On Sofia Coppola and the Whitewashing Controversy of 'The Beguiled'

Thebeguiled

Sofia Coppola has taken heat this week for her representation issues in her newest film. Looks like we’ve all got some reading to do.

While Sofia Coppola has always been something of a divisive figure among cinephiles — her films can be read as empowering or privileged, progressive or myopic — this past week has resisted all attempts to create any kind of narrative cohesion around The Beguiled, her latest film. The Beguiled comes to theaters next week riding a wave of critical praise and a slew of allegations of whitewashing; the director’s widely circulated comments about removing a slave character from her film have caught fire, and some of the biggest names in film criticism have weighed in with their own perspective on Coppola’s film. And while I have yet to see The Beguiled, the issues being raised on both sides of the argument are interesting enough to merit their own exploration of the film’s alleged whitewashing.

Wait? Are we really doing this? Are you just going to let me weigh in on a diversity controversy about a movie I just admitted I haven’t seen? Worse, you’re asking for a dude’s opinion about a movie written by, directed by, and primarily starring women? And given that the controversy is about the excising of a person of color, you’re not even going to seek out any of the dozens of talented and non-white writers who can provide first-hand insight into the film? Damn. That’s just not going to cut it in this situation.

Why not start with Alison Willmore’s BuzzFeed article on the erasure of slavery in the film, which provided a sort-of mainstream jumping off point for the debate? Plenty of the people I follow on social media had pointed out their problems with The Beguiled far before Willmore’s piece was published — Valerie Complex, a recent guest on the After the Credits podcast, has been particularly outspoken about what she perceives as the failings of the film — but Willmore’s argument in BuzzFeed was likely to reach far more readers than many smaller film sites or outlets. Responding directly to Coppola’s comments in a BuzzFeed interview that she removed a black character because she felt unprepared to deal with the issue of slavery, Willmore responds by pointing out that “slavery already exists in the film, whether [Coppola] chooses to put it onscreen directly or not.” Willmore’s piece is an important reminder that the omission of representation can be just as damaging as representation done poorly, especially in a film about the American Civil War.

Or how about Ira Madison’s absolutely fascinating piece in The Daily Beast, where Madison discusses the double-edged sword of asking a filmmaker like Coppola to keep a black character in the screenplay. As Madison points out, Coppola is — and is allowed to be — both an impactful filmmaker and someone whose stories don’t exhibit the ability to accurately or truthfully capture diversity. “She’s damned if she includes a slave character and produces a demeaning portrayal of a black woman,” Madison writes, “but she’s damned if she decides to excise that character altogether as well.” From Madison’s perspective, the onus isn’t on filmmakers like Coppola or the Coen Brothers to write more inclusively but to act as champions for the next generation of diverse filmmakers. It’s a challenging and thoughtful piece that carefully balances both sides of a polarizing argument.

You might also read Inkoo Kang’s treatise at MTV about Coppola’s Lost in Translation and why that film offers a more troublesome take on Japanese culture than many critics originally pointed out. “More insulting is the dismissal of contemporary Japanese culture as imitative and clueless,” Kang argues, “as parroting American culture without realizing what the words mean or why they’re impactful.” I was absolutely enamored with Lost in Translation when it was first released and have seen it a handful of times since, but admittedly, it’s been five or six years since I last saw the film and many of the examples of casual racism pointed out by Kang had been completely wallpapered over in my memory. We’re meant to sympathize with the aging star or the young ingenue, but millions of people who saw the movie only saw themselves represented in one-dimensional stereotypes. Kang’s piece is another welcome reminder that film criticism is a balancing act between the personal and the objective, and one we could all stand to calibrate from time-to-time.

And on, and on, and on. Listen, I’m not telling you to love or hate The Beguiled, but it’s extremely important that you be able to understand why others might have very valuable reasons for doing so. You know I haven’t seen the film. Even if I had, without any knowledge of the original novel and the 1971 film adaptation, I wouldn’t have been able to weigh in on the absence of something I didn’t know existed in the first place. This isn’t to say that familiarity with the source material is the most important element of film criticism — please don’t let that be your only takeaway — but that this variety of perspectives is what makes film criticism so great. Even the most damning articles about The Beguiled still find positives to highlight in the film, though anyone who advocates for intersectional feminism might question how far her appeal to feminism actually travels. I’m still excited to see The Beguiled and ready for the challenge it presents, but when I go looking for articles to help me think deeper about the film, I promise you they won’t be by people who think exactly like me. I should hope you’ll take the opportunity to challenge yourself, too.

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.