In recent years, the media has debated the necessity of film critics. Audiences didn’t seem to listen to more popular critics, who often gave poor reviews to mainstream Hollywood films and glowing reviews to small independent films. These critics were also seen as a sort of hierarchy, as larger names went recognized and their reviews were treated like gold which left little room for smaller publications and a more competitive landscape. And with the rise of the internet, people who hadn’t had the opportunities to write for larger print publications were able to flex their film criticism skills on websites like RottenTomatoes or Letterboxd. Though the popularity of film critics in print publications have declined, film critics are still necessary in today’s film industry.
These review aggregator websites have allowed critics from underrepresented groups to finally have a place in film criticism and allow for a more robust and diverse commentary around films.
Throughout the history of film criticism, the popular critics have mostly fallen into the straight, white, male demographic. In a recent study (recent as in, Variety posted the study’s findings on August 19th, 2020) by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University, male film critics outnumbered their female colleagues 2 to 1, with female critics making up 35% of film reviews published across various mediums. Out of these percentages, only 18% of those male critics are men of color and 23% of the female critics are women of color. This certainly impacts the films being reviewed. Because of these factors, the critics’ reviews come from a place of privilege and see the films through a white, straight, male lens. We, as viewers, tend to view films through our own lived experiences and this can have an impact on how we view specific themes and concepts.
Context is key.
In college, I took a Fourth Cinema class, which focused on specifically Native American cinema, and my professor (who is Native American) would often have to explain small contexts for our class (majority non-Native) so that we could best understand the film’s intentions. The majority of film critics don’t have that. White, straight, male critics might not have the same cultural context clues to inform their thoughts on a film centered around a Black LGBTQ community, for example. They might miss specific callbacks to the history portrayed and possibly even mishandle what the callbacks represent. And when these reviews come from a demographic with the most privilege, it may also hinder progress within the film industry. If the critics determine that these diverse films made by filmmakers from underrepresented groups are not up to par, studios may pass on giving these filmmakers chances on any large films and derail their film careers.
These critics don’t see the same nuances in a film that possible critics and audiences with these lived experiences do and their reviews can reflect that. Missing out on these key context clues can impact a filmmaker’s intended vision and viewers who read these reviews will have a different reaction.
These critics also decide what is or isn’t considered an important film.
Let’s consider it. When a film with a mostly female cast is released, what genre do critics usually relegate it to? Typically a romantic comedy, since critics assume that any female fronted film will be light-hearted and frothy. And because they dismiss these films as not being serious enough, the films, as good as they may be, could be overlooked for award recognition during awards season. The judging bodies (which have also been criticized as being too white and male) of most of these awards shows tend to listen to critics to help make decisions alongside their viewings, so films with the most critic coverage are typically the ones most considered for awards. Additionally, the critics make a big deal out of the film having an all-female cast; they try to look for male-dominated films as reference points so that their audiences will better understand this new film. When Booksmart (dir. Olivia Wilde, 2019) was released, many critics heralded it as a “female version of Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola, 2007).” These critics immediately centered a female high school comedy around the narrative of this male high school comedy, forcing viewers to connect and compare the two rather than just letting the new film speak for itself. This redirect solidifies that only male versions of these stories are legitimate and should be seen on screen.
So are film critics, despite being overwhelmingly white, straight, and male, still actually necessary? And what, as viewers, can we try to do to diversify the world of film criticism?
Yes. Purely so they can give more opportunities to underrepresented communities and so that we can do the same.
Underrepresented voices in film can highlight and uplift films by underrepresented filmmakers. They could provide a key analysis as to specific character decisions or even filmmaker decisions. They can help to clarify any cultural contexts with their lived experiences. They can help to place the same reverence and legitimacy on underrepresented communities’ films, which can hopefully lead to award recognition and more opportunities for those filmmakers. These critics just need to be given the chance and established film critics can help! Social media is powerful and if film critics could support these underrepresented critics by re-posting their work and exposing their work to their followers, perhaps the underrepresented critics could become Rotten Tomato-certified and have even more opportunities open up.
As for us viewers, we can do the same. We can seek out film critics on social media, follow them, and support their work by posting about it. Most critics are active on Twitter – during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in June, there were Twitter threads going around on “Film Twitter” highlighting Black filmmakers as well as Black film critics. Threads like these were a great way to find smaller publications, focused on highlighting underrepresented communities, and to find new critics as well. Some of my favorite film critics additionally post and tweet about their colleagues’ works. If we support these publications and their writers, they’ll have more opportunities to hopefully be featured in mainstream publications.
I’ll take this time to highlight some of my recommendations: Alissa Wilkinson over at Vox Media (one of my favorite film writers); Karen Han at Polygon; FilmDaze, an independent publication focused on uplifting underrepresented voices; Screen Queens (screenqueenz on Twitter); Hunter Harris at Vulture; and E. Alex Jung at Vulture.