Fostering critical conversations: Here's how diverse critics fared at TIFF 2018

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival added 174 diverse writers and critics to its overall press pool to broaden the perspectives emerging from the festival. But how did these new voices do once on the ground?

Diverse reviewers 'can write and do it all,' says freelance critic. 'We are not a monolith'

'The view I bring is much different, because there are certain things you don't consider when you're watching, that maybe someone who led a different life or comes from a different point of view could see right away,' says freelance film critic Yolanda Machado. (CBC)

A few simple questions Latina writer Yolanda Machado recently posed to the creators of the Magnum P.I. reboot — how might lead actor Jay Hernandez's Mexican heritage influence the story and had they hired any writers of Latin descent — quickly pierced the congratulatory bubble surrounding the anticipated new show. 

The creators' fumbled answers made headlines across entertainment media and gave rise to fiery opinion pieces and commentary about inclusion going beyond surface casting. For Machado, that moment also perfectly crystalized why the pool of journalists covering the entertainment world needs to be more diverse. 

"It took a lot for me to get into that room to ask that question," explained the Los Angeles-based freelancer.

"The view I bring is much different, because there are certain things you don't consider when you're watching, that maybe someone who led a different life or comes from a different point of view could see right away."

Different perspectives

At this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Machado is part of the infusion of 174 writers and critics organizers added to the overall press pool to boost the number of underrepresented film journalists and broaden the perspectives emerging from the festival.

Machado, who has written for publications like Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan and online outlets, hit the ground running. She saw about 30 films at her first TIFF and was thrilled to discover movies like Mouthpiece, immediately pitching ideas about Canadian director Patricia Rozema's drama to her editors.

"I don't think I would have gotten the chance to see it had I not been here," she noted. 

While 'there's still a long way to go,' film critic and writer Valerie Complex said the TIFF press corps definitely seemed more inclusive this year. (CBC)

For New York-based freelance critic Valerie Complex, "little things" made a world of difference at TIFF: invitations to events, landing an interview or a red carpet slot and even publicists simply responding to her emails. 

"Things like that don't seem like a lot, probably because people are used to getting that type of access, but for someone like me, it's a huge opportunity," she said.

Complex, who works in IT and moonlights in film criticism, said that — while "there's still a long way to go" — the TIFF press corps felt more inclusive this year. That might impact the writing about this year's slate of movies.

"You see people from the disabled community. You see black women. You see Asian men ... You see queer folks sitting down in the theatre reviewing films," she said.

"I exist at a lot of various intersections. I'm a military veteran. I'm queer. I'm a black woman who's dark-skinned ... I can see different perspectives, based on different narratives in different films that I watch."

'Reviews matter'

TIFF's initiative was singled out in June by Oscar-winning actor Brie Larson, who turned an industry awards acceptance speech into a plea for more diversity among reviewers. In her speech, she quoted data from the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a group that's been examining the gender and ethnic makeup of Hollywood's top films and the creators behind them. The group's latest research has turned the spotlight onto the film criticism beat.

"Am I saying that I hate white dudes? No, I'm not," Larson noted. "I want to know what my work means to the world, not a narrow view."

In its latest study, entitled Critic's Choice 2, the Annenberg Inclusionists group examined 59,751 reviews written on leading aggregate site RottenTomatoes.com for the 300 top movies from 2015, 2016 and 2017. As with previous studies, the researchers found an unequal playing field where white males dominate the sphere.

Nearly 79 per cent of the reviews were written by men, with just 21 per cent written by women. White writers penned 83 per cent of the reviews, with writers of colour responsible for 17 per cent. Drilling down into the intersection of gender and ethnicity, researchers found reviews by white male critics outnumbered those by underrepresented female critics 17 to 1.

"I promised depressing, I'm delivering," report co-author Stacy L. Smith declared during a panel discussion at TIFF.

While some believe a critics' identity shouldn't factor into how he or she evaluates movies, the study discovered that it does. Researchers found, for instance, that white male critics differed significantly from underrepresented female critics when reviewing movies led by women of colour. 

Broadening the critical conversation

That data has helped speed up changes already underway at RottenTomates.com, according to editor Jacqueline Coley. The site's recent revamp of its critics' criteria has been in the works for over a year, she explained in Toronto.

The changes to Rotten Tomatoes have been in the works for more than a year, said editor Jacqueline Coley. (CBC)

"One of the reasons why we did the refresh was to remove some of the barriers they found in the study," Coley said.

RottenTomatoes.com's new, broader parameters for where approved reviews might come from — adding film podcasts and online sites, for instance — is part of that attempt to diversify, she explained.

"This will help foster the critical conversation and make sure our Tomatometer will show a wide variety of voices."

The study also offered several workable solutions to improve representation. For instance, movie studios should add nine critics — three white female critics, three underrepresented males and three underrepresented females — to the ones already invited to cover every film they release over the next five years in order to more accurately reflect the demographics of the population.

Publications should also be more inclusive in their hiring and assigning of movie critics, the researchers said.

Valerie Complex wants to see more writers from different backgrounds hired by established entertainment outlets and assigned to cover a variety of films. (CBC)

That two-step process — hiring and assigning more diverse writers — is vital, according to Valerie Complex.

"These outlets need to find a way to integrate true diversity and intersectionality at their companies ... as opposed to isolating people based on their race," she noted.

"I like [superhero film] Black Panther, but I also like [crime thriller] Widows and I want to see [historical drama] The Favourite," she said. Diverse writers "are not a monolith. We can write and do it all, regardless of where we sit along the marginalized line."

'I'm extremely grateful for being here,' said Yolanda Machado. (CBC)

Established outlets and publications are also where Los Angeles critic Machado wants to see more change.

Despite following up twice, she got radio silence from an editor at a major media outlet who, pre-TIFF, had professed interest in meeting up to chat in Toronto. This came after he was dragged online for the lack of diversity among his writers. 

Machado eventually learned he had assigned white critics to review two of the festival's most buzzworthy films: the 1970s-set black romance If Beale Street Could Talk and Mexican family drama Roma.

Still, after her TIFF debut, Machado remains optimistic, calling the inclusion of new critics "a great first step." 

"It's important to shape art for future generations," she noted. "I want my daughter to grow up actually seeing herself reflected onscreen."

With files from Eli Glasner, Nigel Hunt and Sharon Wu


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