“People Did Things Differently Then…”

The journalist Catherine Shoard recently wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian in which she bemoans two things: 1) that our addiction to the digital world (social media, constant news, google etc) undermines our creativity, 2) that because we have become less creative we expect films to be more like our own lives and the contexts within which we live. Two interesting views worth exploring, unfortunately though, Shoard uses points 1) and 2) to back up a completely different and unrelated opinion: that it’s ok if women and people of colour are under-represented in films. What!?

The Bechdel Test and the Latif Test are two means of testing whether a film pays even a token nod towards inclusivity and diversity. The former concerns the representation of women on-screen and the latter people of colour. As Shoard points out five of the eight best-picture Oscar nominees for 2016 fail the Latif test. This isn’t good. Yet, Shoard argues, “sometimes to fail is more dignified than to triumph.” Following this useless aphorism she points out that three of the films are period pieces and the main action concerned did not really involve anyone but white men, so people should quit their whining. However, having just complained about modern audiences expecting films to be closer to real life because we all, apparently, lack imagination, she’s now defending movies that stick closer to the facts. This is what is known as a contradiction.

Shoard argues we shouldn’t try to rewrite history (another aphorism I’m getting very bored of) by adding women and people of colour into films about historical events that didn’t involve women and people of colour. If a bunch of white men did something amazing fifty or a hundred years ago then only a bunch of white, male actors should play those roles. She says we’re being overly sensitive if we expect the past not to insult the present yet she also acknowledges that this very same past has been invariably “cruel, unfair and imperialist.” It seems almost as if Shoard is trying to justify cinema’s reflection and repetition of this cruelty, unfairness and imperialism given that “people did things differently then” (trite aphorism number 3). Unfortunately, Shoard seems to be forgetting that ‘then’ – aka the past – wasn’t just populated by white men. In fact, I think there’s much evidence to suggest that women and people of colour existed in the past. And I imagine if they existed then they did things as well and I’m sure many of those things were great. Do you see where I’m going here?

We need more films like 12 Years A Slave, Suffragette, Pride, Made In Dagenham and The Danish Girl. Sure, all these films have their problems (e.g. apparently Emmeline Pankhurst was a notorious racist yet Suffragette glossed over all of this, including the contributions of women of colour to the suffrage movement) which is why we need more like them but better. We need more films that shine spotlights on new bits of history that haven’t been turned into films yet. This doesn’t mean rewriting history so as not to offend people it means highlighting the history that was never written about because history was so often documented by a bunch of supremacist bigots.

Shoard throws some more musings into the mix: that people like bungee jumping; that we’re addicted to social media;  that we like reading the news; that despite reading the news which is often about other people we struggle to relate to issues that aren’t about ourselves; that for some reason the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite signals the end of history (that’s at least the third time history has ended if we include the warnings of Fukuyama and the Mayans); we’re not very good at processing fiction – even though the majority of her article is about historical dramas (which are meant to be factual). In essence, this is a confused and quite boring article that poorly hides a justification of the white, male status quo. We’ve already got enough justifications of this we don’t need anymore.

Shoard’s final complaint is that modern audiences “just have to keep it real” but having read the article it’s hard to know what her definition of real is – is it the supposed ‘realness’ of a history written by the victors and conquistadors, is it the reality of sexism and racism still present in Hollywood, or is it the sort of real that demands we explore history’s little-written of stories helping to redress today’s maintained prejudices? I’m not sure Shoard would know the answer nor would it appear does Hollywood (see video below) but we’ll get there one Bechdel and Latif test-passing film at a time.