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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

as I’ve been saying: YES, the cultural context and content of a film MATTERS

At Jezebel’s The Muse, Rich Juzwiak is “Rethinking the Film Canon.” He starts like this:

In interviews, director Spike Lee often tells the story of the miseducation (or an attempt at one) that he received during his first year of graduate film school at NYU about the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. “They taught that [Nation director] D.W. Griffith is the father of the cinema,” he has recalled. “They talk about all the ‘innovations’—which he did. But they never really talked about the implications of Birth of a Nation, never really talked about how the film was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK.” He rebuked Nation’s racism directly in his freshman film project, The Answer, and it nearly got him kicked out of the school.

Nation, certainly, was trailblazing in its approach to long-form filmmaking during the medium’s infancy. Griffith helped invent film’s language, including the concept of parallel editing. Nonetheless, Lee’s professors’ focus on the film’s form and disregard of its politics—which portrays Black men (many played by white men in blackface) as savage threats to the sanctity of white womanhood and the Ku Klux Klan as a necessary corrective—bespeaks reverence to a “classic,” a film whose importance as art was allowed to supersede its content and real-life effects. According to Lee and several experts, the film inspired a Klan renaissance that led to lynchings.

I’ve been saying stuff like this — that all movies, not just “the canon,” are not only and maybe not even primarily about form but about cultural context, their content, and the real-life impact of their content — forever. And examining that has been my approach as a film critic pretty much since the beginning. And for my efforts, I’ve been told that this focus makes me a bad critic, that I’m doing it wrong, that I have an agenda, that I’m not “objective”… that objectivity, of course, merely the subjectivity of the straight white cis able-bodied men who dominate all aspects of the industry, and whose POV has come to be seen as neutral.

But hey, maybe now that a man is saying it, someone will listen?

To be clear, I’m not picking on Juzwiak: his piece is generally very good, and I do recommend you read the whole long thing. But he’s not saying anything that I and other non-white-male critics and culture watchers haven’t been saying for a very long time.


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