Elizabeth Banks: Wrong on Spielberg, Wrong on Diversity

Elizabeth Banks at a “Women for Hillary” event in Los Angeles, June 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Blake)
Plenty of his films have been about women, but artists aren’t under any obligation to check the identity-politics boxes.

Is Steven Spielberg under some kind of moral or political obligation to make movies about women? The question arose last week when the actress and director Elizabeth Banks inexplicably blasted Spielberg while accepting one of those hooray-for-women honors (the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards — don’t worry, I’ve never heard of them either).

“I went to Indiana Jones and Jaws and every movie Steven Spielberg ever made, and by the way, he’s never made a movie with a female lead,” Banks said, bizarrely, adding, “Sorry, Steven. I don’t mean to call your ass out, but it’s true.”

Spielberg must have been gobsmacked. He gave Banks a key break in her career when he cast her in a small but attention-grabbing part in Catch Me if You Can in 2002. And, in fact, the first piece Spielberg ever directed that got anyone’s attention was an episode in the TV series The Night Gallery, a successor to The Twilight Zone, in which a wealthy blind woman (played by Joan Crawford) buys a poor man’s eyes, knowing that her vision will last only for a few hours. (Twist! We’re in New York City, and the great blackout of 1965 descends at the moment she gains the power to see.) Spielberg’s first film for U.S. theatrical release, The Sugarland Express, was about a woman played by Goldie Hawn who contrives to kidnap her own son. His latest film, The B.F.G., is told from the point of view of a little girl. In between, Spielberg made The Color Purple (1985), in which all three of the protagonists are women and all three actresses playing them received Oscar nominations, and Always (1989), in which Holly Hunter plays a pilot dealing with the death of her boyfriend.

Banks was corrected as she spoke when someone called out The Color Purple, but she blithered on anyway, asking, “He directed?” Banks’s knowledge of her own industry (she directed Pitch Perfect 2) is in question.

Banks later apologized, in strange terms: “I framed my comments inaccurately.” But her mangling of facts isn’t important. What’s important is her mangled assumptions. Demographic diversity simply isn’t applicable to artists. Banks might have cited Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick as her example and been correct on the surface — no film directed by either of these men is primarily about a woman. But it doesn’t matter because they aren’t politicians. They’re artists.

The audience isn’t a constituency they need to reflect or to whom they need to appeal in their work. It isn’t their job to represent every group. Art is notable, in fact, for its spectacularly unrepresentative character. Let’s consider Kubrick’s oeuvre: From 1960, his films were about a gladiator, a pervert, a crazy general, a crazy computer, a crazy hooligan, a con man, a crazy writer, a crazy Marine, and a sexually crazed husband. This is hardly a reasonable cross-section of society. It isn’t meant to be. At no point in the creative life of Stanley Kubrick did he think, Wait a minute, am I giving everyone out there a protagonist they can demographically identify with? Kubrick, like many artists, was drawn to extremes. If even half of his cinematic basket of deplorables had been women, the cry would have gone up: Kubrick keeps making movies about awful women. Why is he such a misogynist?

Artists pursue whatever their interests and obsessions might be, wherever they might lead them. Checking all of the boxes on the census is not the goal.

Considering how many films Steven Spielberg has made, a small proportion of them have been about women. But he is under no more moral obligation to feature female protagonists than Spike Lee is obligated to make films about white people or Woody Allen to make movies about farmers. Artists pursue whatever their interests and obsessions might be, wherever they might lead them. Checking all of the boxes on the census is not the goal. “Diversity” is not the goal.

And if Spielberg made The Color Purple today, what would happen? Why, that would be termed a grievous act of cultural appropriation. What right does a rich white straight man have to make a movie about poor black southern women? Why, we would be asked from a thousand corners, wasn’t Ava duVernay (the most prominent black female director) given this opportunity? Once you start reducing art to the bean-counting imperatives of identity politics, you go down the rabbit hole. The only reality you can count on is that no matter what you do, someone is going to “call your ass out” for it.


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Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.


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