Representation matters in movie criticism. But not so critics can “support” films.
What do film critics even do?
The cast of Ocean’s 8 seems to have some ideas about that question, blaming some of the more tepid reviews their film encountered on male critics who viewed the movie, as Cate Blanchett put it, through a “prism of misunderstanding.” During the film’s press tour, Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, and Mindy Kaling spoke out against gender disparity in not just their own industry — the Hollywood blockbuster business — but in the separate, adjacent field of film criticism, which yet another study showed this week is overwhelmingly white and male.
They’re not wrong about the makeup of the pool of critics. And this discussion about the demographic makeup of film critics is laudable and necessary.
But the way it’s being framed has less helpful implications: that the people whose opinions really count are those whom the movie is “for.” Not only does that ignore how most movies actually make their money, but it says a lot about Hollywood’s attitude toward criticism, best revealed in Blanchett’s statement. She compared studio’s “support” of a film — which means, essentially, a big marketing budget — with critics’ roles in a film’s success, which she says are a “really big part of the equation.”
In that view, critics are mainly useful in how they “support” movies the industry thinks they should like because of the demographic group and audience segment into which they fall.
But that’s not why diversity in criticism is important. If that’s the goal, then it will only succeed in gutting criticism of its richest, fullest potential — something that benefits not just critics but movies and moviegoers too.
To explain all that, it’s important to take a few steps back and understand what critics actually do.
Critics are art makers first
Critics are, themselves, creators of art. It’s an art that’s usually funneled through the medium of journalism, but criticism is still fundamentally an art form.
The art a critic makes is a review or an essay, something that is less about “supporting” a movie and more about drawing on an individual’s experience with a film to make an argument about that movie. It includes evaluation of the film, but it also, done well, is a passionate argument for the importance of art itself.
Often, a great movie review is one that doesn’t require the reader to have seen the movie in order to enjoy it. There’s a reason the legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael considered her movie reviews to be her memoir.
Criticism is about expanding a work of art, making it part of a cultural conversation and discourse. It gives it air. It opens it up for the reader to have an experience with it. Criticism is how I take a silly blockbuster like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and write about the implications it has for the idea of human extinction. It’s how I explore how a movie like American Animals or I, Tonya messes with the audience, and what that teaches audiences to expect. It’s how I spin out what a sparing art film like First Reformed is all about.
I’m less interested in telling you whether to go see it — I’m not you, I don’t know what you like — and more interested in working through what the very existence of the movie means. There’s a reason that most critics, if you asked them, would rather you read the review after you see the movie.
This is why criticism needs to be diverse. Critics try to read a film through the lens of their own unique experience, and that gives life to the work of art. Even when we all sit in the same movie theater, we all watch a different work of art. Adding those perspectives to the chorus can only enrich and expand the movie.
Usually, a good critic can tell the difference between their reaction to a film that is due to personal taste and history and a reaction of aesthetic judgment. Good critics are omnivorous, and rarely write off movies simply because of the genre or the intended audience.
In short, a good critic develops a large capacity for imagination. They can’t know what it would be like to see the movie as someone other than themselves. But the good critic tries very hard to put themselves in those shoes anyhow, especially when they detect that the movies’ target audience will be someone other than themselves. And good critics welcome the opinions other critics have about the film.
So in fact, there are some affinities between good critics and good actors, who are celebrated not just for playing versions of themselves but for playing wildly different people than themselves. There are elements of the actor’s craft in the critic’s work.
Diversity in criticism matters because criticism is about the art, not the business
Diversity matters immensely in criticism, for a lot of the same reasons that it matters in Hollywood. One of the biggest reasons that diversity among Hollywood storytellers is worth pursuing is that it expands the kind of stories that can be told and the ways in which they can be told. That leads to a richer art form.
Criticism is a lot like this: It gives us ways to receive a work of art and read it through a number of lenses, each informed by the critic’s own experience.
And criticism is a deeply monolithic industry. The Ocean’s 8 cast’s comments about criticism came around the same time that actress Brie Larson spoke out on the same subject, in connection with a study conducted by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative. Titled “Critic’s Choice?” the study surveyed 19,559 reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes for the year’s top 100 films (by box office returns) and found that 77.8 percent of all reviewers were male, and 82 percent of all reviewers were white.