We Are Only as Good as Our Critics: Prioritizing Cultural Critics of Color
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With the rise of stories by and for people of color, how will philanthropy and Hollywood support these cultural tastemakers?
By Elizabeth Méndez Berry
Black stories matter.
That essential idea from Jamil Smith’s essay about Marvel’s Black Panther captures how intertwined storytelling and social change can be, and why this superhero movie is not just another comic book flick.
“Black Panther is poised to prove to Hollywood that African‑American narratives have the power to generate profits from all audiences,” Smith writes in TIME magazine’s February 2018 cover story. “And, more important, that making movies about Black lives is part of showing that they matter […].” Black Panther is emblematic of the most productive responses to bigotry: rather than going for hearts and minds of racists, it celebrates what those who choose to prohibit equal representation and rights are ignoring, willfully or not.”
If Black stories matter, Black critics have to matter too. Criticism helps make meaning out of culture—it unravels Wakanda’s wonders‑ and challenges us to become active audiences instead of passive observers.
Smith’s article is part of a renaissance of critical writing in response to this game‑changing film. An exhilarating national conversation about race, gender, and colonialism is happening right now because of two things: the power of the film, and the power of its critics. That conversation is more nuanced, respectful and politically relevant than most beltway debates.
Critics, specifically Black critics, are building on the film’s thematic and aesthetic richness, which, as noted in Carvell Wallace’s excellent essay in The New York Times Magazine, presents the rare story that gloriously centers Black people without centering stereotypical representations of Black pain. When an important work is met with thoughtful, engaged criticism, it gains depth and traction. And in a time when each potent piece of criticism reverberates as never before—shared, liked, and commented about on Twitter and Facebook—decolonizing criticism offers real opportunities to shift cultural discourse. The critics don’t necessarily agree in their analysis of this celebrated film—in fact, a few despise it— but they agree that it’s worthy of consideration.
Or take Pixar’s latest blockbuster animated film Coco, which offers an example of a missed opportunity. In a time of attacks on Latinx communities generally and Mexican immigrants specifically, Coco is the balm: a beautiful, exuberant movie about the magic of Mexican culture and the importance of family.
Star Gael Garcia Bernal knew why it mattered, saying, “I want to dedicate this film to all the children who have ancestors from Mexico and Latin America. These kids are growing up with a lot of fear because the established narrative says that they come from families that come from rapists, murderers, and drug traffickers. We are such a complex and profound culture, and these kids need to be empowered to stand up and say that what is being said about them is a complete lie.” The story affected audiences both here and in Mexico, where it became the country’s highest grossing movie of all time.
But there’s a difference between market share and power. U.S. Latinxs, who represent 18 percent of the American population and purchase 23 percent of movie tickets, are still not in a position to define the discourse about their culture. When Coco was released, not one of the first reviews appearing in major outlets was written by a Latinx critic. In response, Remezcla, an influential online outlet beloved by Latinx millennials, made a brilliant move. They hired five Latinx critics to review the film, proving that it’s not that they’re not out there; they’re just not getting the assignment.
Carlos Aguilar, one of Remezcla’s reviewers, wrote, “Like the dead in Coco, who can’t return home if they are forgotten, memories are the only thing that borders can’t prevent me from returning to.
Unable to travel to Mexico for over a decade now, I missed my grandmother’s funeral […] Coco is a bridge between those who are gone and those who remain, whether that means they’ve departed forever or just find themselves apart. It’s a bridge made of bright cempasúchil, centuries of hardship, economic migration, reconnections, newfound appreciation for the past, and culture depicted through animation. It’s a bridge between Mexicans and Mexican‑Americans, between relatives that never met because time or laws didn’t allow it, between English and Spanish, between rural Mexico and chilangos like me, and between Hollywood and Latinos.”
A film riddled with references to Mexican culture was largely evaluated by people unlikely to catch them. An opportunity for a rich, nuanced conversation about Mexican identity that didn’t center on crime or drugs, but instead on spirit and ancestry, was lost, as was the opportunity to debate Disney’s decision to put borders in the afterlife (much discussed on Twitter). This was striking given that part of what made the film so resonant was its willingness to engage the Mexican‑Americans who loudly critiqued it in the creative process after a major misstep. (Disney attempted to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos,” incensing many). Those critical voices—several of whom were brought on as consultants—played a huge role in making the finished product as pitch perfect as it was—but not in helping audiences understand it. This lack of bold, thoughtful public discourse said, “your culture is not worthy of serious consideration.”
We are only as good as our critics: that’s the guiding principle for those of us who believe that generative discourse and dissent play an essential role in our imagination ecology, as they do in a democracy (as a former critic myself, I’m a true believer). The critic provides cultural, political, and aesthetic context, and defends that which is deeply personal—taste—with actual analysis. The proliferation of writing about Black Panther is significant because the subject is so exceptional, and also because this amount of media real estate for critics of color is so rare.
We are only as good as our critics: that’s the guiding principle for those of us who believe that generative discourse and dissent play an essential role in our imagination ecology, as they do in a democracy.
If we have been made painfully aware of the lack of representation of people of color in the industries that tell us stories, we should also be aware of the lack of representation of people of color in the places where we make meaning of those stories.
Critical Minded: Philanthropy and Critics of Color Join Together
I’ve been watching the field for years, as a practitioner and as an observer, and it continues to be resoundingly monochromatic: the vast majority of full‑time critics at the few media outlets that still have them are white. This means that even as we are in the midst of a creative resurgence on TV and in film led by creators of color, there are few paid critics who have the cultural competencies to engage with the work on its own formal or political terms. Of course there are some white critics committed to non‑white aesthetics as well. But too often, cultural criticism acts as an enforcer of white aesthetic supremacy. The notion that only works emerging from European traditions are worthy of contemplation and celebration continues to shape what is covered, what is held up as exceptional, and what is rendered invisible. New York theater critics, for example, have played a key role in ensuring that “The Great White Way” that is Broadway has largely stayed that way.
For funders who are committed to supporting art by people of color because we believe that cultural power undergirds political power—and because we trust the radical imagination—that creates a problem. The lack of diversity in the field of cultural criticism often means that the artists we support get covered clumsily at best, or in cold blood at worst. Equally important, it also means that white artists are seldom examined by people who aren’t white.
The current clickbait media rewards simplistic, controversial “hot takes” that don’t help us move our culture towards equality or aesthetic excellence. Yes, there will be thousands of think pieces about the next Beyoncé album, but what about the many lesser‑known but worthy artists? How can we ensure that culture connects to communities in accessible, eloquent ways, that the conversation continues after the show? And how can artists grow without feedback?
As for the critics who stand poised to offer a richer discourse, how can they, too, have opportunities to grow in an ecosystem that may not value their work? Critics of color are confronting critical colonialism, working often on the margins, inventing new aesthetic vocabularies, challenging traditional canons and anointing new ones. While cultural criticism isn’t always limited to essay form—just ask the 280 character virtuosos of Twitter—placement and payment still matter. This writing is labor that deserves to be valued and compensated, and it’s worth noting that both Jamil Smith and Carvell Wallace are freelancers, not staff writers for any major media outlet.
There are a few funders who support individual critics (notably the Andy Warhol Foundation, which is the sole supporter of the Arts Writers Grant Program), but there’s been less investment in the ecosystem as a whole, and none that we know of with an explicitly racial justice lens. It’s for these reasons that the Nathan Cummings and Ford Foundations have begun an exploration called Critical Minded, with the goal of investing in cultural critics of color. In order to ensure that the field leads our strategy, we’re working with a multi‑generational group of advisors, all cultural critics themselves, including Eve Ewing,Hua Hsu, Margo Jefferson, Jessica Lynne, Carolina Miranda and Sukhdev Sandhu. And in December 2017, Nathan Cummings and Ford held a first‑of‑its‑kind convening with 48 critics of color representing places like Albuquerque, New Mexico and Columbus, Ohio, and outlets ranging from Pelican Bomb and Remezcla to the New Yorker.
With Critical Minded, our intention is to build a field conversation amongst funders and critics on how to maintain and support a thriving and inclusive critical landscape. We feel strongly that the way forward must emerge out of deep conversation with critics themselves, and should not focus on anointing the talented few but instead on supporting critical communities that enable people to do this work over time.
With Critical Minded, our intention is to build a field conversation amongst funders and critics on how to maintain and support a thriving and inclusive critical landscape.
Through these conversations, we’re hearing from artists that they’re frustrated by how their work is being covered, or just as important, not covered. We’re hearing from critics, young and post‑young, that they need mentors and editors to guide them in their writing and in their careers, particularly given the subtle and unsubtle racism they encounter too often at prominent publications and the economic challenges that POC‑led publications face. One of the young critics at Critical Minded, Max Durón, asked for advice on one thing: “How to not give up.”
The number one reason many talented critics of color are no longer working in the field is financial. As newspapers around the country gut their arts sections and alt weeklies (where legendary cultural critics like Ta‑Nehisi Coates and Jelani Cobb—whose piece on Black Panther is another bracing contribution—got their start) shrivel, fewer emerging artists of color will be discovered or properly covered.
As a result, the discourse is increasingly dominated by writers lucky enough to secure the rare media job, have academic perches, or who can afford to write for less. As we develop our strategy, the economics of cultural discourse will be front and center.
We’re looking to learn from other funders about interventions at both local and national levels that have worked, and we welcome other funders to join us in this learning process. When for‑profit newsrooms were no longer producing the type of content critical to a healthy democracy—investigative reporting, for example—a non‑profit journalism sector sprang up to fill the gap, with philanthropic support. We would argue that it is time to do the same to create a vibrant, sustainable and equitable cultural criticism sector. Funders may not have the resources to bankroll an entire social justice blockbuster, but they can afford to fortify the ecosystem of critics who eloquently engage with movies like Black Panther, dissect Hollywood drivel, or amplify a brilliant local poet.
Reshape relationships between critics of color, artists and the pop culture industry
Artists and the entertainment industry have a role to play as well: as long as dissenting voices are marginalized or censored, work suffers. But when robust dialogue is valued—even when it seems inconvenient to the bottom line—culture grows. Years ago, I wrote an essay about Jay‑Z in which I critiqued his use of communist icon Che Guevara’s image to sell smooth criminal capitalism. He read the essay—which was enthusiastically critical— and called me to say, “You write like I rap.” Inspired by my piece, he rewrote the song P.S.A. from his Black Album, resulting in the line “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex, I never claimed to have wings on” (but no royalties for me). At the time, a friend raced into my office at Vibe Magazine squealing, “You’re battling Jay‑Z!!!” And that’s what it was, in the best hip hop sense of the word: we were elevating each other’s game. I wrote another piece about the incident that is still one of my favorites, and in his 2010 book, Decoded, Jay‑Z chronicled it as well.
The stereotypical music critic has long been a specific kind of nerd. “It was basically the dominion of 38‑year‑old white men, who all agreed on the same canon of what was good and who was allowed to say what about what artists,” said Jessica Hopper, then editorial director of music at MTV News, in 2016. She had assembled a new squad of critics, which was probably the most ambitious, diverse team at a mainstream outlet ever; at one point it included Doreen St. Félix, Hanif Willis‑Abdurraqib, and Tirhakah Love as well as the two writers mentioned above. They produced vital, long‑form work that showed what critics of color could do with resources and access. That’s why it was heartbreaking to see Chance the Rapper’s response to a lukewarm MTV review of one of his shows: calling the article “offensive” he and his manager threatened to never work with the network again. As a result of that and a few other artist tantrums, MTV soon dismantled their extraordinary experiment. Several great writers were freelancing again and music criticism returned to stasis: largely mediocre writing by fawning white fanboys.
Hollywood must also rewire how it engages with critics of color. Studios, agents, and the gatekeepers of entertainment industry events—from movie premiers, to film festivals, to annual television convenings—where critics are audience’s representatives and interpreters, need to understand and validate the need for, and power of, cultural critics of color.
Get to know the archive as well as the present‑day voices outside the obvious outlets, and put them on the guest list. Isolating artists from incisive feedback by people who understand their creative lineage and are not on their payroll stunts growth. The notion of the solitary genius is nonsense: case studies of how potent criticism can propel artists’ development are worth sharing with artists and other participants in the creative process. Industry leaders can encourage artists to be interviewed by thoughtful critics who aren’t sycophants and make sure the quiet, compelling voices are at the advance screening. At their best, critics are defenders and advancers of culture, accountable to nobody but the audience and the muse. That’s what makes them great, and it’s also what makes them difficult, like the artists they are.
Culture cultivates intimacy. People connect to a favorite musician or movie in a way that they’ll never connect to a policy proposal. Cultural criticism is the mirror to the artist and their audience—it gives their work and our passions clarity, meaning, and momentum. It helps us understand why Black Panther was a top costume last Halloween, well before the movie opened.
In a time of fake news and real racism, the stakes are high for our communities. In these moments, there’s a strong impulse to close ranks and hush the dissenting voice, the contrarian. But the people who are willing to risk unpopularity to tell their truths or engage complexities are the people who propel us forward; whether we agree with them or not, they push us to dig deeper into our ideas, our culture, our imaginations. In Black Panther, a film that elegantly ducks the hero/ villain binary, the character of Killmonger has been a flashpoint: is he a revolutionary genius or a delusional imperialist, or both?
It has been thrilling to read the likes of Doreen St. Félix, Adam Serwer and Christopher Lebron debate whether, in the words of Audre Lorde, it is possible to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. St. Félix embraces the ambiguities. “A more censorious film—ruled by the politics of respectability, the impulse for narrative tidiness—would have shied away from such a fiendishly appealing villain, but Coogler knows that escapism is rarely so pure,” she writes. “The spectacle of Black adversaries, connected by continent and by blood, takes the film’s struggle to a deeper register.” That’s precisely what critical thinking about culture does.
Without critics, culture resonates. With critics, it sings.
Elizabeth Méndez Berry is the Director of Voice, Creativity and Culture at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Before working in philanthropy, she was an editor for Vibe Magazine and a professor of music criticism at NYU.