Every year, there are a handful of films that go through the entire cycle of love-to-hate and every year we grumble about the problem as if it’s new. There are films that start with overwhelming enthusiasm from audiences, become the dominant figure of the awards season, then become the pariah of the moment. Sometimes, this is because there’s another film in the race that fits the underdog status more. Other times, we just get bored quickly. Whatever the case, the responses to this supposed backlash will always be the same: sneering at ‘outrage warriors’; claims it’s all being done in the name of clickbait; not so subtle baiting of those whose opinions fail to line up with theirs; and, of course, good old-fashioned Film Twitter riots (they’re like regular Twitter riots but with more esoteric gif choices).
We were all there when it happened to La La Land. I acutely remember the surprisingly potent fury some film critics displayed when it became clear that The Social Network was doomed to fail in the face of the juggernaut that preceded The King’s Speech. Part of me still gets testy thinking about that two-month period where we all feared The Revenant would take home the top prize. This year, the obvious central point for this ‘backlash’ is Martin McDonagh’s black comedy drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So far, it’s won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, the SAG Award for Best Acting Ensemble, and it’s landed seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I’m not here to talk about the very real problems many have had with the film. I still haven’t seen it and don’t feel entirely qualified to wade into the conversation on its handling of racism. What I do want to discuss is how we have framed the film as a subject of ‘backlash’ and why that narrative is faulty. This thing that we call ‘backlash’ in the context of both Oscar prognosticating and film criticism ignores swaths of context and makes villains where there are none.
Last year’s battle between La La Land and Moonlight is an excellent example of this in action. The dynamics were clear there and it was easy to differentiate between the scrappy underdog and the bombastic front-runner that embodied everything Hollywood loved about itself. The backlash there was less about the awards themselves than the optics at play. Moonlight actually did better with critics’ awards than La La Land, but such things don’t receive the public visibility that televised events like the Golden Globes and SAG Awards do. As well as being the seeming runaway train of the season, La La Land was what we expected a Best Picture winner to look like. It was a colourful musical about the magic of the movies: Of course it was going to win, and of course it was going to beat the quiet indie drama about the intersections of blackness, homosexuality, and poverty. Things like that make it all too simple for us to call heroes and villains in something that is ultimately quite daft. It’s by no means a worthless conversation to have, but once the season is over and the winners crowned, our anger tends to dissipate quickly.
Most awards contenders will have been viewed by the critics - or at least the American ones - weeks or even months before the film will open to the general public. A film like Three Billboards or Call Me By Your Name will be screened to a tiny percentage of viewers for its premiere. The latter made its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, close to a year before it opened wide to North American audiences. This means that, inevitably, the conversation around that film will be intensely limited but still mighty in its force. These are conversations that create buzz. The public may see them at this point, but once again, only in very small crowds. Even then, many festivals don’t offer screenings to general audiences, which narrows the scope even further.
You can see the entire cycle of a film’s critical standing in the space of a few weeks through nothing but the work of professional film critics. It’s part of the fun, but it also highlights a glaring issue within our industry. A handful of critics will see a film at, say, Toronto International Film Festival, and every headline about it you will see will creates a consensus based on those people. It’s easy to get excited about films in this setting. You’re surrounded by people who love the medium as much as you do, who write about it for a living, and who go into most of these movies totally cold. You’re also viewing these films with mostly white dudes.
Our field is struggling to diversify, particularly as pop culture and film writing gigs go the way of the dodo in the ‘pivot to video’ age. If you’re lucky enough to hold down steady work in this industry, getting to festival is its own feat. They cost money, they take time, and the travel is exhausting. I’m not in any danger of attending Cannes or Sundance any time soon, for example. I heard a lot of discussion from this year’s Sundance over how white the critics’ pool was, and there was much pushback from disabled critics over some of the ableist comments made by non-disabled critics in their reviews of Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. This has been part of what has fuelled a lot of the narrative around Three Billboards being a supposed victim of ‘backlash’. It’s mostly been white men whining about how unfair the conversation has been, or white critics pointing to black critics who did like the movie and trying to make a generalization about it. Those who didn’t have access to festivals didn’t get to be part of that initial conversation that kickstarted the film’s chronicle. Now they’re here, and their crucial points are dismissed by those who created the initial narrative as ‘backlash’. It’s easier to pretend that people have something against the film than accept how deeply flawed our current system is.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not the victim of backlash. A bunch of people saw it, then more people saw it, and those waves continued until the conversation evolved beyond a few pithy headlines about dead cert winners. This awards season has been way too interesting to dismiss as a black and white conversation about backlash. As always, film criticism is more enjoyable and enriching when we listen to voices different from our own.