How to Improve Film and TV Criticism

Kelly Marie Tran attends the premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in Los Angeles, December 16, 2019. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)
Start by abandoning the quantitative obsession with minority 'representation.'

Marissa Martinelli has a peculiar criticism of the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise. The first sentence in her essay on the film reads: “Kelly Marie Tran has one minute and 16 seconds of screen time as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and no one has yet produced a convincing explanation for why that’s the case.”

I have “a convincing explanation for why that’s the case.” Kelly Marie Tran has one minute and 16 seconds of screen time because she has neither more nor less than that. Martinelli’s complaint leaves the moral demand unspoken in her opening, assuming, as she obviously does, that it must be self-evident that the actress should have more screen time than she does.

Why? Martinelli does not really answer that. She notes that Tran “was the first woman of color to play a leading role in a Star Wars movie” and adds that Tran’s lack of additional time on screen is “bad for The Rise of Skywalker and the trilogy as a whole.” This, too, is presented as though it were self-evident: If some Tran is good, then more is better. Instead of giving any serious consideration to the narrative role of Tran’s character in the film, Martinelli instead works to establish if the actress was “deliberately sidelined,” i.e. whether this defect represents oversight or malevolence.

The issue of “representation” — nose-counting how many seconds of screen time are dedicated to actors who are female, black, Asian, Latino, gay, transgender, disabled, etc. — has come to dominate American film and television criticism to a remarkable degree. Martinelli’s absurd quantification-first approach to writing about film obviously did not strike her editors at Slate as peculiar, and it isn’t. It is the new normal, although the question of “representation” is generally approached in a less robustly empirical fashion.

(Maybe it should be more empirical; more about that at the end.)

Professional writing about the television series Mad Men, for example, was in large part focused on whether the story arcs of certain female characters were being presented in a way that furthered feminist interests; less attention was given to the issue of race in that grand social narrative of the 1960s, but it commanded many critics’ attention as well. The series’s acting and writing, and the great deficiencies of these, were given relatively little attention.

In the very different world of Game of Thrones, the gruesome murder of one character was greeted with especial horror by critics such as Slate’s Inkoo Kang, who lamented that the death “was particularly disappointing to viewers who’d grown attached to the show’s sole prominent woman of color.” Nathalie Emmanuel, the actress who played the character, gave the usual hostage-video statement, sitting for an interview with Vanity Fair that offered a reminder of why actors speak lines written by other people:

“It’s safe to say that Game of Thrones has been under criticism for their lack of representation, and the truth of it is that Missandei and Grey Worm have represented so many people because there’s only two of them,” she said. “So this is a conversation going forward about when you’re casting shows like this, that you are inclusive in your casting. I knew what it meant that she was there, I know what it means that I am existing in the spaces that I am because when I was growing up, I didn’t see people like me, but it wasn’t until she was gone that I really felt what it really, truly meant until I saw the outcry and outpouring of love and outrage and upset about it, I really understood what it meant. . . . The anger about it speaks to that conversation of why representation matters. So much responsibility falls on these two characters because it’s only them, but if we were more generally inclusive, that probably won’t be as prevalent.”

Similar lines of criticism were directed at shows such as Breaking Bad — “Why does everybody hate the wife? Why are all the criminals in this Latin American drug syndicate Latino?” — and at films such as Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy, in which Zoe Saldana was forced to reckon with the “reality of being an actress of color in today’s Hollywood” in roles in which she was blue and green, respectively.

God help the gender-fluid woman cast as a lesbian character.

In fact, it is difficult to find film and television criticism being written today that does not put the question of “representation” at the center of the discussion, with aesthetic and literary considerations given attention that is for the most part scanty, clumsy, and illiterate.

So maybe Marissa Martinelli is on to something. Hear me out.

This is a problem with a technical solution. The film and television business are heavily unionized and regimented, and it would not be terribly difficult to give every actor working in mainstream film and television an intersectionality score (i) on, say, a 100-point scale ranging from Matt Damon to . . . whoever is the dead opposite of Matt Damon. (We could even assign negative scores to Jon Hamm and Chris Pratt.) From there, it would be relatively easy to develop an artificial-intelligence tool to scan every major piece of commercial film and television, automatically tally up how many minutes of screen time (t) each actor has, and produce a score relative to total running time (r) — something simple like (i*t) ÷ r — adding up the scores for each of the actors (perhaps normalizing for cast size) to produce a cumulative quantitative judgment on the work as a whole.

Who needs film and television critics when AI can do the job?

Of course, the nation’s newly unemployed film and television critics would be forced to find some new useful occupation, if you’ll forgive my begging the question.

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