Those remarks and others have gotten the Coens pilloried, though they’ve made it clear in multiple interviews that they think it would be a great thing if more people got to make movies with a wider variety of perspectives informed by a greater range of life experiences.
But I found the Coens’ remarks clarifying in a very different way. It’s absolutely true that Hollywood studios make large numbers of movies about white men and women and expect those characters’ experiences to stand in for audiences’ lives in a way that is rarely true when a movie has a cast that is largely or entirely composed of people of color. But if we can’t stop Hollywood from making these movies, we can talk about them in a different way. Rather than bemoaning the lack of diversity in movies set in environments that are largely white and male, or that are intended to explore the behavior of white men, it’s time to start talking about how these films reflect on white people and whiteness, and to stop treating them as a proxy for all human experience.*
“Hail, Caesar!” is not about Minnesotans, though at least some of the members of its large cast of characters seem likely to be Jewish.
But it is definitely about white people: Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer and devout-to-the-point-of-annoying-his-confessor Catholic; Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a star coddled by his studio and grudgingly tolerated by his wife through his fits of dissolution; Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a star of cowboy movies who studio executives want to turn into a sophisticate; Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), an auteur who makes swish society pictures; DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Esther-Williams-style aquatic star whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy is making her mermaid tail tight; Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, in both cases), twin gossip columnists locked in a battle for readers; the members of the Future, a collective of Communist writers; and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a tap-dancing matinee idol who defects to the Soviet Union. The one exception is a Latina actress, Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), whose name is a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and whose signature move seems to be dancing with a lot of fruit on her head.
It would be a mistake to see the whiteness of “Hail, Caesar!” as a bug; it’s not just a feature, but part of the point. As Donald Bogle explores in “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood,” there was a brief window in the movie industry’s early history when black actors were able to carve out roles for themselves, but that period became an exception rather than an expanding rule. “Hail, Caesar!” isn’t explicitly a critique of Hollywood’s whiteness or the way the movie industry treated women. But it is a gentle exploration of how people working in a closed environment behave and how they relate to each other, and of what happens when someone who has lived in that closed system is exposed to new ideas that he finds invigorating.
“The Big Short,” Adam McKay’s savage comedy about the housing bubble and the financial crisis, operates in a similar way. It focuses narrowly on a small group of men who decided to short mortgage-backed securities in the conviction that a massive housing bubble was underway, and that bonds were being rated in a way that didn’t actually accord with the quality of the mortgages they were made up of.
There are female characters in “The Big Short,” including Kathy Tao (Adepero Oduye), a Morgan Stanley executive who is the company’s liaison to a small hedge fund run by Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), and characters of color, including Mr. Chau (Byron Mann), who runs a lucrative business in synthetic securities. But McKay said that he would have been uncomfortable adding female characters or characters of color where they didn’t exist in Michael Lewis’s book, from which “The Big Short” is adapted, and not simply because the movie strives for accuracy to the point that characters actually pause and tell the audience when they’re looking at moments of cinematic shorthand.
“If I was making ‘All The President’s Men,’ would you want me to have Nixon’s cabinet be really diverse? Because, like, you’re right. Part of the point of the movie is this is a white, male-dominated world, and maybe it shouldn’t be,” McKay told me. “So it felt, I just felt like no way, I’m not going to put women in these positions when a system was collapsing and they weren’t really in those positions.”
Having more women and people of color in “The Big Short” certainly would have made it a more diverse movie. But it might also have distracted from the fact that “The Big Short” is a story both about a specific group of white men and about an environment created and dominated by white men. It’s about what happens when white men build lucrative businesses rooted in lying to sex workers and immigrants; about the dash to the strip club after a big sale that obscures the precise implications of the deal; about the rush that comes with making a lot of money and the comedown when you realize that there are people who will suffer terribly because of the fortune you’re about to make.
I’m all for the idea that our movies would be better and more interesting if they exhibited more variety of every sort. But I also think our discussions about film would be more interesting and more productive if the observation that a movie is primarily about white men was the starting point for a conversation rather than the end.
The point of James Bond isn’t just that he’s a white man, but that he’s a very specific fantasy of post-Colonial British elegance and moral authority. The point of Jason Bourne isn’t just that the movie industry loves Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner, but that he’s a very particular way to express ethical concerns about American action abroad to the accompaniment of really cool fight choreography. The point of Iron Man isn’t that Tony Stark is yet another white superhero, but that he’s an example of the sexy alpha geek who has emerged as a new masculine ideal.
The cure for movies about white men isn’t just more movies about everyone else. It’s to talk about these films as if they represent and reflect back on no more — but also no less — than simply the characters they put on screen. Movies about women and people of color have been discussed this way for decades. Turnabout would get us a little closer to equality.
*In a similar way, I’d vastly prefer that films by women and people of color be given the freedom to be about their creators’ specific experiences, rather than homogenized to the point that it doesn’t matter who the characters are.