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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Are We Grading Certain Films on a Curve?

Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Remember that episode of Seinfeld when Jerry dissed Schindler's List and his Jewish family completely shunned him? Or the one in which Elaine HATED The English Patient and everyone thought she was a menace against society? I always think of these episodes whenever I begin to write a negative review of a black film. Once I unleash the review into cyberspace, I can expect eye rolls and sneers from members of my fellow black community for somehow turning against the cause by sharing that I didn't think a particular film was great.

It's an interesting situation because I know there are some who, shall I say, grade certain black films on a curve. Which, while I understand the reasoning (too often these films are graded by mainstream critics on an opposite curve in that they have to be twice as good merely in order to compete with other films), it seems detrimental to the film and filmmaker who may (or may not) rely on reviews as an validation of his/her ability. This is the part when I ask whether there are critics who simply promote certain kinds of film versus those who discuss films for certain reasons: whether it's to highlight specific commentary (political or otherwise), or analyze the technicality of the film, or even another angle at their discretion.

I don't really think there's any right or wrong here. After all, film analysis, especially now during the pop culture era, is highly subjective, which makes for really interesting debate and conversation. But I've also found that some critics of color--and even casual moviegoers--don't feel comfortable openly expressing a negative review of a black film because of the criticism that they in turn may receive. As a result, this leaves us only with genuinely positive reviews, think piece/social commentary reviews, faux positive reviews, and what I call "radio silence" reviews (posts that discuss everything about the film except whether or not it's good, fluff pieces). All of these articles serve a purpose and an audience (they can all be quite engaging to read), but it does give me pause when people feel that they are unable to express their actual opinion--whatever it might be--and are compelled to evade it in order to retain a certain image. But then I ask: Whose image are you trying to keep in tact--yours or someone else's?

I don't find it particularly useful to piggy back off the opinions of others, which is one of the reasons why I created my own space here--as a way for me to explicitly sound off about what I liked or didn't like, and how a certain film made me feel. But I do understand that some larger media outlets have a specific purpose in the way they approach films in their efforts to promote a unified voice. This is why I appreciated writer Damon Young's "Black Movie Angst" piece on Ebony Magazine's website which questioned whether we are "too easy" on certain films. It was refreshing to see an article like this on a major website whose target audience is also the main demographic for films like The Best Man Holiday (Young's prime example in the piece). While it was predictably met with scrutiny in the comments section, it was nice to see a writer go against the grain, not facetiously but rather to present his own perspective despite the fact that he "really wanted to like the film."

I get it. It's a fine line to cross, especially as we continue to navigate the imperfect Hollywood system and the way in which certain films (particularly those featuring women and talent of color) are deemed inadequate or unqualified to even be in the same sentence as their counterparts. But I don't think that coddling films that we actually think are sub par will help our case either. Do we really want a whole bunch of great movies being overlooked for mediocre yet more talked about films with faux positive reviews?

But, then again, this really goes back to our own purpose as reviewers, which varies for each of us, and the message we're ultimately trying to provide for our readers. So I will leave this to you express below in the comments section.


Daniel said...

It is an interesting conundrum that some reviewers run into. I know I'm much more forgiving of certain types of films while much harsher on other. I think it's incredibly difficult to come at something entirely unbiased.

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