Representation: cinema’s new culture war?

Saturday 2 November, 14:0015:30, Cinema 2Arts and culture

The debate about how films should ‘represent’ the world has become a recurring one in recent years. The 2019 Oscars were a case in point, with Spike Lee criticising Best Picture winner Green Book for poor representation: ‘It’s like Driving Miss Daisy, they just changed the driving positions.’ Debates are ongoing about colourism, where black actors like Will Smith and Zoe Saldana are accused of taking roles playing characters with a darker skin colour than theirs. Likewise, Scarlett Johansson – already in hot water for being cast in roles playing both a Japanese anime character and then a transgender man – was subject to widespread criticism for stating that she ‘should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal’.

For many, film is an industry particularly dominated by white men and their intellectual preoccupations. It is also an industry marked by accusations of abusive or exploitative behaviour. In this light, it seems especially important to ask questions about how representative films and the film industry are. For many, the fact that an increasing number of major films are concerned with the experiences of women, people of colour, and LGBT people is something to be celebrated. Hollywood, it seems, is finally speaking a broader, more inclusive language.

But what underlies the ‘duty’ for film to represent an ever-wider array of voices? Most commonly, activists argue that it is important for people to see themselves ‘represented’ as it provides artistic recognition of their ‘lived experience’. For critics, this line of argument leads film in a parochial and short-sighted direction, undermining the possibility that film could represent the world in a universalist way. Others suggest that increased representation is not about having ‘me’ recognised on screen, but about wanting to tell a greater variety of stories and do artistic justice to the full richness of human experience. But some are concerned that this focus on representation is crowding out precisely these concerns about artistic merit: films are to be judged not on ‘artistic’ concerns but representational ones. Indeed, assessing representation has led to a focus on concerns beyond the film itself.

Whatever the arguments, the demands of representation are certainly changing the ways films and TV shows are made. Applicants to the British Film Institute (BFI) film funds are asked to demonstrate how their project contributes to reducing underrepresentation in the film industry in four areas: on-screen, creative leadership, industry access and training opportunities, and distribution and exhibition strategies. Judging panels for the British Independent film awards are being trained in unconscious bias, examining, among other things, ‘whether assumptions are made about films directed by women or telling stories focusing on women’ and ‘whether stories that do not reflect voters’ own experience are given less weight in voting and deliberation’.

Does film have a duty to represent and reflect society? Is the desire to reflect minority experiences and individuals a noble one that not only gives voice to a wider degree of human experiences but may even change attitudes, too? Is there a danger that the prescriptive demands made by cultural bodies will limit artistic expression? What, if anything, is wrong with people celebrating having their particular experiences represented on screen? Are other artistic or universal truths lost in the focus on representation, or should we reject the claim that we can’t achieve all these ends at once?