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Why Representation in Film Criticism Matters

Why Representation in Film Criticism Matters

Written by
Savine Wong
January 23rd, 2019

When it comes to representation in film, strides are being made. However, there is still a major lack of representation in film criticism in media outlets across Canada.

Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival audience

Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival audience. Photo by Mike Tjioe Photography.

Growing up in Canada, I rarely saw myself on screen. Cinemas often did not program films from Asia, and, even if they did, there was little coverage to get the word out and for me to hear about it. On top of that, with the lack of a diverse pool of film critics in the country, discussions around those films and the issues surrounding representation as a whole were muted at best. This is, unfortunately, still an issue today, and it’s problematic.

In the last couple years, with the popularity of films like Black Panther and Get Out, the movement to diversify the films we see on screen and increase representation of historically marginalized groups in the media began building momentum in North America. Last summer, films like Crazy Rich Asians firmly moved the dial forward and brought these issues to the forefront, garnering emotional responses from audiences everywhere who have finally seen their culture reflected on the screen for the first time.

A viral Twitter thread by Kimberly Yam, the editor of Asian Voices for HuffPost, summarized this sentiment perfectly. These tweets, which took us from the racist incidents in her childhood that caused her to reject her heritage—like being nine years old and having kids call her eyes an “ugly shape”—to her reclaiming and celebrating what she had once hated about herself, symbolized the impact the films had on the general audience.

Like Yam, many other men and women who were once ashamed of their heritage saw themselves in Crazy Rich Asians, helping them embrace and be proud of it. And community support for the film—the first by a major Hollywood studio to feature a primarily Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993—allowed it to take the number one spot at the box office on opening weekend, with an estimated 30 million dollars in ticket sales and a total box office of 238 million dollars as of December 2018.

While this particular movie has brought the representation conversation front and centre, progress has been happening, in front and behind the camera, over the last few years. Sandra Oh made history more than once this year as being the first woman of Asian descent in North America to receive an Emmy nomination for Best Leading Actress in a TV Drama for her role in Killing Eve, winning this and the Golden Globes in the same category—which made her the first Asian actor to win multiple Golden Globes—as well as being the first Asian to host a major awards show, the Golden Globes, alongside Andy Samberg. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, led by Vietnamese-American actress Lana Candor, was one of Netflix’s most re-watched movies, and its support from audiences is what pushed Netflix to greenlight its sequel. Cathy Yan, whose directorial debut Dead Pigs won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Acting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and the Fasken Martineau Best Feature Film Award at the 2018 Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, has been tapped to direct the Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment superhero movie Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn, starring and produced by Margot Robbie.

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With so much out there, reviews still act as a way for films, especially those with very little marketing spend, to break through the clutter.

The tide seems to be changing in the right direction.

However, the lack of representation in film criticism is still a sore point. A recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative showed that across 19,559 reviews of 2017’s top hundred American films, only 17.9 percent were authored by underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, with 13.8 percent by underrepresented males and 4.1 percent by underrepresented females. Of the total number individual film critics, 23.7 percent were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, broken down to 14.8 percent underrepresented males and 8.9 percent underrepresented females. More fascinating was that within the designation of “top critic” by Rotten Tomatoes, white male critics wrote top film reviews nearly twenty-seven times more than underrepresented female critics.

Clearly, a lot of work still needs to be done.

While one can argue that there is no correlation between Rotten Tomatoes scores and box office—and therefore the impact of film criticism as a whole on the industry may be minimal—overlooked is the role critics play on the discoverability of films. With so much out there, reviews still act as a way for films, especially those with very little marketing spend, to break through the clutter. They can also introduce audiences to stories from different regions, since critics can help expose the nuisances and history of different cultures, something that still is missing from films made in North America.

Press coverage is also an important strategy for films that travel to film festivals, providing further marketing support to create buzz and awareness with potential audiences as well as securing a distribution deal for the film. Searching, the debut feature of twenty-five-year-old director Aneesh Chaganty and the first mainstream contemporary thriller headlined by an Asian American, John Cho, premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Through the support of a brilliant press campaign, it was able to broker a five-million-dollar deal by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions the night of its premiere.

Another example is Thai director Nattiwut Poonpiriya’s second feature film Bad Genius. The highest-grossing Thai film in 2017, which won a record-breaking twelve categories at the 27th Suphannahong National Film Awards but did not have a distribution deal in place in Canada, would have been unseen by audiences in Toronto had we not invited it to be part of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival last year. While critics for mainstream outlets don’t tend to cover films part of smaller festivals like Reel Asian, Bad Genius did get some coverage in ethnic newspapers. That, with the targeted press and the buzz it generated, led to its sold-out screening and warm welcome from Toronto audiences.

Canada’s film critics as a whole still do not reflect our country’s makeup.

Canada’s film critics as a whole still do not reflect our country’s makeup. With the sheer number of films released in cinemas every year, reviewers have their hands full, and films made for or by underrepresented groups often go unnoticed. Even when films that are large blockbusters in Asia, such as Wolf Warrior 2, which shattered box office records in China in 2017, are brought to Toronto audiences by Cineplex, they end up playing to relatively empty houses—save for those dedicated to seeking this kind of content out.

For films in smaller festivals, like Reel Asian, which don’t typically get reviewed by mainstream media, staff and programming partners work extra hard to get the word out, finding unique angles to pitch to the media. Last year, in partnership with the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, we held a live laidō demonstration on Global TV’s morning show to promote the samurai film Blade of the Immortals.

Festivals that have strong supporters do benefit from some press coverage because of their connection to the community, but the individual films screened would greatly benefit from even bigger exposure. Having diverse critics write about these films would lead to larger conversations about the story being told and the themes presented.

This isn’t to say diverse critics should only review films from their own communities—or should be the only ones reviewing these films at all. Nor is the coverage necessary because diversity is the topic of the day. While the context and perspective from these critics can add more depth to a review, by hearing the thoughts and opinions from different sides—both underrepresented and not—the whole conversation surrounding a film is enriched, and audiences would have a greater opportunity to learn about other cultures and be reminded of our commonalities.

It’s clear that audiences are hungry to see films that reflect the realities of the world we live in, and critics play a big part in helping create the conversation to reach these audiences. Media outlets, especially those in the mainstream, need to find a way to make space for this type of content—not only because audiences crave it, but also because it will lead to a richer, more understanding world.

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