Why are underrepresented critics expected to be the voice of reason?


In December 2020, I contacted the agent of a favourite filmmaker of mine. I was writing a piece about how many of his films had been the driving force of my own young filmmaking career, and I'd love to have a conversation with him to include within the piece. I received a response the next day informing me he was currently in pre-production of his next film and unable to take interviews at this time, but I should reach out again when the film was on its publicity tour. At the time, the film was tentatively titled Canterbury Glass, directed by David O. Russell. 

I adjusted the piece I was writing to not include the interview, and it became about how his 2016 film Joy had pushed me in at the deep end to believing in myself as a filmmaker. It was the reason I applied to film school and had I not seen that film at that specific point in my life, I cannot say for sure that I would be the person I am today, nor would I be a filmmaker in any capacity. David O. Russell is responsible for the start of my career, the spark for the flame of belief I have in myself. Like many filmmakers whose heroes have let them down, when I came to learn of the details of his abusive history, both on-set and off, it was a crushing blow. Reconciling your attachment to someone who has caused harm to many people is a difficult task. That classic "can you separate art from artist" question swirled in my mind. How many people have made excuses so that they can hold on to something they held so dear?

If you listen to the Annapurna-verse podcast, part of that journey led us to discuss American Hustle and Joy. In the Hustle episode, we spoke about O. Russell's history, addressing the upcoming Canterbury Glass and the critiques from fans of the stars who were unhappy with their favourites working with a known abuser. We discussed that perhaps agents apply pressure to get their stars in the Oscar spotlight (O. Russell's last four films have earned Academy Award nods), particularly for those whose careers were still on the come up, like Anya Taylor Joy. There is no way of knowing the logic that goes into these decisions. There's no way to know how much the stars know. We can only assume. 

I've been dreading the press tour for this film since late 2020. I've left the film (now titled Amsterdam) unmentioned on social media. I had no intention of sharing any thoughts about it. The film was going to go entirely unmentioned by me until last Sunday when I saw the New York premiere take place. Many people I know attended this premiere, and instantly, I began reflecting on my journey with this film's release. 

As a female who writes about film, I wondered to myself... had other people reflected as much as I had about how they intended to handle the release of this film? It was inevitable that it was going to have a big release strategy. It's produced by a major studio with so many stars flooding the cast that you wonder how they'll fit in one narrative, and before early reactions, it seemed set to roll up to the Academy Awards relatively unscathed. When I saw people I knew had attended the premiere, I thought to myself: what is the responsibility of a film critic in situations such as these?

Do you have to go because your editor sent you? Do you have to cover the film at all? If you really care about #MeToo and all the abuse of power in the industry, is it not your duty to stay home and politely ignore the call in your inbox? These questions had run through my mind a thousand times. For months. Years, actually, at this point. So why did it appear that people managed to get up and go to a premiere, snap some selfies and get commended for their efforts? 

Many of the underrepresented critics I know had been putting the narrative of the abuse at the forefront, and many had even said they had no intention of covering the film. Amsterdam is a big studio release with big names and Oscar prospects. For smaller outlets, clicks are necessary for their growth, and as many of these writers know, the opportunities come from films like this, yet here they are putting morals before clicks. Why is it that underrepresented critics are expected to be the voice of reason when their counterparts glide so effortlessly through these releases? Of course, I cannot truly understand what goes through people's minds. I am merely speculating that it is with ease, but I know who's been louder about what disgusts them, and I know whose opportunities are being limited in the pursuit of a just industry.

Underrepresented critics are held to an unfair standard. We expect the worst from the big-name publications, and so we almost forgive them for their wrongdoings, but for some reason, we do not offer that same grace to those trying their best to navigate this release. I'm not saying one avenue is better than the other, just that the levels of imbalance in the industry have been mirrored throughout this film's distribution, and it's yet to even hit cinemas. 

I suppose there is no conclusion or anything articulate that can round out this piece with elegance, but just know that the reason I was scared to publish it is precisely the reason I wanted to write it. Whose responsibility is it to uphold a certain standard of industry practice when one side is pulling more weight than the other? Who are we really holding to account? This goes for the talent on screen as much as it does for the critics. Margot Robbie, Zoe Saldana, Anya Taylor Joy and Taylor Swift seem to be much deeper under the knife than their male co-stars. There is a persistent and consistent imbalance that always leaves women much further under scrutiny than men in the industry. Underrepresented critics are held to a different standard, and I think it's time we were afforded the same luxuries as the big names.

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