White Wash: Sofia Coppola and the Dishonesty of Honest White Liberal Filmmakers
Photo Credit: The Beguiled (2017) (L to R) Elle Fanning as Alicia, Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha Farnsworth, Kirsten Dunst as Edwina, Angourie Rice as Jane, Oona Laurence as Amy, Emma Howard as Emily, and Addison Riecke as Marie
Film

White Wash: Sofia Coppola and the Dishonesty of Honest White Liberal Filmmakers

There are White people in this world who are both sensitive to and fighting against systemic racial injustice. These are White people who are willing to put their reputations, their livelihoods, and in some cases their blood on the line in the long, continuous, and indefatigable fight against racial oppression in America and across the globe. Then there are many White people who “fight the good fight” as they say, whose names we know and there are just as many who prefer to remain unknown and fight without acknowledgement in ways great and small to overcome this thing called White supremacy over which so much blood has been spilled and so many tears have been shed. But there is a third class of White people who claim to be sensitive to and fighting against systemic racial injustice, yet their actions in their day-to-day business and artistic operations reveal not only deep racial insensitivities, but they make rationalizations that uphold the status quo of White supremacy- even while maintaining a front of racial tolerance.

The first two classes of White people we might call Honest White Liberals who have descended from the rich and storied 19th century heritage of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, to the risks ignored by Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass in his letters sent on behalf of free Negro Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and whose memoir forms the basis of the film “12 Years a Slave” (2013). The third class of White liberals, who are the subject of this piece will be called, Dishonest White Liberals. I call these White liberals dishonest in that by maintaining a façade of racial sensitivity and a readiness to fight for racial equality, they knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuate, participate, and support systemic racial oppression, division, and inequity by means of a process of rationalization that buries their true White supremacist sensibilities in the coded rhetoric of business ethics, artistic authority, and/or common sense moral judgment.

The Dishonest White Liberal is dishonest to themselves in that they sincerely believe that they are tolerant, inclusive, and sensitive to issues of race, but in reality their work, their efforts, and their expressed opinions reveal that they are only willing to go so far in pursuit of their expressed racial ideals as long as their status, class, and White privilege remains intact and undisturbed in that pursuit. But, as we all should know, the pursuit of racial equality, economic equity, and the removal of systemic racial oppression necessitates that White privilege, status, and class superiority must be irrevocably disturbed and shattered. This is the sum of all White fears: the actual attainment of racial equality and the removal of systemic racism requires the total and unequivocal divestment of White privilege and the reduction of the status of Whiteness as a moral imperative. This fear is both the fire and the fuel of White fragility and the source of the desperate and often heartless measures expressed and/or taken to protect those privileges that are associated with the White race. In the cinema, which is the art form that will be used here to investigate the Dishonest White liberal, we have several declarative instances where otherwise well respected White filmmakers express the most tone deaf statements of unapologetic racial bias, insensitivity, and their unconscious support for systemic racial oppression within cinematic representation, production and distribution.

Here are some of those instances of White liberal dishonesty in the cinema over the course of recent years:

— In 2015 on an episode of the fourth season HBO’s Project Greenlight, Matt Damon Whitesplained to Black female producer Effie Brown the meaning of cinematic racial diversity as being concerned only with the race of the actors on screen as opposed to the race of those professionals behind the camera. (1) His comments revealed the protectionism of White fragility when calls for diversity threaten positions of power and authority that are long thought to be reserved for Whites.

— Distinguished filmmaker Woody Allen was “horrified” when confronted with the question of the lack of Black representation in his films and shot back with his honest opinion that he only hires people,”…based on who is correct for the part.” (2) But given the few parts for Black actors in Woody Allen’s films one can infer that Mr. Allen must have a very narrow and stereotypical view of when Blacks are “correct” for a part in his large and continually expanding oeuvre.

— In 2016 the celebrated and widely respected Coen Brothers filmmaking team –also notorious for a lack of Black representation in their works- feigned complete incomprehension about the question of diversity when asked in an interview with the Daily Beast regarding the lily-white cast of their film “Hail, Caesar!” Joel Coen explained that to even ask such questions of race is,”…an absolute, absurd misunderstanding of how things get made… You don’t sit down and write a story and say,” I’m going to write a story that involves four Black people, three Jews, and a dog, right?” That’s not how stories get written.” (3) But attention to physical make up, race, gender and other characteristics of characters is exactly how stories get written but it is only when the “normalized” lens of Whiteness is challenged that honest White liberal artists like the Coen Brothers take refuge behind the fallacy that all stories are written without the consideration of the race of the characters- as long as those characters are considered White by default.

— And finally my personal favorite, Sir Ridley Scott who in 2014 when asked about his casting of White American, European and Australian actors in key roles of his biblical epic, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” whitesplained that,” I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on the rebates in Spain and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such and such… I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”(4) That the question of race in casting doesn’t even come up tells us how important whitesplaining is in revealing the level of dishonesty White liberals are willing to maintain to insure that such questions of race never come up by routinely casting Whites in lead roles with such frequency that any deviation is considered a rare and noble exception.

There are many, many more such instances of white washing and whitesplaining, but my point was to use these few key examples to show the scope and depth of the dishonesty in recent years by White filmmakers who as their words imply are not racist or prejudice in any way, but whose works, the preponderance of White actors within them, and their defensive posturing when challenged with questions of racial diversity would seem to strongly suggest their lack of racial inclusion, racial sensitivity, and commitment to racial equality in a world where systemic racism makes its presence violently apparent each and every day.

The most recent case of dishonesty by an otherwise honest White liberal filmmaker has been committed by Sofia Coppola who just won the Best Director award at Cannes (only the second woman to do so) for her Civil War set drama, “The Beguiled.” Ostensibly, “The Beguiled” is a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel, “A Painted Devil” published in 1966. Yet there is one significant difference between Siegel’s 1971 film and Sofia Coppola’s 2017 remake: the lone Black female character has been removed from Coppola’s film creating a lily-white Southern gothic drama set during the Civil War where the politics of gender will trump the politics of race that were concurrent and germane to the time period. When asked about the removal of the Black female character from her remake Sofia Coppola gave this well-reasoned explanation in an email to BuzzFeed. She wrote that,” Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” (5) And during a discussion of the film at a recent screening she explained further that,” In the book there was a slave character… and it was treated in a very stereotypical way… It didn’t seem respectful. I thought it was too big of a subject to brush over lightly, so I decided not to have that character at all.”(6) But in the spirit of Audre Lorde who once said,” Your silence will not protect you,” Sofia Coppola’s artistic decision to remove the Black female character from “The Beguiled” as a means of silencing the issue of race from a film set during the Civil War is a dishonest and downright disingenuous attempt to avoid race by hiding behind the normalized fallacy of Whiteness. The sexual repression and gender politics between “chaste” White females and White men during and before the Civil War era was only sustained by the unacknowledged rape of Black female slaves by their White male masters who used the Black female body as a means of gaining the necessary sexual experience that defined masculinity in that “Victorian era” while White women could retain their virginity as an ideal of White supremacy and moral superiority.(7)

In the effort to appear racially sensitive, tolerate and forward thinking, Sofia Coppola has effaced Blackness from a film set during an era where race was as significant an issue as gender. Her decision to remove the Black female character could be considered a failure of moral courage on her part as an artist who in previous historical dramas, like her 2006 film “Marie Antoinette,” displayed no artistic cowardice in eschewing historical facts in pursuit of an artistic vision. Yet in many of her films she has refused to address the issue of race through White washing: that is concentrating on an all White cast of characters when the source material or the historical evidence presents a racially diverse cast of characters. According to critic Isha Aran, Coppola also changed the race of one of the members of the crime ring from her 2013 film “The Bling Ring” which was based on a true story to create a cast of uniform Whiteness.(8)

There is a painful irony here that must be mentioned as Sofia Coppola is the daughter of the great Francis Coppola who fought and won tough battles against White Hollywood studio executives for the inclusion of authentic representations of Italian-Americans in his films and never shied away from issues of race and racial antagonisms in some of his finest works including, “The Godfather” films (1972-1990), “Apocalypse Now” (1979), and “The Cotton Club” (1984). That Sofia Coppola cannot display or continue the same moral and artistic courage as her father as it concerns racial representation in the cinematic art form raises doubts about whether she may really be the true gifted artist as the Best director award given to her at Cannes this year would seem to suggest. Instead she could be only a very talented filmmaker benefiting from the illustrious prestige of her father’s name with superfluous works given awards as a means of allowing a White male dominated industry to appear tolerate and inclusive of gender when in reality it is less than so. Where such criticism as this might seem rather severe we must keep in mind that several of Sofia Coppola’s contemporary female filmmakers like French filmmaker, Claire Denis (“White Material”-2009, “35 Shots of Rum”-2008) and Kathryn Bigelow (“Detroit”-2017) have not shied away from confronting issues of race, and their courageous efforts make Coppola’s reasoning for avoiding race appear hollow and disingenuous.

It could be true that the racial dishonesty of an honest White liberal female filmmaker like Sofia Coppola is compounded by the gender dishonesty of a White liberal Male controlled film industry. Sofia Coppola as a White female filmmaker who deliberately avoids issues of race in her films is caught in a double bind as a White female filmmaker working in an industry that rarely acknowledges the work of female directors and is controlled primarily by White men. But the real question is whether or not Sofia Coppola in removing the Black female character from her remake of “The Beguiled” is “picking her battles” so to speak within a White male controlled industry or displaying the lack of moral courage and artistic fortitude that I am suggesting?

I would fall on the side of a lack of moral courage in that her observation that the Black female character from the book was,” stereotypical,” shows that she recognized the problem but lacked the creative will and the artistic fortitude to reinvent that Black female character into something significant, unique and challenging to the stereotype rather than simply removing it to avoid the issue of race. Any potential charges of tokenism for having a single Black female character in a film surrounded by Whites could have been deterred by deliberately crafting the Black character in such a way that she could have been integral to the resolution of the plot and still retain control over her own destiny by surviving the circumstances of the story that is set during the Civil War. A war that itself was being fought for her freedom and the freedom of all Black Americans from the peculiar institution of slavery. More and more we find that dishonest White liberal filmmakers talk the talk of racial sensitivity, inclusiveness, and equality but cannot walk the walk of their own rhetoric because they lack the courage to challenge a White controlled system that they are benefiting from simply because they are White and not because they are truly non-bias, fearless, and artistically uncompromising.

Recall that Francis Coppola began shooting “The Godfather” under the threat that either he would be fired or that his star whom he had fought to cast in the film, Al Pacino, would be replaced by the studio executives.(9) White washing a cast because of financial concerns, a moral lack of courage, creative fatigue or any other sundry excuse is not the sign of a true artist in this our most expensive, powerful, and collaborative art form. To White wash a cast in the cinema is to support the fallacy of White supremacy and White moral superiority and to continue the travesty of systemic racism in an industry that would be more profitable, according to several recent surveys, if the casts for films were more diverse and racially inclusive.(10)

Silence will not protect us; silence is what they are attempting to use to erase us. Therefore speak as loudly as you can through your art and preach without preaching.

 

Andre Seewood is author of “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.

Notes

1) See: “Matt Damon Interrupts Successful Black Woman Filmmaker to Explain Diversity to Her” by Kara Brown http://jezebel.com/matt-damon-interrupts-successful-black-woman-filmmaker-1730553152

2) See: “Woody Allen Says He Won’t Hire Black Actor Unless the Role Calls for One… Whatever That Means” by Sergio Mims https://cms.shadowandact.com/woody-allen-says-he-wont-hire-a-black-actor-unless-the-role-calls-for-one-whatever-that-means/

3) See: “The Coen Brothers Don’t Understand Questions About Diversity in Film” by Kevin O’Keeffe https://mic.com/articles/134465/the-coen-brothers-don-t-understand-questions-about-diversity-in-film#.2WH9GrIPc

4) See: “Ridley Scott’s Explanation for Whitewashing His Exodus Movie is Infuriating” by David Dennis Jr. https://medium.com/@DavidDWrites/ridley-scotts-explanation-for-whitewashing-his-exodus-movie-is-infuriating-8d36bd555ada

5) See: “Sofia Coppola Admits She Erased Black Women From Her New Confederacy Movie” by Isha Aran http://fusion.kinja.com/sofia-coppola-admits-she-erased-black-women-from-her-ne-1796220408

6) Op. Cit.

7) For a discussion of the conflict between White Male sexual experience and White female chastity read,” Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality” by Johnathan Ned Katz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001.

8) Op. Cit.

9) See pages 100-111 of The Godfather Legacy by Harlan Lebo, Fireside Books: New York. 2005.

10) See: 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/index.php/2017/02/new-2017-hollywood-diversity-report/

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

© 2022 Shadow & Act. All rights reserved.