Weeks after her historic best director win for “The Beguiled” at the Cannes Film Festival, Sofia Coppola is facing backlash for her decision to omit people of color from the Civil War drama.
Set in the Confederate South, the much-anticipated film centers on the inhabitants of an all-girls school who take in, and are later seduced by, an injured Union soldier. The removal of two black characters from the original Thomas Cullinan novel — one of whom made it to Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation — was a conscious decision on the writer-director’s part.
“A lot of slaves had left at that time,” Coppola told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview. She later added, “I feel like you can’t show everyone’s perspective in a story.”
Coppola’s comments set social media ablaze, with a number of Twitter users pointing out the movie’s lack of intersectionality. In the interview, Coppola describes “The Beguiled” as a feminist film that focuses on an isolated group of women, “all living together, all different ages with different stages of maturity.” It highlights the gender-based power dynamics of the Confederacy, but opts out of exploring the racial context. Critics noted that it doesn’t tell the whole story if black women are left out of the narrative altogether, considering the role their labor played in the Southern social hierarchy at the time.
(Entertainment Weekly reports that “The Beguiled” was filmed on the same New Orleans plantation as much of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” an album praised for its depiction of black womanhood in the United States. Elle Fanning, who stars in the film, highlighted this connection in a controversial Instagram post with co-star Kirsten Dunst.)
Coppola argues that including the black character from the 1971 adaptation, a slave named Hallie, would have been a misstep.
“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way,” Coppola told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement. “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”
Hallie, depicted on-screen by Mae Mercer, takes care of the Union soldier, played by Clint Eastwood, as he recovers. Ira Madison III at The Daily Beast considers Hallie to be a “token black character,” one tasked with representing the hardships of slavery without being given an accurate, humanizing story line. He argues that from a present-day perspective, the portrayal of Hallie’s character in the romanticized 1971 film is “incredibly offensive.”
(Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which employed colorblind casting, has recently met with criticism for not sufficiently exploring the lives of its nonwhite characters.)
For the reasons Madison states, many defend Coppola’s decision to leave Hallie out of her adaptation. On Twitter, Madison suggested that it would be better to leave similar stories to black directors, who might have a stronger cultural connection to and understanding of the black characters’ lives. Coppola is known, after all, for romanticizing the lives of white, often rich women, and she noted in the BuzzFeed News interview that she’s attracted to “characters that I can relate to.”
This “whitewashed” approach echoes that of Coppola’s fifth feature, “The Bling Ring,” which tells the real-life story of a group of teenagers who stole more than $3 million worth of Hollywood celebrities’ belongings. One of the young women, according to Colorlines, was a Latina teenager named Diana Tamayo who was left out of Coppola’s movie, an action that went unnoticed by most.
But “The Beguiled” is held to a different standard, largely due to its historical setting. The narrative relies on the existence of slavery as an institution, and critics such as BuzzFeed News’ Alison Willmore have deemed it “willful blindness” to disregard the brutalities faced by the black community.
“[I]t’s so aggravating that Coppola, who also wrote the script, chose to excise race from a story built on a foundation of slavery, as if leaning directly into criticisms of her work as an apologist for the advantages her white protagonists enjoy,” Willmore states.
Without context, some argue that the omission of black characters translates to erasure. It’s a notion that was brought up after the initial success of Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” In a February column for The Hollywood Reporter, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar focuses on the mission of Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, to revitalize traditional jazz. It’s not that Sebastian should have instead been played by a black actor, Abdul-Jabbar argues, but rather that the movie’s only prominent black character, a musician played by John Legend, should not have been portrayed as an antagonist.
“No, I don’t think the film needs more black people,” Abdul-Jabbar states. “Writer-director Damien Chazelle should tell the story as he sees fits with whatever ethnic arrangement he desires. However, it is fair to question his color wheel when it involves certain historical elements — such as jazz.”
Coppola addressed critics in the BuzzFeed News interview, saying that she’d be open to exploring different kinds of stories in the future.
“I would love to have a more racially diverse cast whenever I can,” she said. “It didn’t work for this story, but of course I’m very open to stories about many different experiences and points of view.”