You want to know what’s the hardest part of my job as a female critic of color? It’s not the online hate which, unlike others, I’m blessed to rarely receive. It’s not the pressure placed on me and my sisters in film criticism who must act as both critic and race relations teacher in our reviews. The toughest part is giving a negative review of a highly anticipated POC-starring film and anticipating the possible backlash.
It’s not my job to sugarcoat how bad a film or TV show is just because the project is mostly POC. However, as a Black female critic, my words carry even more weight than I sometimes realize. Because I am an entertainment critic, I am one of the many gatekeepers who can determine the critical success or failure of a project. If that project happens to be a monumental one starring a majority POC cast, how would my words affect that film and future films like it?
I’ve come up against this angst several times; the most severe of which was when I watched A Wrinkle in Time last year. My brother and I went to see it with the hopes of it being a fun, fantasy adventure. The elements for success were there — the directorial talents of Ava DuVernay, acting newcomer Storm Reid, and a multicultural cast featuring Oprah. What could go wrong?
I didn’t like the film, and I immediately panicked over giving it a negative review.
If you know anything about Film Twitter, particularly what I call “Representation Space” Film Twitter, then you know it can be as divisive as it can be affirming. I’m constantly annoyed by how binary thinking can become regarding “diverse” projects. There’s an instant fear of nuanced discussion regarding these projects. No one can talk bad about them, or else you’re a traitor to your race and the cause.
If that project happens to be a monumental one starring a majority POC cast, how would my words affect that film and future films like it?
I don’t like being pressured into an opinion. But at the same time, the social media audience, which instantly devours a critic’s words, can put way too much pressure on us to give a project a good grade, especially when it comes to sensitive projects involving representation. If you’re a critic from the race being represented in the film, you’re almost always expected by the masses to love said film, even if you have to twist yourself into pretzels to do so. If you’re a non-Black POC critic, you’re expected to love it out of solidarity, doing the pretzel dance to get that thumbs up accomplished.
I feared my negative Wrinkle review would be eviscerated by my Twitter timeline, which was filled with tweets of Black viewers and POC viewers who felt the film was magical, thought-provoking and “just what we need.” There was palpable fear of critics coming down hard on the film because it was one of the few fantasy films with a girl of color at its center. If critics were too negative, would it deter Disney from ever investing in unusual films with POC at their center? Would they unfairly write the film off as being indicative of all films with POC at the center, a burden White films never have to deal with?
I wrote my negative review and waited for the backlash. To my surprise, it never came. Instead, I got Twitter messages and even an email from people who had seen the film and were afraid to let on that they also didn’t like it. The email message was particularly poignant, since it was from a Black mother who went to see the film and wanted to like it, to the point of lying to herself. But when she read my review, she felt the freedom to say she didn’t like the film much at all.
You’d think the pressure to cave to public opinion about entertainment would be something I could ignore after that Wrinkle in Time scenario. But I can’t. I still take the temperature on Twitter, seeing how people will rally around TV shows and films because of their cast makeup. I understand it — it’s the fight of getting any representation on the screen because any representation paves the way for better representation. But I wish we could also not act like every film or TV show centered around POC is worthy of Oscars or Emmys.
Maybe what we as a group of underserved people should clarify is that we’re not just fighting for mere representation. What we’re truly fighting for is a sea change.
We all deserve to have our opinions about entertainment respected instead of being bullied into feeling a certain way. So maybe what we as a group of underserved people should clarify is that we’re not just fighting for mere representation. What we’re truly fighting for is a sea change.
I can’t wait for the day when POC characters aren’t breaking boundaries anymore. I can’t wait to see them just exist as people on screen, as nuanced representations of humanity. The peer pressure must be placed upon Hollywood, not critics, to provide us with more opportunities to see ourselves, therefore we won’t have to keep trying to make a feast out of crumbs. Thankfully, the pressure has been getting to Hollywood, but it must escalate. When we have people of all races acting on screen in the multitudes, that’ll be the day when I never have to worry about what my words could do to a project again.