Last year’s Oscar nominations, like so many before and like so many other award season nominations, were a sad testament to Hollywood’s erasure of Black cinema and bare-minimum representation of minority communities. Now, it appears the same situation is shaping up in 2023. White western movies dominate cinema award season not because white western films are inherently better, but because of both the structural racism in society and the benefits of white privilege for too many people working in entertainment. This has to stop.
A Thousand and One, They Cloned Tyrone, Creed III, and Kokomo City are some of the best films created and released in 2023 so far (A Thousand and One remains my pick for the best movie of 2023), and just a few examples this year of great Black cinema and filmmaking by people of color and women of all colors — especially Black Women and Black LGBTQ people.
Yet how much are films like these reflected in the entertainment press’s and Hollywood’s award season coverage and events, and ultimately the award nominations and winners themselves?
Look at a full list of all films released around the world in 2022. Look at a full list of all films released around the world this year, 2023. Or look at my list of the best films of 2022. The wide array of film types on display is a testament to the disingenuous nature of those who perpetually bemoan the fate of modern cinema, a lazy tradition as old as sound and color on the big screen, grown worse since a rising tide of modern doomsaying that began in the 1970s.
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to” has become the film equivalent to “Make Movies Great Again” in its commitment to casting a longing gaze toward the past and defending the entitlements of older white western filmmaking men.
This was evident in some of the defenses of the most recent Sight and Sound poll with its roughly 3/4 white western list of greatest cinematic art of all time. Count the white western films in the top 60, in particular. Count them and try to defend it by insisting white western movies just win more “on merit.”
Yes, of course it’s silly of certain segments of genre fandom (namely, superhero movie fans) to complain about lack of their own favorite films on a subjective list, or to attack the integrity of movies that are on the list simply based on the fact the angry fans haven’t heard of them or seen them before. And those inclined to do such things are frequently from among the most toxic corners of fandom, where all sorts of other shortsighted or outright hateful behavior and simplistic sentiments often reside.
It’s also fair to say that a large portion of critics who participate in the poll are westerners who probably see more western films than anything else by a wide margin because that’s where they live and what they have the most access to by default, whose preferences are shaped within western culture, and whose preferences are inherently likely to favor western cinema. And western cinema historically and today is overwhelmingly dominated by white filmmakers, who themselves mostly make films about white westerners because of the same inherent backgrounds and biases. The reason for all of those elements, however, is still rooted in racism and western chauvinism.
And yes, regardless of everything else, the poll is a statement of personal artistic taste and preferences, so attacking it because someone else’s opinions about works of art is different from your own and/or inspired by biases you disagree with is pointless in that context (a context inherently rejecting the fact of racism and chauvinism in western culture, though, however much taking artistic preferences at face value might sound good on the face of it — the realities exist regardless of our wish for the ideal).
But it’s also silly to rigorously insist everyone show proper respect for Great White Masters whose films not only depict but often tacitly or overtly endorse sexism, racism, violent reactionary sentiments, conservative resistance to other cultures, and other terrible things that we rightly bash in other films when it’s convenient.
There was a time when the complaint was, “Spielberg and Lucas should be run out of town for destroying true art with their blockbusters taking up all of the space and money in theaters.” Nowadays it’s supposedly “wokeness,” or “identity politics,” or “cancel culture,” or superhero movies (especially now that they’re starting to feature more diverse casts and crews, I notice), or horror nostalgia, that are to blame for cinema’s supposed decline today.
Meanwhile, everyone remember to cheer white filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming near-$200 million budgeted sci-fi fantasy CGI-heavy sequel to a popular “white savior” branded franchise owned by a studio conglomerate that’s already been adapted into TV or film a few times already. Because that is what real cinema should be, the claim goes, while it’s supposedly films like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever that are guilty of holding back real cinema. Why?
That’s not a personal attack on Villeneuve or any of his particular films — which I’m a fan of and have dedicated entire podcasts to praising and discussing — but rather to point out the glaring absurdity in the hypocrisy of a cinematic claim that Ryan Coogler’s movie somehow is part of destroying cinema but Villeneuve’s film is a triumph of cinema. Both are big-budget studio franchises made by rich filmmakers and movie stars for corporations run by even wealthier businesspeople exploiting valuable franchise brands they own for profit. That’s true of practically every movie you and I ever see in our lives, however much we all might ignore it from time to time when it’s convenient for us to do so.
There are many reasons to worry about the way decisions at studios are too often made by people with little experience or understanding of how to run movie studios or how to tell great stories. And we should worry about how hard it is for new voices to be heard, or even have a chance to be considered for being heard — particularly diverse voices historically denied access and who still face far too many obstacles designed precisely to keep them out.
We should also worry about the lack of adequate equality of pay and respect for people working in streaming, a battle fought and seemingly won by the Writers Guild of America, and still being fought by The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, with increasing help from other guilds and unions, including a strong show of unity by the Teamsters.
And we need new funding sources and greater support for original unique voices and stories, something at the heart of the ongoing fight between studios and guilds — a fight which will expand and change the future of cinema significantly, as the technologies to create and tell stories evolve and reach inevitable destinations.
It’s also true that we have more platforms and approaches than ever before for storytellers to create, to find community, to put their work out for consideration, and to be seen. If anything, the sheer number of such outlets and enormous volume of such content is among the biggest obstacles to success now, because it’s becoming harder to stand out while viewers try to sift the wheat from the chaff, and artists try to rise above the noise and volume to be seen and heard.
The technological tools for creating art and storytelling are likewise increased in number and quality, widely dispersed, and available cheaply or even for free. Indeed, I believe eventually — and after the inevitable fight between the guilds and the studios — the emerging huge leaps in A.I. and other technology can be regulated and applied so that these new tools are used to the greatest application and effect by writers, artists, storytellers, and creators in ways more democratic and supportive of artists (and with less or no need for studio executives who command tens of millions in bonuses for themselves while denying middle-class or even working-class livings to most of the creators who actually built these media empires for them).
These are all major challenges, problems, and obstacles to be addressed, without a doubt. But the entire film industry, top to bottom, is imbued with big and fundamental moral wrongs that will become imbedded in any progress made, if they are not exorcised from cinema. Otherwise, these same dangerous moral failings will wind up woven into the foundations of all of the upcoming change and attempts at progress in cinema, regardless of the rest.
What’s missing and what’s most detrimental to cinema is a shameful, callous refusal among entertainment journalism and the corporations that own studios to admit our entertainment institutions are mired in racism, sexism, and structural discrimination, and to further admit that this lack of access — especially and most violently perpetrated against Black filmmakers, and especially-especially Black women filmmakers, and especially-especially-especially against Black women filmmakers telling predominantly Black women’s stories — is the single biggest impediment to cinema achieving its fullest storytelling and other artistic potential.
Bemoan that when you lament the state of modern moviemaking, not the greater independence and originality of artistic voices, not the existence of six or seven annual superhero movies, not global diverse audiences choosing to reward big spectacle storytelling that demonstrates great ambition and resonance in genres that also happen to be increasingly more diverse (even if you dislike or disagree with how those global diverse audiences personally interpret and react to those films’ themes and representations).
We must stop defending poor put-upon multi-millionaire white men who command hundreds of millions in budgets for their latest project staffed by the same performers in the same genres for five decades. We can love their films without catering to a sense of entitlement or to disingenuous criticisms offered against entire genres, artists, and audiences. We must stop defending hostile media, awards groups, and others who erase people of color in award nominations and lists of greatest [white western] movies of all time.
And to stop any of this, we first need to admit it exists.