Thursday, May 30, 2019

Film Criticism Is Still a Boys Club?

Before I express how new findings on the lack of gender inclusion in film criticism have ticked me off again, let me promote the fact that director/producer/writer Ava DuVernay will own this weekend. Her new work, WHEN THEY SEE US, lands on Netflix May 31st. It takes us into the lives of the Black and Latino teens tagged by U.S. media as "The Central Park Five." Allegedly, they raped and beat a white female jogger in Central Park and did serious prison time for it. However, the press pretty much left out the words "allegedly" and "alleged" while covering the story, a story that made international headlines. In 2002, a known rapist/killer confessed to the crime. The Central Park Five, now grown men, were free. New York City never apologized. Neither did Donald Trump who, in 1989, took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the execution of the Black and Latino teens. Ava DuVernay directed and co-wrote this mini-series.
The Washington Post review calls it "a powerful, overdue telling of the injustices endured by the Central Park Five."

Critic Carla Renata wrote: "WHEN THEY SEE is excruciatingly hard to watch, but necessary. Hard to watch because it is yet another instance in which people of color in this country are continually victimized, polarized and disrespected....The cast is beyond stellar, but two performances permeated my mind well after the credits rolled -- Niecy Nash as Delores Wise and Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise."

Follow Carla Renata on Twitter @ TheCurvyCritic. Here's a trailer for WHEN THEY SEE US.

On Saturday, June 1st, Ava DuVernay is back on TCM in her current co-host spot with Ben Mankiewicz as they present "The Essentials." This weekend's pick from Ava is the 1961 classic WEST SIDE STORY. See Ava present it on TCM at 8p ET on Saturday.

I love WEST SIDE STORY. To me, the film is a work of art. True, neither Natalie Wood nor George Chakiris, both cast to play Puerto Ricans, were Latino but they were right for this project at that time. They help deliver what the film wants to say. If you watch it on Saturday, pay close attention to the blunt racism from the cop, Lieutenant Schrank (played by Simon Oakland). He's anti-immigrant and feels his police badge gives him the right to be racist towards Puerto Ricans. WEST SIDE STORY was released during the Civil Rights movement. Today, elements of it still feel timely.

In her closing cohost segment when she and Ben presented Vincente Minnelli's 1943 musical CABIN IN THE SKY, they addressed the outstanding Black talent in the film. Not just Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Ava also acknowledged the talented dancers, bit players and background actors. All of them would be frustrated by Hollywood's limitations when it came to hiring people of color and giving them upscale assignments to equal their skills. If you saw the superb Ken Burns documentary called JAZZ, you learned that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were musical geniuses of the 1920s who'd toured in Europe by the 1930s. Hollywood didn't start to treat them with that kind of respect until the 1950s. Ethel Waters had been a recording star since the 1920s and a Broadway star since the 1930s. She was in the original 1940s Broadway cast of CABIN IN THE SKY. After she recreated her Broadway role in the 1943 film adaptation, Hollywood didn't have another script opportunity for her until 1949's PINKY.

DuVernay mentioned that she's attended events to see talented white women like Cate Blanchett who got way more opportunities than extremely talented women of color. I know what she means. Rita Moreno is an example. Ms. Moreno won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for WEST SIDE STORY and then didn't have any Hollywood work for the next seven years. She turned to TV for steady employment and income. So did other women of color who got one Oscar nomination. Women such as Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, Rosie Perez, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe and Jennifer Hudson all have one Oscar nomination to their credits (so far). They too turned to TV for employment after that nomination because there were no Hollywood script offers. Viola Davis needed to turn to prime time TV after she got her historic second Oscar nomination. When Viola Davis received her third Oscar nomination, for FENCES, that made her the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in all Hollywood history.

Compare that to the rich Jennifer Lawrence, a talented white actress in her 20s, who has won a Best Actress Oscar and has a total of four Oscar nominations to her credit. She gets opportunities that actresses of color do not.

What Ava DuVernay said also applies to people of color in the film criticism and entertainment reporter business. It applies to female film critics.

A recent study sponsored by the CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF WOMEN IN TELEVISION AND FILM found that "men comprise 66% and women 34% of film reviewers working for print, broadcast and online outlets in the U.S."

This aggravates me because, as a Black man, I know how that exclusion feels. It's high time we call people out on it. I started my professional broadcast TV career as a weekly film critic and entertainment contributor on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate in 1980. I did that for four years until I got a job offer from New York City. I reviewed movies on-camera on the ABC affiliate and I also did print reviews for local publications. In New York City, from 1987 to 1990, I was a daily veejay on VH1 and had my own weeknight celebrity talk show. In the 1990s, I accepted offers from local NYC morning news programs to be a regular contributor. I always felt an invisible wall go up when I wanted to do film reviews. Keep in mind that, from my youth in Los Angeles to my many years in New York, I never saw a person of color on national TV as a weekly film critic. Never.

From 1993 to 2006, I consistently got these questions from white broadcast producers and executives when I sought to do film reviews:

a) Do you know anything about movies?
b) Have you ever done any entertainment pieces?

None of them had ever looked at my demo reel or read my resume/bio before asking me those questions. Here's a short look at some of my work before the year 2000 when I got an entertainment editor spot on an ABC News network production.
I pushed and pushed to get an audition for the ABC News job as a film reviewer in 2000. There was reluctance to give me a shot.  A network producer asked "Do you know anything about movies?" I pushed my way into the job. Here's a clip.
What pissed me off about that question is that white network producers and TV executives did not see me, a Black man, as someone who'd have knowledge of new and classic films. Those opportunities did not come my way easily and frequently in New York City. Ben Lyons, the young son of movie critic Jeff Lyons, got a national TV job as half a movie critic duo. He and Ben Mankiewicz were on the 2008 syndicated weekly show, AT THE MOVIES. It was another film review show with two white men. I could never score an audition for a gig like that. Ben Lyons was born when I was the weekly film critic on WISN TV in Milwaukee.

In my New York years, I saw and met many men and women of color who were film critics and they expressed the same frustrations. Film criticism, especially on TV news programs and syndicated shows, seemed to be the exclusive province of white males regardless of their experience and knowledge.  TV producers and executives knew that we Black critics existed and they knew we were available for hiring but they only tapped us to come on TV and talk for these occasions:

a) Black History Month
b) When a Black celebrity died or got jail time
c) To discuss diversity issues.

I did a pilot for a film review/interview show back in 2012. I was booked and auditions were held for my Black cohost. A top PBS station was interested in seeing our pilot. I auditioned with a Black woman who not only reviewed film but taught film at Vassar. She was absolutely fabulous.  I wanted her as my cohost. However, the TV exec who wanted to see our project said that we had to have a male duo. I fought him on that point. I said,  "Name how many Black women you've ever seen on TV as film critics." We tried to make a racial breakthrough in film criticism on TV with that pilot, but then we crashed into a wall of sexism.

Our pilot project did not get picked up.

In the late 90s, I had a local nighttime cable talk show in New York.  One episode was devoted to film talk. I told my producer that I wanted race and gender diversity in my group of film critics. And I got it. It can be done. Here's an example.

People of color and women of all colors need to find the names of those who do the hiring. Find the names of those producers or executives who hire and book film critics/entertainment reporters to be on the air. Ask them why their hires and why their bookings are so, if you will, segregated.

I will close by high recommending a radio show that champions race and gender diversity every Friday. The NPR-related station is KPCC out of Southern California. It's a news/talk station that has a weekday show called AIRTALK with a terrific host named Larry Mantle. The last hour of every Friday show is called FilmWeek. This hour starts at 11:00am PST. It is one hour of lively knowledgeable, non-snarky film reviews and discussions with noted male, female, Caucasian, Black, Latino, Asian-American film critics. It is thrilling to hear and it is proof of what I wrote earlier -- it can be done.

FilmWeek usually airs live on Fridays at 11am California time. Due to special programming, it will air at Noon only on Friday, May 31st.

You can find AIRTALK with FilmWeek hosted by Larry Mantle on the KPCC website. Just go here:

Representation matters.

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