Musings: Criterion Collection’s Lack of Black Directors…

Is this news? Are we surprised by this?! NO…but should it be rectified ASAP (and have they been made aware previously)? Hell yeah. SMH

So the Twitter-verse lit up earlier this week after The New York Times published an article about Criterion Collection’s lack of diversity, in particular the lack of African-American directors in its collection of over 1,000 disc/Blu-rays. Of the over 400 directors whose works are included, only 4 are African-American (Charles Burnett, William Greaves, Spike Lee and Oscar Micheaux…and only four more black directors from outside the U.S.). To compound the problem, only 2% are Latino and 7% women.

As a huge fan of art-house/indie/international films, I get a lot of use out of my Criterion Channel subscription (Criterion Collection’s sister streaming company). But I am highly disappointed with Criterion Collection’s willful ignorance when it comes to a lack of diversity. Criterion Channel is doing a slightly better job of diversifying their portfolio but it’s still heavily skewed white-male-directors-from-the-Western-world (after the death of George Floyd, the streamer added its “Black Lives” collection…as did a lot of brands and streamers in light of the unrest, but that’s a conversation for another day). In the article, Peter Becker, the President and Creative Lead of the privately held company said something along the lines of it being much more costly and time-intensive to get the rights for physical reproductions of the films as opposed to the streaming rights. Sure, as an attorney in this industry I am aware of the differences in costs, but at the end of the day, it’s just an excuse. WE ARE TIRED OF THE EXCUSES.

But this problem isn’t just with Criterion Collection…it’s Hollywood and creative industries in general. Artists of color and females get short shrift in terms of getting their due and accolades. And we’ve been saying this for years…this frustration isn’t new. There is so much great work out in the world that is being overlooked and discounted because its not “what we’re used to or familiar with” or its not a box-office hit. But Criterion is supposed to be the one to rectify that problem…to highlight and spotlight works that are critically and culturally acclaimed…but they are failing at that mission.  This is why we need more film critics, distributors, executives of diverse backgrounds. Representation matters…if you are just surrounded by white males and their viewpoints and their opinions and tastes, you’re going to miss out on the beauty and creativity of the individuals who don’t fit into your familiar box. Echo chambers are bad.

This need to diversity those around you and what you are exposed to was highlighted in Becker’s reaction to watching Julie Dash‘s (a black female director) “Daughters of the Dust” (1991), which is a beautiful look at Gullah culture and life on the islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia (being from SC, I’m am somewhat familiar with Gullah culture and its strong roots and ties to their cultural heritage). He said, “I didn’t understand what I was looking at…and I wasn’t talking with people who were going to help me [understand it].” Shit, I don’t understand a lot of French New Wave cinema and Godard but I understand its cultural significance and importance in the film world overall.

We need to do a better job of understanding and recognizing the cultural impact and significance of works by POCs and women. The Criterion Collection is seen as the “golden standard” — something every director aspires to when it comes to film — but when we overlook and ignore these brilliant, telling working by these underrepresented groups, we are essentially saying that their works are “less than,” not as good and unworthy. But that is far from the case! This collection is also used in many film schools and the void when it comes to black directors is just perpetuating the problem we’ve had in the industry from the very beginning. Black filmmakers have been around from the beginning…but most people are ignorant to that fact because that history is conveniently left out. It’s time to change that!

We all have “blind spots” that we must work on. As human beings we must actively work to surround ourselves with all types of people and works and not just stick only to what we know…that would lead to a very boring life/world. Becker says the company plans to work on rectifying this problem (now that they’ve been called out in a very public way…it’s hard to hide from social media) by assembling a “curatorial advisory group” and hiring more black employees (there are currently none at the leadership level…surprise, surprise). We’ll I’m raising my hand to help out Mr. Becker, just shoot me a message! Let’s make the Criterion Collection live up to its mission.

In the meantime, its up to you and me to spread the word and show the world that the works from POC and women and any and all underrepresented groups is relevant, significant and worthy of being seen…we see you!

***My “watch list” is ever growing and like I said earlier, even I have “blind spots” so please leave a comment below with some recommendations on filmmakers or films I must see and review! Thanks in advance!