The first time I attended a press screening — an early, private presentation of a film for critics and journalists — it felt like I was crashing an exclusive gathering I wasn’t supposed to witness. I was a 20-something DREAMer who had just qualified for a work permit through DACA; I had a community college education and worked part time at a fast food restaurant.
“Someone is going to ask me what I’m doing here,” I thought.
That was about eight years ago, when I replied to a Craigslist ad seeking writers for a small but established-enough outlet to be on the public relations and studio lists that grant some legitimacy. As someone without a car in Los Angeles, accepting the assignment from an independent publication required a long trip to Beverly Hills. I’d watch a new movie, write about it, and get published, but I wouldn’t get paid. (Many sites can only offer access and a platform. You get to hone your skills and make contacts writing for them, but income has to come from elsewhere.)
At that point in my life, my immigration status had made attending film school financially unfeasible. Writing about movies seemed like an opportunity to not let that dream completely vanish. But I had no connections in media; like me, all of the people in my immediate circle were working-class Latinos. The classified call for writers was an entry point, or so it seemed, to a profession that could often carry the air of elitism.
A self-taught, undocumented Latino for whom English is a second language isn’t the prototype of a critic in this country. Though I still didn’t see myself as a “critic,” I was doing something I never thought I could. That was enough, for a while.
But eventually, as this unpaid side gig took over more of my time, it felt like being begrudgingly invited to dinner at a large mansion and seated far from the table where the guests of honor sit. At this imaginary dinner, there’s room for plenty to come in, but once inside, not everyone’s voice breaks through the main hall. Hierarchies apply.
According to a 2018 study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that looked at the gender, race, and ethnicity of critics reviewing 100 top domestic films of 2017 — nearly 20,000 reviews in all — 82 percent of the critics were white (non-Hispanic) and nearly 78 percent were male. And nearly 90 percent of those considered “top critics” were white.
Critic jobs are so scarce and so sought after, those who are fortunate enough to land one tend to keep it as long as possible, which means the statistics likely haven’t changed much even five years after the Annenberg report, particularly when looking at staff positions.
“Technically, anyone could be a critic, but not everyone could be a critic,” freelance film critic and writer Robert Daniels told me by phone from Chicago.
The internet has democratized the sharing of opinions on any given cultural work. Virtually anyone can express their perspectives on art via Twitter, Letterboxd, Medium, Substack, their own website, or any number of other forums. The question now isn’t so much who gets to be a critic, but rather which critics among a roaring choir of ideas will have an impact on the larger cultural conversation.
Though he has found success as a freelancer with bylines at big-name outlets, Daniels, who is Black, started his career by launching a self-run website: 812 Film Reviews. As he points out, staff writers at those big-name outlets are predominantly white, and since major films are rarely assigned to freelancers, the initial consensus about a film comes from those reviewers on staff. Having his own outlet allows him to weigh in, too.
Jose Solís, a gay Latinx critic with a strong presence in the New York theater scene, is even more blunt about the state of modern criticism: “White men and white women who went to private schools and who are upper-middle-class or higher are the ones who get to be critics,” he says.
Now, many are discussing the effects the homogeneity among critics can have on not only the arts but also on popular culture itself.
In a 2019 piece for the New York Times about white critics in the fine art world, Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang wrote that the gaze that has been the standard when evaluating art can carry ingrained negative biases. “When Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker described photographs by John Edmonds as ‘slang,’ some readers wondered if he did so only because the artist and his subjects were black,” they wrote.
Art critic Aruna D’Souza chimed in: “The problem is not that these critics lack some essential connection with the work of artists of color. It’s that many of them simply are not familiar with the intellectual, conceptual and artistic ideas that underlie the work.”
Similarly, Dennis Harvey, a male film critic at Variety, came under fire in 2020 for what was perceived as a misogynistic perspective on the physique of actress Carey Mulligan in the Oscar-nominated film Promising Young Woman. (Variety apologized in an editor’s note, but Harvey later told the Guardian he was “appalled” by the accusation.)
A critic’s job is to assess a work of creativity, both its form and its relationship to the larger culture, with insight. Being a critic means having power — power to spearhead the chatter around a certain piece of art, its significance, and the prospects of its creator. So it’s crucial that the critical community reflects everyone who is part of the society consuming the work that is up for discussion.
The responsibility for bridging the gaps in access to critical power falls on editors, especially those at legacy publications, who must be proactive in extending invitations to fresh voices. Offering opportunities can have a ripple effect on the larger pool of critics. For starters, it instantly infuses a site’s roster with a wider range of viewpoints. In the best of outcomes, perhaps some of those freelancers may eventually become permanent staffers.
Naveen Kumar, a freelancer and the associate director of the National Critics Institute, a program intended to help critics develop their skills, says some critics have managed to amass a fan base they can take wherever they go. But achieving an editorial voice and finding a following is difficult without the credibility of an established publication behind you. There’s no clear path to the highest echelon.
“The publication itself lends the writer some credibility, so if you [are not a well-known] name, that platform is very meaningful,” Kumar said. It’s a symbiotic relationship where the outlet helps the critic be recognized, but you first need to be in those pages to benefit from the exposure. And to get there, you first need to have achieved enough to get on the editor’s radar. These caveats often play against underrepresented groups, and in turn affect how we talk about the things we see on screens, in galleries, and on theater stages.
For Kumar, when the demographics of critics are narrow, so too are the conversations they generate. In a field conventionally dominated by white, cisgender male voices, he believes there are limitations in terms of what they see and the value system at play when they write criticism. If the range of voices featured were to expand, we’d get more in-depth and dynamic exchanges.
“That’s not to say a white critic can’t see a movie by a Black filmmaker and understand it or speak insightfully about it, but a Black critic is going to bring a different lens, a different set of experiences, and different value judgments that will illuminate different things for different readers,” Kumar added. “The same goes the other way around: People from marginalized identities have very particular viewpoints on dominant culture.”
And if the assessments come from a nearly homogeneous subset of the population, that most certainly affects which art becomes part of the celebrated canon and what fades into obscurity.
For Daniels, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is an example of how the predominantly white critical gaze almost exclusively shapes the discussions around a film. In this instance, it painted the film as unworthy of more profound examination.
Released in 2000, Bamboozled is, ironically, a satire about a Black television writer dealing with racism in the workplace who accidentally achieves success for a show that amplifies hateful stereotypes. Back then, white critics were dismissive of its tone and provocative ideas.
“New Line faces a challenge in marketing a tough film that is not vital enough to generate extensive debate and not entertaining enough to draw large audiences, black or white, to theaters,” critic Emanuel Levy wrote for Variety.
In his review at USA Today, Mike Clark referred to Bamboozled as “visually drab and ultimately done in by a heavy-handedness no prettier to ponder.”
At the Village Voice, Amy Taubin called it “a seriously schizophrenic work made up of two incompatible movies.”
But when the film hit streaming platforms in 2020 after being unavailable for years, it prompted a reassessment that included a wider range of critical voices. In a new review, current Vanity Fair critic K. Austin Collins, viewing the film in a fresh light, called it “audacious, vibrant, unsurprisingly maligned but frequently brilliant.”
Jourdain Searles, a prominent freelance film critic and one of the hosts of Netflix’s YouTube show Black Film School, believes the significance of certain titles is always measured against the narrow curiosity of white critics for stories outside their comfort zone.
“I have a big grudge against Precious,” Searles said, offering Lee Daniels’s 2009 film as an example. “And a lot of it has to do with what is considered to be authentic and important, and that’s often defined by white people.” For Searles, Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned, released the same year, is a more incisive film about Black womanhood but was ignored in comparison to Daniels’s Oscar-winning effort.
No doubt more Black critics should have a say in the appreciation of Black-centered works, but to simply see more Black critics covering Black films as a solution is reductive. The same goes for any other marginalized group that’s pigeonholed into writing solely about content that directly speaks to their sexual orientation or racial, ethnic, or gender identity.
Writers of color consequently face a complex challenge: Strike a balance between championing talent or narratives from specific communities while pushing to be seen as capable of tackling any topic. Opportunities to nab a seat at criticism’s exclusive table tend to come when there’s a need or desire to fill in the establishment’s blind spots, which means writing about subjects that no one on staff is either interested in or qualified to comment on.
“I don’t know if the pool of critics will ever feel fully reflective of the world. I just don’t know,” said Roxana Hadadi, a film critic of Iranian descent who has faced her own share of situations in which access has come with her background as a caveat. Other critics don’t have to ponder whether they landed an assignment because their insight is valuable or because they might check a specific box or fill a diversity quota.
Reformatting the systems that determine who gets to be a critic with a meaningful presence will take more than just one-off displays — but at least the one-offs reveal an interest on the institutions’ part, however forced or sincere, to enact change.
Film festivals such as Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival (partnered with Rotten Tomatoes and other organizations) have developed inclusion initiatives to help critics from underrepresented backgrounds attend these marquee events, pursue coverage on the ground, and hopefully make connections that lead to better-paid work and further exposure. Yet the long-term effects of these undertakings are yet to be seen.
Projects with similar aims include the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Ruth Batchelor Scholarship, which targets aspiring critics at community or junior colleges as a way to address the disparity that comes from an educational standpoint. Motivated by his less-than-welcoming personal encounters in theater, Solís launched a BIPOC Critics Lab with few resources but support from fellow critics. A version of his intensive program was recently held through the Kennedy Center.
Thinking back on my improbable path as a film critic and writer, I realize that I started out without real aspirations. I never expected to make it this far. In conversations with other critics of color, a common trend that arose is that most of us, for a long time, thought that being a critic was far-fetched.
There was no precedent for me, as for countless others, in criticism. Irrationally, I decided to keep at it for as long as I could financially, fully aware it may lead nowhere.
Some days, it still feels that way.
Carlos Aguilar is a freelance film critic. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, the New York Times, the Wrap, IndieWire, Vulture, and RogerEbert.com, among others. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.