The Line Between Diversity and Quality

Can a film that doesn’t “get it right” still make a difference?

Earlier this week, The New Yorker posted one of my favorite pieces of film criticism from 2016. In the piece, author Vinson Cunningham compared Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation to other high-profile films about slavery to show why Parker’s film does not deserve special consideration for its ongoing controversy. The Birth of a Nation is little more than a Marvel movie with a slavery veneer, Cunningham argued, and our collective hand-wringing over its cultural significance does a disservice to other artists working today who speak with truly progressive voices.

Taken as a whole, the article is a near-seamless blend of historical context, cultural criticism, and film criticism, but there was one point that Cunningham made that gave me pause. In an attempt to draw attention to movies worth our consideration, Cunningham offers the following:

There are talented black filmmakers making movies today – Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins, to name a few – whose work addresses urgent material via genuinely original means. We do them and ourselves a disservice by lowering our expectations, and extending undue credit to bad art.

There’s an implicit notion here that it’s important to hold out for movies that “get it right.” And while Cunningham might only be referring to The Birth of a Nation given the issues surrounding director Nate Parker, the idea that a movie needs to “get it right” is worth exploring a little bit more. Since I’m about to try and make a pretty nuanced point, it might be a good idea to throw out a few caveats beforehand. This piece is not intended to be a defense of The Birth of a Nation — a film that I haven’t had a chance to see yet – nor is it me telling Cunningham or anyone else what types of films they should or should not support. I am only interested in one question: where is the line between diversity and quality?

Because so many filmmakers in Hollywood are white men, every film by a woman or a minority filmmaker takes on the added (and sometimes unwanted) element of cultural significance. Audiences and critics are forced to confront the film on two separate levels: whether or not the movie succeeds by itself, and whether or not the movie succeeds as a representation of the race or gender of the people who made it. You need look no further than this past month’s release of The Magnificent Seven to see the additional complexity that race added to the conversation. In her negative review of the film, for example, BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore offered the film as proof that studio executives did not understand that diversity “might mean something more than simply having characters of color show up.”

Sundance 2016: Birth of a Nation Reclaims That Title to Honor Nat Turner’s Rebellion

This can lead to an unfair playing field within an unfair playing field for minority filmmakers. Hollywood has been churning out mediocrity from white men since its earliest days as an industry, and many people don’t stop to question the relative merit of these films against the rest of the canon. A movie like The Magnificent Seven is undeniable progress – a western by a black filmmaker with a black lead – whose success could still be argued as a step in the right direction for representation as a whole. It may not be a great movie – and it certainly isn’t the definitive western about the black experience – but its commercial success helps nudge the door open a little wider the next time a young black writer or director tries to sell the studio on a genre film. We like to mark progress in Hollywood with big and bold movies, but sometimes, the bad and dumb ones change people’s minds just as quickly.

Without this latitude for mediocrity, you not only close the door on potential projects, you also make it more difficult for filmmakers to grow within the industry. A few months ago, the Los Angeles Times published an article on why the second film is the biggest hurdle to be overcome by new filmmakers. Author Rebecca Keegan spoke with several female filmmakers who have struggled to get a second project off the ground after their first opened to positive reviews; one of the points her article makes is that studios lack the imagination to see how a small film by female filmmakers or filmmakers of color can lead to bigger budget successes in the future. More midrange successes – even of genre fare with no pretensions of award season competition – can have a trickle down effect on the people studios hire to make these films. Dismissing these movies outright because they offer a flawed look at race can sometimes have us waiting for the perfect movie when there are plenty of smaller and less complex movies waiting to get made.

All of that being said, I can certainly see the other side of the issue as well. When you’ve spent a generation seeing yourself onscreen as little more than supporting roles in the adventures of white people, the half-baked characterization offered in movies like The Magnificent Seven can feel like a slap in the face. You don’t want Hollywood to settle for “close enough” when there are incredible storytellers just waiting for their chance to have their movie made. If there is a solution, then, it seems like something of the blended approach. Films should definitely strive to be prestige or A-list fare, but critics of middling movies like The Magnificent Seven might do well not to dismiss incremental change. It’s only with both that Hollywood’s outdated views on diversity will someday be eroded completely.