Stop Blaming History for Your All-White, All-Male Movie
Anna Paquin only has one line over three and a half hours in “The Irishman.”
When Martin Scorsese’s crime drama made the festival rounds last fall, critics and reporters took note, not just of the dearth of speaking time for Ms. Paquin, but the director’s male-heavy oeuvre as a whole. Mr. Scorsese, Deadline reported, dismissed the issue. The question was a “waste of everybody’s time,” he said, adding his films feature a female lead “if a story calls for a female lead.”
“The Irishman” is a historical drama spanning several decades beginning in the 1950s and follows the crime dealings of the World War II vet Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). It goes deep into the worlds of mob bosses, politicians and labor unions — which during those years were indeed predominantly male and white — with only brief detours into their domestic lives. To some extent, Mr. Scorsese has a point. But also: Why do so few of his films call for female leads?
When it comes to filmmakers guarding themselves against critiques for telling the same-old stories about white men, history is a powerful shield.
A quick glance at the best picture Oscar nominees reveals just how impenetrable that armor is: Of the nine films in this category, all but two spend the majority of their running times at least 39 years in the past. Each of these period pieces is overwhelmingly homogeneous when it comes to race, gender or both; the fact that they are set firmly in the past seemingly allows them to exist without much pushback.
"Ford v Ferarri,” for instance, is based on the true story of the rivalry between the rugged American car manufacturing behemoth and the Italian luxury carmaker during the 1960s. It’s the quintessential white “dad movie” — guys racing cars, guys talking about cars, guys arguing over cars. The only prominent woman in the film is a familiar biopic trope: Supportive Wife of Male Genius, as embodied by Mollie Miles (Caitriona Balfe).
In her Bloomberg review of “Ford v Ferrari,” the critic Hannah Elliott aptly observed that the few women onscreen “waft through the film like smoke.” She added, “The critique I heard most often about ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ could easily apply here: This is a film celebrating those nostalgic golden days when white men ruled.”
Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” inspired complaints about stories of white girlhood being privileged over black girlhood. One critic went so far as to suggest that this newest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel could have benefited from making all of the main characters people of color. (To Ms. Gerwig’s credit, black actors are visible as extras, and a couple of them have minor speaking roles.)
Of course, as with “The Irishman,” such critiques are inevitably deflected with a reality check rooted in “history.” It wouldn’t make sense to try to do the “all-black” version of “Little Women,” a story set against the backdrop of … the Civil War. At that point, it would cease to bear any true resemblance to “Little Women.”
Similarly, Sam Mendes’s World War I movie “1917” — widely considered the front-runner for best picture, and featuring one female character in one brief scene — can’t be expected to have diversity because women generally weren’t on the front lines, or so the argument goes.
Fair. The problem arises when this type of defense is used as a knee-jerk retort every time someone questions why a period piece is told as though women, people of color and others hardly existed. The British actor Laurence Fox recently remarked on the “oddness in the casting” of a Sikh character in “1917,” only to have historians point out that more than 130,000 Sikh men served in World War I.
And in the comments section for a Newsweek article critical of Ms. Elliott’s “Ford v Ferrari” review, a reader snarkily wondered what she makes of NASA during the John F. Kennedy era. “Our walking on the moon, the space race should all be forgotten because there were no women or people of color,” they wrote.
“Wrong. Black females put men into outer space,” someone responded.
Indeed — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA during the height of the space race, yet it wasn’t until the 2016 release of the aptly titled movie dramatization of their lives, “Hidden Figures,” that the women were given their due onscreen.
There are countless other examples of women, people of color and L.G.B.T.Q. people being erased or sidelined from historically based films. The 2008 film “21,” about a team of mostly Asian-American blackjack players, was cast with mostly white actors. Jennifer Connelly played Alicia Nash, the Salvadoran-American wife of John Forbes Nash Jr., in “A Beautiful Mind.” Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall” put a fictional, white cis gay man at the center of the famous riots where trans people of color like Marsha P. Johnson — who is given a supporting role in the film — were among those at the forefront.
In 2015, FiveThirtyEight reported that the ratio of male to female biopics “has consistently been around 3 to 1” since 1933. And “Hidden Figures” aside, it remains rare to see a biopic centered on a woman in STEM; when a real woman’s life is dramatized onscreen, it’s often that of an entertainer or romantic partner of a famous man.
This absence and distortion affects and reflects how history is remembered in fiction and off screen, helping to form sweeping and often inaccurate generalizations of what the “past” looked like. All-white period dramas set in Tudor England overshadow the scholarly research that has in recent years uncovered a significant African presence and integration into English life during this era. (And they were not all enslaved.)
Hollywood’s westerns popularized and cemented the image of the North American cowboy as white, and only white, through the likes of John Ford and John Wayne. Yet, as Leah Williams noted in The Atlantic, the earliest ranch owners and ranch hands were Spanish and Native American.
And even the most fantastical stories set in the past — those with dragons and other mystical creatures, say — are frequently depicted as being primarily or exclusively white and male. George R.R. Martin, the author of “Game of Thrones,” once responded to a fan’s criticism about the lack of diversity on the show, beginning with: “Westeros around 300 A.C. is nowhere near as diverse as 21st-century America, of course.”
Westeros is not a real place, of course.
Back to the best picture nominees: Very few viewers are clamoring for women and people of color to be inserted into such movies for the sake of “diversity.” Instead, the root of the criticisms of “The Irishman,” “1917” and the others like them for being so white and male seems to be a sense of weariness and boredom.
Why do the same stories about the same types of people keep getting made? Why is it so rare for genres — the biopic, the western, the gangster movie — to veer from the same subjects? As Sage Young wrote in an essay on the ill-served wife character in “Ford v Ferrari” for NBC News, 61 women have driven in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Where are their high-octane onscreen depictions?
The tide seems to be turning in some corners of Hollywood. Last year, the HBO series “Gentleman Jack” dramatized the life of Anne Lister, a 19th-century Englishwoman who courted women and was shrewd in business. British actors of color are finding more roles in period pieces, including David Oyelowo in last year’s PBS and BBC “Les Misérables” miniseries.
Yet there remains this pervasive assumption that the past was overwhelmingly white and male, and this blanket judgment gives filmmakers and Hollywood too-easy a pass. Not unlike our school textbooks, the movie industry cherry-picks from “history.” Certainly filmmakers should have the artistic freedom to make a movie about white men racing cars or white men in crime organizations. But let’s not pretend that this isn’t also a choice — a choice dictated not by the past, but by an erroneous (and perhaps unconscious) belief that white men have done the most and lived the most interesting lives of us all.
Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) is a staff editor and writer in the Opinion section, where she covers culture and society.