Why The Rise Of Black Women Critics Is So Important

Let’s change the conversation

by Seren Sensei

Wonder Woman. Pitch Perfect 2. The Beguiled. What do all these films have in common? They all feature predominantly female casts. They were all directed by women. And they all recently came under fire for being examples of white feminism, wherein white women are deliberately centered rather than—and even at the expense of—women of color. Despite the fact that mainstream critics have raved about several of these "women-centric" films, many black women critics and other critics of color have questioned the use of racial stereotypes and lack of racial diversity in each; and as black women critics become more prominent in media, this is an issue that we will likely revisit again soon.

Wonder Woman has now raked in over $700 million at the box office and opened to fantastic reviews, but there was pushback against the lack of inclusion of women of color. Pitch Perfect 2 was another box office success, making over $200 million, but director Elizabeth Banks found herself in hot water after calling out Steven Spielberg for never directing a woman-centric movie—forgetting his seminal film adaptation of The Color Purple, which focused on black American women in the South. (This was a double whammy of foot-in-mouth syndrome because Pitch Perfect 2, despite its majority woman cast, was criticized for casual racism and use of racial stereotypes.) And most recently, The Beguiled whipped the internet into a frenzy when director Sofia Coppola admitted to cutting out canon black women characters from her Confederate period drama because she wanted to explore gender dynamics over racial ones. Much of the critique of these films came from women of color, especially black women writers and social media users. 

But in true internet fashion, there was pushback to the pushback. The Mary Sue ran an editorial stating that black women critiquing Banks' statements were missing the point, nitpicking over whether or not Spielberg had directed "one" movie featuring a woman lead. (They later issued an apology for misunderstanding the importance that The Color Purple had—and has—for black women.) Website Birth.Movies.Death also ran what amounted to a hand-wringing hit piece against the critique of white women filmmakers by overly sensitive black women, extensively quoting an article by Daily Beast staff writer Ira Madison III—who is black—that questioned the standards we hold white directors to as a whole, more or less reducing the critique to "don’t expect too much from white directors."

These arguments all feel like well-meaning cop-outs. White directors, women or otherwise, are cultural producers and therefore everything that they produce and create can, and should, be critiqued. But just as film, books, television, and other forms of mainstream media are historically dominated by white male viewpoints, the field of criticism has long been a white man’s game. One of the beauties of the internet has been its function as a great equalizer, enabling marginalized voices—including those of black women—to find new means of expression and wider audiences than ever before. What's colloquially known as "Black Twitter" has become a force to be reckoned with; platforms like podcasts, blogs, and YouTube channels have given rise to in-depth explorations of issues relating to race and social justice. Cultural critic and Twitter user extraordinaire @ReignOfApril is a prime example of how far this reach can go, as her hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which highlighted racial disparities in film’s most prestigious awards ceremony, led to a complete overhaul of the Academy's voting system and a landmark push to diversify its members. 

As more black women critics come into their own, and make their voices heard, we begin to increasingly see examples of stark contrasts between what white reviewers think (especially when it comes to white properties) and what black women reviewers think. What has resulted is a clash of the critics, with mainstream sites often having wildly varying views on material and several issuing apologies after tone-deaf reviews that took things like gender into account but not race. 

For a white critic—or even for a black male critic—Coppola's track record of six movies with strong women leads could outweigh Spielberg’s record of one movie with strong women leads. But for a black female critic, Spielberg’s track record of one movie with a complex and multifaceted black woman lead—and an entire supporting cast of black women characters—outweighs Coppola's track record of zero movies with women leads of color. We need diversity in critics because diverse viewers have diverse interests, and it’s up to critics to bring these issues into the larger conversation.

And not only does diverse criticism benefit tone-deaf white cultural producers, it also provides black artists with critique from people that actually understand their culture. The lack of diversity in critique has been a disservice to creators of color who often find their work bafflingly misunderstood, from restaurant critics to art and beyond. In a field that gives white creators far too much leeway and creators of color far too little, the rise of black women critics is a shift that will only benefit the entertainment industry—and its audience.