Friday, July 29, 2016

On casting only white people

Earlier this week I saw God Help the Girl, the directorial debut of Belle and Sebastian lead singer Stuart Murdoch. I was not a huge fan of it, but it did some things nicely and that was enough for me to award it a marginally positive review on Letterboxd, three stars out of five.

I found my way onto its Wikipedia page, as I had kind of a passing interest in how others had perceived it. After all, it had originally come on my radar because a video essayist with a particularly good visual sense and editing skills had ranked it among his top films of 2014. I wanted to see if he was an outlier, or if the general regard for the film was in line with his feelings.

In the couple paragraphs devoted to the critical reception of films at the bottom of every Wikipedia film page, I came across a criticism of it that I found both valid and sort of ridiculous, simultaneously.

Sarah Sahim, a critic for Pitchfork, railed against the film's lack of racial diversity as "a microcosmic view of what is wrought by racial exclusivity that is ominpresent in indie rock."

So to summarize Sahim's thesis, it is no longer okay for a person to make a movie about three white kids in Scotland.

I am intentionally being reductive in my reading of what Sahim is saying. I get the very valid point she's making. I guess I just don't get her making it about this movie. And if you are to expand on her thinking, it means she's basically endorsing tokenism.

There are certain movies that would accurately be described as racially exclusive because they bypass an obvious chance to cast an actor of color, especially when that casting would more accurately reflect either a real version of reality, or a version of reality we would all hope for. Then there are just movies about three white kids in Scotland.

If you have three main characters in a movie, does one of them have to be of another ethnicity, or else the movie can be held up as an example of the way movies don't accurately represent reality? What if the reality is that these three white kids in Scotland don't know any black kids?

I reject the idea that every movie that is made needs to be conscious of the ethnic composition of its cast. Many, and perhaps even most, but not all. It's very likely that if you were making a movie about 18th century French aristocrats, you would be relieved of your responsibility to include people of color because people of color simply didn't move in the circles you are dramatizing. There are those movies that cast color blind in situations like this, and God bless them, but no one should be held accountable for failing to cast color blind out of a desire to adhere to realism.

The penalty you pay for this decision is that you shrink your audience and potential box office, which could result in the direct endangerment of future such movies on the grounds of their lack of profitability. The movie almost certainly won't play in the more urban theaters, to say nothing of how it will perform or not perform in China.

And that's okay. That's a consequence you willingly accept.

It doesn't seem to me that you should also earn the ire of an angry critic with good ideas that are being applied too broadly.

Sometimes, you just want to make a movie about white kids in Scotland.

Is that a less interesting topic for a movie than one that might be more racially inclusive? I'd say so. I certainly wasn't very interested by it. But I also don't know that making one of the characters Pakistani would have helped. That movie is white in ways that go beyond its casting choices, and a movie like that should be able to exist if it wants to.

The price God Help the Girl pays is financial. And it paid that price. According to IMDB, the movie made $101,542 in the U.S. On an estimated budget of $1.85 million. In other words, nobody saw it, making it far less likely that a financial backer would provide that type of money again.

In fact, given how feebly the film performed, Sahim almost feels like a bully picking on a frail little weakling -- except she couldn't have known it would be such a bomb when she wrote the review, and of course, the purpose of a negative review is, in a roundabout manner, to try to drive down a movie's box office. (She may have also been trying harder to make a point about indie rock than a point about movies.)

To Sahim's criticism, Murdoch replied on Twitter: "God knows I've yearned to know and love women and men of many nations, but being a poor sick white boy from Scotland has dashed my ambitions." To the point about frail weaklings.

I love that response, not only because it's in the right spirit (i.e. not too nasty), but because it's not really defensive. Murdoch could have said "Duh, just listen to my music, I'm obviously a liberal who is a friend to all liberal concerns." Instead he just knew that those who love him know what he is, and what he does or does not have to answer for.

In other words, he subtly took the air out of Sahim's criticism by telling her she was picking the wrong fight, but did so magnanimously, without having to belittle her.

Sahim's fight is a good fight. The casting of minorities in good roles has been a key discussion point in the Academy's high-profile reassessment of its own norms, as exemplified in the failure to nominate any actors of color at last year's Oscars. It's a good fight that we should keep fighting -- in a sensible way, that picks the right targets.

God Help the Girl is not the right target.

Sometimes, you just want to make a movie about white kids in Scotland.

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