The White Guy Problem in Canon

Writing on the problem any canon of art has regarding dominance by white guys is about as startling of a topic as discussing the idea puppies are cute. It’s pretty obvious to those who take even slight notice of it. But it’s still something thatr inspires feelings and requires a bit of discussion.

The root of my need to bring this up comes from looking back at 1999. Indisputably, 1999 is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, years in cinema history. It’s all to wall classics. The problem? It’s almost completely devoid of any movies directed by women or POC in the list of films we recall. Indian M. Night Shyamalan and Cuban Eduardo Sanchez are the only POC directors in the top 50 highest grossing films of the year.* Bronwen Hughes was the only woman in the top 50. All three directed films focused largely on white men.

That isn’t to say there weren’t films by POC/women that year. Kimberly Peirce directed Hilary Swank to a best actress Oscar for (the incredibly problematic) Boys Don’t Cry. Rick Famuyiwa and Malcolm D. Lee had enduring films with The Wood and The Best Man. Spike Lee released the highly divisive Summer of Sam this year. These films have their fans. They’re just not in the standard canon.

I keep thinking about this frustrating paradox. I know the movies of the year truly are great. I really could program an amazing festival just drawing from these releases. But at the same time I have to admit there is a serious problem in the sad truth that these movies are profoundly white movies. I can’t fully venerate a canon that’s this lacking in diversity.

This isn’t a problem limited to 1999. Or the 1990s. Or the last 50 years. Or to film. It’s a problem that permeates the canon of all art. White men have traditionally dominated storytelling in the west and there’s sadly little signs of that changing here.

What really has started to bother me is how prevalent this is in what gets declared classics because it reflects what we value in our culture. Stop and think about the movies hailed as “the greatest ever.” Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Gone With the Wind celebrate rich people, no matter the morality of them. Schindler’s List celebrates the kindness of white people saving a group in peril. The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about how strong and cool a white guy is told through a black man’s eyes. I’m not trashing these movies. In fact I think the vast majority deserve their status. But they’re white as hell.

We’re really drawn to that pernicious trope: the white POV. Dances With Wolves was hailed for its tale of a white guy turned awesome Indian and won Oscars. Glory told a vital story of black men through a white guy’s eyes, though the Academy in its intelligence rewarded Denzel Washington for it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a film of racial strife from a young white girl’s eyes. Mississippi Burning and The Help both focused the Civil Rights movement through white eyes. All were acclaimed films.

And even when we do get stories focused on POC, it’s frustrating how often we get them from white artists. Clint Eastwood directed Letters From Iwo Jima, one of the only WWII films told from the Japanese perspective ever to get a wide release. The film of Alice Walker’s classic black feminist novel The Color Purple was directed by Stephen Spielberg. Tina Turner and Ray Charles’ biopics came via white directors. I could keep going.

Doubling back to 1999, it’s important for me to note The Wood and The Best Man actually made more money than many films that are hailed as classic. Both outgrossed Being John Malkovich, Bringing Out the Dead, Election, Go, and Magnolia. I’m not saying they’re better films, of course. They do have fans, which is why it was funny when white media was blindsided when The Best Man’s sequel was a huge hit.

As a result, we have to concede that there is a segregation within the canon. I suspect, nay I know, many of the films that POC audiences hail as greats aren’t the same as white audiences. Indeed I’ve been tipped off to a good number of films listening. And this makes sense. If the canon is so geared towards experiences of one group, why would we expect it to resonate with another?

I even have to confront had truths in my own canon. My own best of 1999 list was devoid of any films directed by women or POC. My favorite films list? Mostly directed by white men with zero WOC directed films. The average best of the year list for me is the same sadly. I internalize these standards the same way anybody else does.

So what am I to think after all of this? My eternal goal is to stay aware of these issues. I know that I’m prone to these prejudices as a student of western standards of art. But I’m not okay with this. And I’m not willing to be okay with it.

What I can do is try my best to broaden my perspectives. When I can, I’ll watch films that aren’t the same old white guy POV. I likely need to double back and see The Wood since I loved Dope. I need to seek out films by women of color. This requires stretching myself and opening myself to ideas that challenge me. But it’s the only way to progress.

*Pokemon: The First Movie was directed by a Japanese man. It’s your call as to if a toy commercial counts.

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