at publications has been ‘white male’ for decades, with very rare exceptions. But there are all these great voices out there….I wish I had a solution.”

Hertz says he does not know how the journalism industry at large will sustain itself, let alone how the precarious genre of film criticism within newspapers will survive. He says he’s surprised that trade publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter haven’t implemented paywalls for their websites, as many of their newspaper counterparts, including the Globe, have.

Chris Knight is the chief film critic at the National Post and the sole producer of film reviews for the paper. “The problem at the Post is that we have very few writers, and we have very little freelance budget,” he says. “So you have me, a white, male critic, doing as much as I can. We don’t have the budget to broaden that beyond one person. So it’s all me in the paper all the time.” Knight’s desire to hire more writers isn’t purely altruistic. He says he could use the help, especially when it comes to covering large festivals like TIFF. “There was a time, maybe five years ago, where the Post would have had two or three staffers covering things at TIFF, and then there was a time, maybe 15 years ago, where we would have had freelancers working there as well. I consider it important, but the paper just doesn’t have the money.”

Within the industry, sentiments range from disheartened to optimistic. “When you see somebody like [Simonpillai] do well, that is great and perhaps hopeful,” says Bhandari. “But on the other hand, when you have budget cuts happening and when you have newsrooms shrinking, entertainment and arts coverage tend to get short shrift.” Like Howell, Hertz worries that fewer Canadian film critics at major papers will mean fewer Canadian films covered by mainstream press—a problem already present in Canadian film criticism.

Ravindran praises those who have helped shape Canadian film criticism but acknowledges that there are other stories to be told. “I have to say, I’m excited for the next wave of young critics to come in, especially women,” she says. “I can name so many people that would absolutely thrive in a staff position—the things that they could do. And yet, they’re sort of working a little bit here and there and just trying to piece together a career, and a living. It’s very hard.”

It is indisputable that the film industry overall has a diversity problem. In 2019, 786 films were released in North America. Of the top 100 highest grossing films, only 12 percent were directed by women, and only 32 percent of female characters in those films were not white. Visibility and representation are essential, not just in film, but in criticism, too, certainly in a country as multicultural as Canada. Everyone may be a critic. But it’s time for the voices hidden by the shadows of homogeneity to come into the light.

UpdatedThis story has been updated to accurately reflect the name of a TFCA award, Alice Shih’s title and that the Peter Howell piece referenced was a Q&A with Barry Jenkins, not a review of Moonlight. 

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