On Boyhood, Birth of a Nation and Being a White Critic

Boyhood (2014)This morning I woke up, stumbled out of bed, then checked Twitter, because apparently that’s where my priorities are directed nowadays. I discovered that Film Twitter – that is, the loose collection of cinephiles and critics that populate Twitterdom – had set its sights on what sounded like a monumentally misjudged takedown of Best Picture contender and critical darling Boyhood. Prominent critic Peter Labuza sneered: “Like Triumph of The Will, Birdman is also visually audacious…” Someday I’m gonna sell out so hard and write the stupidest hatchet jobs. Matt Zoller Seitz opined that: Comparing every offensive movie to BIRTH OF A NATION is the “comparing every offensive political thing to Nazis” of film crit.

I went Googling – Twitter operates on snark, superiority and snide riffing, so I wasn’t going to miss out. I eventually stumbled onto Sam Adams’ Criticwire piece ‘Boyhood’ and the White Savior with the sub-heading “Does “Boyhood’s” near-total absence of Latino characters make it racist?” The author gave me pause – Sam Adams is very much in the inner-circle of respected Film Twitter critics, and not generally the kind of gentleman to attract the kind of widespread derision I was witnessing. But perusing the piece revealed both the real target and the uncomfortable streak of, if not racism, then uncritical white privilege behind the Twitter pile-on.

The piece attracting all of those barbs (here are some more of them) was a blog post titled Racism in BOYHOOD is the Worst Kind by one Professor Grisel Y. Acosta. It’s the most recent post on her personal site, “Write to Right,” (which has been running since 2005). It was published a fortnight before Adams’ article and picked up by Latino Rebels a couple days later (where it presumably caught Adams’ attention). Acosta laid out a coherent, straightforward argument in her article: 1) that Boyhood’s lack of non-white, specifically Mexican characters wasn’t a realistic depiction of its Texas setting and 2) the one Hispanic actor in the film, Roland Ruiz, was shackled to a tired white saviour narrative, freed from a low-paying job by the inspirational influence of Patricia Arquette’s character.

Certainly, there are coherent counter-arguments to be made. Personally, I’ve never been particularly convinced that art needs to be an accurate reflection of real demographics, for example (though I’m no position to talk specifically about Texas given I’ve never even visited America). But the dismissal of Acosta’s position wasn’t motivated by intelligent arguments but by mean mockery of her lede, which compared Boyhood to Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s a provocative way to open an article, but it’s a rare critic who hasn’t opened a thoughtful essay with something provocative before stepping it back a little. Agosto raised the comparison not to suggest that Boyhood was as overtly racist as D.W. Griffiths’ Klan propaganda, but to illustrate the difference between such overt racism and the more insidious, unthinking racism that powers disproportionate representation of races in mainstream films.

But, no, let’s all make fun of Agosto. Let’s join a bunch of white male critics – all of whom I suspect regard themselves as progressive, if their writing is anything go by – in ridiculing a “urban, multi-national, multi-ethnic” woman with a PhD in English/Creative Writing because she dared impugn a film you really liked, rather than critically engage with her statement. Let’s accuse her of writing an Oscar hatchet-job despite her piece containing no mention of the Academy Awards whatsoever. Let’s dismiss any possibility of racism in Boyhood – or mainstream movies at large – because of an ill-considered analogy. After all, we’re white people paid to write about movies – we know what is and isn’t racist far better than Dr Agosto.

I’m not as good a film critic as Peter Labuza or Glenn Kenny. I doubt I ever will be. And I’ve seen from these men’s writing – and the other individuals who jumped into the fray on Twitter – that these are thoughtful, socially engaged writers who think about issues like race and gender. For the most part, these critics are abundantly aware of their white privilege (as Matt Zoller Seitz demonstrated in this fantastic essay). But all that power that comes with white privilege – specifically, the expectation of having your voice heard – should come with responsibility. And I reckon that responsibility includes not shouting down an outsider’s perspective simply because they don’t have as many Twitter followers as you – particularly when their perspective on whether or not Boyhood is, in fact, racist carries a lot more weight than yours.

6 thoughts on “On Boyhood, Birth of a Nation and Being a White Critic

  1. Whether there is or isn’t a case of racism existent in Boyhood (which I loved by the way), I think the conversations need to be had. As people who inherently have some kind of privilege we are often unintentionally guilty of just not thinking about or noticing things. The best way to breakdown privilege is by making people conscious of it and it becoming part of their normal thought patterns.

    • For sure. Like, I’m all for making fun of poorly-written articles, but when its paired with the dismissal of a person’s perspective by a bunch of people with privilege (like myself), it leaves an especially sour taste. Worth everyone taking a second to think about this sort of thing!

  2. The reality is that there are a whole bunch of talented white guys stabbing each other in the back to get ahead. One way to do it is to accuse each other of racism.

    • Perhaps that’s true, but honestly my experience – observed and personal – is that most critics are quite supportive of other critics. Snark tends to be directed at outsiders, which is fine if someone’s genuinely written something dumb but is certainly problematic in this case. As I said in the piece, I don’t think it’s intentionally racist or anything, just ill-considered.

  3. Since I was addressed here, let me speak a couple words. That scene in BOYHOOD is *highly* problematic, and the lack of Latino characters in a state filled with them is a big issue. But there’s an argumentation problem here, which was my reason for the sneer response. Once you compare to BIRTH OF A NATION, there’s a whole can of issues that open up. As a historian first and a critic second, I find the characterization of BIRTH problematic here (you’d actually be hardpressed to find a film school that actually still teaches the film, especially since Griffith’s Biograph films, or his later 20s work, are far more innovative). But it’s simply a bad opening because it drops a Godwin’s Law (the author could have used hundreds of different films—it’s not like the history of American cinema is hard pressed to find racism), and to use it as an opening it feels like a grab for attention instead of careful articulation (which I think *does* in part follow). That was the only reason for my snark—it’s a poor way to get into a thorny subject.

    • Thanks for your considered response, Peter. I should note that I don’t feel that any one of those tweets, by itself, is problematic – I agree, as I mentioned in the piece, that it’s an “ill-considered analogy.” (Looking through Agosto’s blog, she doesn’t write on film particularly often, so I suspect she was just selecting an obvious overtly racist film from which to begin her argument.) I was more troubled by the groupthink that had pretty much every prominent (and, generally, white) critic on Film Twitter putting the boot in on the piece, and only after Sam Adams (another prominent white critic, and like yourself a critic I respect greatly) brought it to people’s attention. And when I tried to challenge people on Twitter about it (including yourself – https://twitter.com/ccpopculture/status/567796211131916288), no-one seemed interested in engaging (perhaps because I lack sufficient “Twitter cred”).

      I don’t think that you, or any of the other critics bagging on the lede are racist (with the possible exception of this tweet – https://twitter.com/rgodfrey/status/567780870615216128): I do think that, observed from the outside, this sort of en masse snark directed at an outsider has some troubling (unintentional) connotations. The intent of the snark might have been to deride a poor comparison, but when everyone’s doing it rather than engaging with the actual issues it comes across wrong (this is pretty endemic to Twitter as a whole, of course), and from my perspective, the wider response is, itself, “a poor way to get into a thorny subject.”

      Thanks again for your response. I hope it’s clear that this intended to be in any way a personal attack on you or the other critics mentioned – I really admire you guys – but rather a reaction to a wider Twitter trend.

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