TIFF Diversifies Film Critics, but Who Will Hire Them?
One empty chair on a platform

One empty chair on a platform

Illustration: Alanna Rizza

The Oscars are still too male-centric and white, but so are movie critics. That’s why the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and other major movie fests are making strides by inviting a greater number of reviewers from underrepresented communities to their events.

Three months ago, TIFF and Sundance Film Festival announced plans to allocate 20 percent of all press–accreditation badges to underrepresented journalists.

“In order to bring previously marginalized stories to greater public awareness, we need a media corps that reflects the filmmaking community it covers,” Andrea Grau, Vice President, Public Relations, and Corporate Affairs TIFF, says in an email. “Individual experiences and perspectives play a role in how media receive and review films. Everyone benefits from a more diverse group of people watching and critiquing films.”

The announcement came shortly after American actress Brie Larson mentioned a report, “Critics Choice,” in her acceptance speech for the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film at the Women in Film Los Angeles Crystal + Lucy Awards.

The report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative—a think tank studying diversity and inclusion in entertainment—found that of Rotten Tomatoes’ top 100 grossing films of 2017, only 22.2 percent of 19,559 reviews were written by women, 18 percent of which were from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Grau says media feedback on the initiative has been positive: “There were an additional 185 underrepresented journalists that attended TIFF,” she explains, while also pointing out a visible increase in diversity on red carpets, in the press lounge, and at press events.

Grau notes in her email response that, as part of the initiative, accreditation is now available to more freelance journalists, which brings down a barrier to those who did not hold a full-time editorial position at a news outlet.

However, she also acknowledges that editors and producers across North America are key to ensuring these voices are heard.

“This year we also actively encouraged…outlets with multiple people accredited to consider diversity when making assignments for the festival,” Grau says. “But it’s a process and will take time and effort on many fronts in order to affect lasting change.”

 Radheyan Simonpillai, film critic for CTV’s Your Morning and Now magazine, says the initiative is a good start, but this particular diversity problem can only be corrected by encouraging more editors and publishers to hire, promote and showcase critics from various backgrounds.

“These diverse critics that are arriving at TIFF: Yes, they have access to see these films but who is paying them to be here?” Simonpillai asks.

The answer, in most cases: Nobody. These critics pay their own transportation. And their critiques may only show up on personal blogs or small-scale print or online publications that pay little if anything at all.

To highlight the importance of showcasing diverse voices in film reviews, Simonpillai refers to two reviews—one by a Black critic, one by a white critic—of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk.  

Adapted from the novel by James Baldwin, the film is about a Black woman who tries to clear her husband of a wrongful conviction, all before their child is born.

K. Austin Collins, a film critic for Vanity Fair, focuses on the power of love defying the odds, and the strength of a Black community that, “flourishes in defiance of the ugliness.”

“Now comes If Beale Street Could Talk,” wrote Collins, “Jenkins’s extraordinary adaptation of James Baldwin’s soulful 1974 novel. It’s a lush, courageous black melodrama set in 1970s New York, a story about love defying injustice—or trying its damndest to.”

Peter Debruge, a full-time features editor and senior film critic for Daily Variety, emits a much different tone in his review. His angle is more negative, focusing on the black experience through prison.

“As an African-American filmmaker fresh off his big Oscar win, Jenkins doesn’t seem especially worried about the ‘what white people think’ side of that equation (and why should he be, when the story is his to tell?),” Debruge wrote. “Instead, he adapts Baldwin’s novel for more or less the same personal reasons he wrote “Moonlight” — as a chance to explore the black experience in America — and in both films, prison is the thing that derails what could have been a beautiful life.”

“Peter Debruge’s review, I mean he may not realize it, but it is offensive,” Simonpillai says.

With passion, Simonpillai stresses this point, which shows the importance of having diverse voices that bring various perspectives to the public. He says that had there not been diverse voices at TIFF, Debruge’s “tone deaf” piece would have been the first major assessment of the film that he deems the “best American movie so far.”

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