When Politics Engulfs Criticism: do we over-account for political messaging in cinema?

By Lorenzo Benitez

Among my favorite arts critics is Armond White, currently a writer for the National Review and Out, whose compelling, albeit controversial, voice is uniquely situated amidst contemporary film criticism. Most infamous for writing the first negative review of Toy Story 3 to appear on Rotten Tomatoes, White has, over the years, accumulated his own fair share of critics. For instance, White was temporarily banned from the popular reviews aggregator, allegedly because of populist furor over his stubborn contrarianism—note, for example, that he also ecstatically appraised Adam Sandler’s 2011 comedy Jack and Jill, an undeniable box office flop, as a work “rooted in Jewish comics’ proverbial self-deprecation.” White has been publicly named and criticized by directors such as Darren Aronofsky, who he has rightly labelled a filmmaker “specializ[ing] in specious deep thoughts.”

More recently, White has attracted controversy for the conservatism of his writing: this year, in his review of Battle of the Sexes, he described in no uncertain terms how the film “epitomizes Hollywood’s Left-warped, identity-politics reduction of what is human,” because its singular feminist agenda “neglects to offer a humanely balanced portrait of the players.” While this kind of social conservatism is unsurprising from a writer for the National Review, what ultimately is surprising is the identity of Armond White: a black, gay, conservative Christian living in the city attacked by Ted Cruz for its “New York values.” Indeed, White’s identity doesn’t conform to the neat, political assumption currently being drawn between social liberalism and people of color, the coastal states, and LGBTQ community. As an outspoken critic who, despite his political conservatism, has no qualms leveraging his identity to critique the implications of identity politics, White should be credited for his brave resistance to a regrettable, accelerating trend in conversations about art.

As of late, I’ve noticed an increasing tendency among art critics to evaluate the significance and achievement of a work based on its artistic character rather than its artistic merit. Nowhere is this as pronounced as in criticism directed toward the moving image: the most ubiquitous, capitalized, and consumed of contemporary entertainment. Take 2016’s The Birth of a Nation, which was met with significant acclaim at its Sundance premiere that year, earning not only the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for the U.S. Drama category, but also a $17.5 million acquisition, the festival’s highest to-date. At its premiere, the film was rapturously applauded and given a standing ovation before it even screened, presumably on the merits of its noble political messaging, and was promptly lauded by most outlets afterwards.

However, it wasn’t long before the positive conversations about the film swiftly dissipated after it resurfaced that its director, Nate Parker, was alleged to have committed sexual assault. Parker was accused of raping a fellow college student in 1999, and soon afterwards, the sycophantic acclaim for the film’s message retreated as quickly as it materialized. While one cannot discount the seriousness of this allegation–it is certainly not grounds to continue supporting the film–the swiftness of public condemnation reveals how little else supported Birth besides its director’s identity. Unlike other films directed by men such as Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, whose alleged sexual predation complicate receptions of their admittedly-good films, little else appears to justify the merit of The Birth of a Nation besides its director’s favorable politics. And once that identity was jeopardized, so too was the film in its entirety.

Angelina Shi.png
Art by Angelina Shi

As you might expect, critics who refused to be swept up in the praise include Armond White. Lamenting its “Hollywood-style and Obama-era egotism,” White’s review described how Birth, as an “angry, naïve epic … Lack[s] both radical form and revolutionary content.” While I don’t agree with many of White’s final artistic assessments, I can’t help but feel an inkling of agreement with his bold categorization of Birth as a “mediocre race film.” Initially touted as a potential Oscar contender, the film was forgotten by the cultural zeitgeist because of its director’s morally-dubious history and perhaps because of the deserved acclaim re-directed toward that same year’s Moonlight, a film whose artistic merit matches, if not surpasses, its political contribution to our understanding of the intersection of race and sexuality.

Identity politics as it intersects with criticism of the arts has been a troublesome topic as of late. When it came to my attention that gay Quebecois lmmaker Xavier Dolan, whose films feature many characters who struggle with the social conditioning against their sexuality, doesn’t like his films being labelled as “gay films,” I couldn’t help but be enthused by the extent to which fellow, minority-identifying creatives would rather the artistic bar not be condescendingly lowered especially for them. Indeed, Dolan’s statement appears to stem from a desire to have his works assessed foremost according to their strengths as pieces of cinema, and secondarily, if ever, for their socially-liberal politics. It’s an attitude worth supporting for its ability to attend to the difficult intricacies of those films whose reception conflates agreeable artistic motivations with commendable artistic execution. As a socially-liberal filmmaker, having good intentions is perhaps the “easiest part.” Representing these same views with the rich, affecting nuance of the moving image is far more difficult. This affective nuance is the ultimate comparative advantage a creative medium holds over the sterile intellectualization of academic theory, even as many directors seek to inform their creativity with the latest in academia.

As a filmmaker myself, I’ve recently assumed the belief that what ought to be embraced about the distinct mediums are their unique abilities to conjure universal reactions from the particulars of their content. Following from this line of thought, that which differentiates the artistic mediums in aggregate from other forms of communication is their ability to imbue abstract, intellectual theories with the emotional significance necessary to actualize tangible change. Remember, for example, the significant pathos Moonlight charged our intrapersonal and collective understandings of being a black, gay man. However, the increasing critical tendency to elevate the political implications of a work as a more relevant consideration than creative merit risks ignoring that which truly ensures a work’s lasting potency. Instead, many appear to now favor those sinecure films capitalizing on favorable timing within the current political climate. If we consume art foremost for its agreeable political messaging, why not just read an academic article advancing a similar line of thought: not only will you find a more robust, rigorous account, but so too will you find a work whose political directedness leaves less ambiguity to the subjective interpretation inherent to art. Say what you will about The Avengers director Joss Whedon, but, in reference to political didacticism in art, he valuably remarked that “art isn’t your pet–it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” Indeed, the tight equivalency being drawn between art and artist is something we ought to be cautioned against.

Admittedly, all human creation, especially art, is situated amidst a context of constantly-shifting social relations, and therefore can never be drained of its political implications. After all, anything that critiques its own relation to society is, according to many cultural theorists, political. The artistic mediation of certain content variably affects its messaging, correspondingly affecting its political immediacy. However, while the extent to which we should account for political messaging in art remains subject to further debate, as of right now it appears our tendency to account for it has become overextended. After all, if everything is political, then so too is how a message is communicated, in addition to what that message is. While the increasing fetishization of political liberalism in contemporary American cinema more than acknowledges the latter, we thankfully have figures like White who’re eager to defend the predominant significance of the former.

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