Criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's monthly series, our movie critic gives fresh consideration to the movies, actors and pop culture moments that shaped entire generations. It’s time for a rewrite.
Critic Sarah-Tai Black remembers watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of A Nation — a movie that so glorified the Ku Klux Klan that it spurred a nationwide revival — three times as an undergraduate student in Cinema Studies at her Canadian university. But when asked how many films by Black directors they were assigned, the answer comes far too easily: One.
“Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman was the one Black film I saw in my whole time [there],” Black told Refinery29 over Zoom in March. “It was for an elective course in feminist filmmaking, and it was the one Black film in that course.”
For too long, the mainstream accepted movie canon — as defined by studio heads, film organizations, curators and critics — has been overwhelmingly white and male. The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, published in 1998 and updated in 2007, features only two directors of color (Spike Lee and M. Night Shyamalan), and not a single woman. In August 2020, a New York Times investigation into the makeup of the Criterion Collection found that of the 461 directors included in the prestigious curated selection, only four were Black. And of the Black directors included, all were men. This year marks the first year a woman of color — Chloé Zhao — has ever been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.
We’re starting to inch towards change. In December, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, responsible for selecting films worthy of preservation, included a record number of films directed by women and filmmakers of color, including Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, and Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground. AFI has acknowledged its responsibility in perpetuating the marginalization of diverse voices and has committed to releasing new lists in the future “that will embrace our modern day and drive culture forward.” Upcoming June 2021 Criterion releases include Dee Rees’ acclaimed first film, Pariah. Over at the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has made a concerted effort to diversify its membership after years of #OscarsSoWhite campaigns led by activist April Reign. The result is the most diverse nominees’ slate in the awards’ 93-year history.
Still, the gatekeepers of what makes a movie “important” or “worth watching,” have been and largely continue to be white men. A 2018 study released by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that women made up just 21.3% of critics who reviewed 300 top movies between 2015 and 2017. Underrepresented female critics made up just 3.7% of the total — that’s a 61.9% decline between white males and women critics of color. And you don’t even have to go that far back — just this year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association was blasted for its ongoing lack of Black members, an egregious oversight that was reflected in the overwhelmingly white 2021 Golden Globes nominations.
When the films that speak to and represent you don’t get attention, you tend to form your own canon. Sarah-Tai Black, along with critic Jourdain Searles and filmmaker Kevin Wilson Jr., now hosts Netflix’s Black Film School YouTube series. Co-created by Claire Buss and Jasmyne Keimig, the new series seeks to offer Black film titles for curious fans to check out alongside some movies they already may love. With two episodes out of five available to stream so far, the series has tackled films like Mary Haron’s American Psycho and Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You (Episode 1), and compared Amy Heckerling’s Clueless to Leslie Harris’ coming-of-age classic Just Another Girl On The IRT (Episode 2).
Those last two movies tell an interesting story. Clueless’ place in the canon wasn’t always a given. Heckerling didn’t exactly have an easy to time making it— multiple studios passed on the film before it ended up at Paramount, claiming no one wanted to see a movie about girls, let alone a ditzy blonde rich one. Yet, even as an underdog compared to her white male peers, Heckerling enjoyed a significantly higher level of privilege and institutional access than Harris, who made Just Another Girl On The IRT on a shoestring budget of $100,000 with no Hollywood support in order to preserve her vision. 25 years later, Clueless plays on various cable marathons every other weekend. Its short-lived arrival on Netflix in June 2020 was hailed as a godsend by an enthusiastic internet. As for its reputation — Heckerling’s movie currently holds an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics (regardless of gender) praising its script, the acting and her vision. Meanwhile, Harris’ film about ambitious high school senior Chantel Mitchell (Ariyan A. Johnson) growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 1993. Still, it never entered the zeitgeist in the same way as Clueless, despite remaining a classic in Black communities. And Harris’ career never took off in the way it should have — she only made one other film, 1993’s Bessie Coleman: A Dream to Fly.
“So often people see [Black film] as homework. Black art should be a part of everyone’s diet, it’s not something you consume to be a good person,” Keimig, herself a critic at Seattle’s The Stranger, told Refinery29 over the phone.
Recently, white audiences and critics have started to rediscover Just Another Girl on the IRT, which is now a staple of Black History Month pop culture lists. But what does that say about how — and when — stories by and about Black women are valued? And what about which ones Hollywood pays attention to? Ahead, Black Film School’s Jourdain Searles and Sarah-Tai Black share their recommendations for new additions to the canon.
Refinery29: The most recent episode of Black Film School touches on Clueless and Just Another Girl on the IRT. Both came out in the early 90s, and presented a specific vision of girlhood — but the latter didn’t take off as a mainstream coming-of-age story classic in the same way. Why do you think that is?
Jourdain Searles: “Watching it again for this made me realize that it was one of the few films where Black teenage girls were just hanging out. I think that white critics just stopped at the grit of it, and the pregnancy, but never made it to that other stage of these are girls going through teenhood, doing normal things. It just becomes an important Black film about issues. I feel like critics at the time weren’t thinking ‘maybe Black teenage girls would like to go to the movies and watch things about Black teenage girls.’ It’s all about ‘what is the political importance of it?’ instead of ‘this would make money because girls would go see it.’”
Sarah-Tai Black: “The way the collective ‘we’— which hasn’t included Black women really — have historically watched movies has been that white critics would look at a film like Just Another Girl on the IRT, and consider its ending to be the end game of the film. They would look at the trauma and see that as the guts and the core of the film, rather than just a part of it. There’s so many other feelings and textures that make it so multifaceted and at most points, lovely to watch.
How would you describe your own film canon?
STB: It’s been so long since I’ve been in literal film school, where the canon were the classic white films that you always see over and over again.I did my undergrad and my masters in Cinema Studies [at the University of Toronto] and we watched one movie made by a Black person that whole time — Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman — but somehow we watched Birth of a Nation three times. It’s very indicative of what that environment is like. The thing I like about Black Film School the most is that we’re talking about good films in the traditional canon that we like. It’s easy to say ‘Instead of Birth of a Nation, you can watch [x].’ It’s nice to have depthy criticism on both sides.
JS: “Most of my film experience has been self-taught, so by the time I did get to grad school, everything they had been trying to talk about, I had seen already, and engaged with it. In terms of the Black film canon, that started in film school. I took a class with Donald Bogle, who has done a lot of talking about the history of Black film. It was lucky because I got to watch a lot of classic Black films like Cabin in the Sky, Carmen Jones, Raisin in the Sun. But if I didn’t take that one class, I wouldn’t even know where to start. And it’s an elective — you don’t have to take it — which kind of bothers me. I think everyone should take a History of Black Film class.”
The New York Times ran a story in 2020 showing the disparity in the Criterion Collection, which at the time featured only four Black directors out of roughly 400. What does this say about the role of critics in making sure that these things are not just seen but that they have longevity?
JS: “ I was just talking about that recently because of the Twitter discourse where people were saying that no one has to like old movies. The problem is not that all old movies are white, but most of these movies premiere at festivals, a bunch of curators and buyers and everybody sees them, and then they do not make the choice to show everybody else. I didn’t know who Bill Gunn was until I joined Film Twitter. Then there were all these white people asking if I’d seen Ganja and Hess.”
STB: “When white people discovered Bill Gunn like two years ago, I’ll never forget it. [One white critic] was writing about Ganja and Hess — an ongoing issue is that film publications seem to not be able to find one Black writer — and it haunts me. He wrote ‘the suddenly seminal’ Bill Gunn. That’s the thing I resent most: We don’t get to see a lot of our canon until white people discover it.”
Do you think critics value certain stories told by Black women over others?
JS: “People love it when Black women make a movie about race, and when it’s not about that it’s ignored.”
STB: “I feel like these prestige flicks that focus on the Civil Rights movement and anti-Blackness in general and are directed by Black women really let people feel like they’re washing away their sins in a way. [It’s in line with] the ‘Black women will save us rhetoric,’ or thinking that anything that we do is inherently progressive when that’s not truly the case.”
JS: “There’s this idea that Black women making films is inherently political and that’s not always the case. Just think of something like [Tayarisha Poe’s] Selah and the Spades, which I really enjoyed because it’s about teens being teens, manipulating each other, messing with each other. It’s like a Gossip Girl kind of thing. I think that’s a movie that gets buried because it’s not about a huge topic. Jezebel, Numa Perrier’s film about a Black girl camming — there’s race in it but it’s not centered around that.”
What are some of the movies that have recently come out that you would like to see reflected in a more updated canon?
STB: “[Mati Diop’s] Atlantics! Is there a movie as good as Atlantics? I don’t know, I haven’t seen it. Especially as a critic who writes a lot about wide-release films, it becomes very tiring to focus on films like Queen and Slim, or Antebellum. You have to recapitulate the same thing over and over. So when you get a film like Atlantics, I savor it. I haven’t even seen it a second time, because I have to save it for a day where I’m feeling really hopeless about the state of film, and Black women in it.”
“That’s what I would like to see in terms of larger budget films. But also films like Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern. [Just to give an example of] the way in which my own life and my own community is not reflected in films, when I was looking up Shatara Michelle Ford to write about their film, I was like, Oh my god, they use they/them pronouns just like me! We’ve been begging for scraps, to the point where I’m like, Black cis woman, that’s enough for me. No, it’s not! I want to see more Black queer and trans work because cis-normativity really takes over a lot of the conversations.”
JS: “Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth needs to be in there. Black Southern stories are constantly about slavery, and Reconstruction. Miss Juneteenth talks about that tradition but it’s about after that. I’m not one of those people that’s like, No more slave movies — I do think no more slave movies made by men would be fantastic. I think that’s why Antebellum was so disappointing, because it was like, finally a movie about female slaves, and...these guys made it?”
STB: “I would really love to see space made for more experimental and urgently radical work. I’m thinking of someone like Ja'Tovia Gary, whose film The Giverny Document I just adore.”
J: “The documentary Time [directed by Garrett Bradley] needs to be in there. And [Leila Weinraub’s] Shakedown. Also, Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned, and [Dee Rees’] Bessie, which manages to be historical and gay and horny at the same time. I kind of avoided it for a while, because you know how Black biopics be. It’s like: “Here’s the pain!” This one has the pain, but it’s also very playful and very sweaty.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.