The release of Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The beguiled, by T.P. Cullinan (1966), has been met with some hostility due to its -shall I call it- bad optics: set in the South of the US during the civil war , it has an all-white cast, and not one black or mixed-race character (there was one black character in Don Siegel’s version, made in 1971.). Among others, The Guardian‘s Steve Rose accuses the director of whitewashing the Civil war, and leaving out what in his view, should have been included: Afro-American slaves’ plight and the brutality of war. This seems to obliterate any cinematic merits the film may have. The newspaper’s main film critic, Peter Bradshaw , praises the film’s script and acting.
Mr. Rose’s review reminded me of another film review on the same lines, again in The Guardian; it was about The revenant and struck me for its complete ignorance of what a western is. One of the paper’s female journalists had trashed the film because it had only two women among its characters, one of whom was killed, while the other was raped. Which is not so unlikely as the film is set in a place and at a time where violence was the norm and women were extremely few.
I had started drafting this post concentrating on the subject-matter, on some critics expecting films and series to be as diverse and p.c. as possible in order to make people more open-minded: I had written that Sofia Coppola’s all-white set of characters was as legitimate as the unexpectedly diverse one in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (which has more dark-skinned characters than you would expect in a tale set in Victorian Yorkshire). Trying to make every fictional world politically correct and checking it ticks all the diversity boxes (gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, shoe number) is stifling and pedantic, and I don’t think it works as a way to make people accept diversity. But then I realised that that’s not what matters most.
What matters most is that this is an ideological attitude which takes away creative freedom from film makers and screen writers, in exactly the same way as censorship does in a totalitarian regime: denying Sofia Coppola the right to make a film the way she chose to is exactly like attacking Bulgakov or Pasternak because The master and Margarita and Doctor Zhivago failed to conform to the party guidelines to Soviet literature.
In addition to that, I think it is fundamental to acknowledge that the work of human creativity, whether we call it “art” or not, can only be judged by the rules authors set or those they choose from their cultural context, not by any external criterion, ideological or otherwise. Oliver Twist is a weak novel – probably Dickens’s worst – not because the wicked Fagin is a Jew or because women are victimized, but because the novelist hadn’t yet learnt to rein in emotion in his prose. To tell the truth, Fagin is one of best things in the novel, together with his colleague in crime, Bill Sykes. I will add passingly that I found it sad that Roman Polansky chose to avoid mentioning Fagin’s religion in his film, although he let Ben Kingsley be attired in a recognisably Jewish style.
Although very few among contemporaries were concerned with Fagin’s jewishness, later in his career, Dickens seemed to decide he needed to atone for his malevolent portraying of it in Oliver Twist; in his last complete novel, Our Mutual friend, he created Mr Riah, an elderly rabbi who helps Lizzie Hexam. What he actually did, with both characters, was to show how non-christian people in Victorian England lived isolated lives, whether they were evil criminals, or good, altruistic people. Mr Riah is an example of how good intentions do not always result in good literature, being a rather weak figure that is not really justified by the developement of the plot.
Mr Riah and Lizzie, and Fagin in the condemned cell.
And this brings me to the next point: the desire to be correct and ethical on the part of a writer (or a screenwriter)often damages quality, especially in terms of consistency and credibility. Not always: in The legend of Tarzan the addition of a black companion to the usual set of characters works: George Washington Williams is a well devised figure, and Samuel L. Jackson does a very good job portraying him. But most of the times, when you try to make a story more appropriate and inclusive you end up with something unconvincing. Just think of Lagertha’s new companion in Vikings, season 4: after three seasons and a half as a straight woman – and one who can deal with bothersome men – Lagertha appears accompanied by a female lover, Astrid, for no reason at all. It is a big change, which should have been prepared someway. What is worse is that Astrid is -again-a weak and little -credible character, unlike most of the women in the show. She says she is dangerous, but that is all. Among shield maidens, healers and seeresses, Astrid seems an alien straight from a fashion show in the 70’s. Even if one may believe that Lagertha (or anyone) can suddenly discover she is bisexual, it is difficult to believe she could ever choose someone like that. But I suppose the writers thought that in a show with a lot of big men fighting, having intelligent, articulated women such as Lagertha, Siggi and Helga wasn’t enough. Hence, Astrid the Unlikely.
(The rights to the picture above belong to History Channel)
Considering how easy it is to get rid of a character in such a series, I hope her days are numbered.