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Are Black Women Not Women? The Beguiled Controversy

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Source: Georges Biard | Wikipedia Commons

You might not have heard much about Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” but it has received critical acclaim from critics.

Director Coppola’s indie hit took the 2017 Cannes Film Festival by storm, selected to compete in its Palme d’Or category in the festival’s main competition section. Coppola specifically won the festival’s award for Best Director. She is only the second woman in history to do so.

But for all of its praise,“The Beguiled” is certainly not without controversy. For a film that seems to be breaking all sorts of barriers: who does it ignore?

A remake of the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, “The Beguiled” takes place near the end of the Civil War, and follows a group of southern white women who come across a wounded union soldier on their land. Tensions run high as the north and south collide and characters discover one another’s true motivations, in a story full of manipulation and intrigue.

It’s an unpacking of gender and critique of the male gaze, all told through Coppola’s skillful and claustrophobic lens (almost the entire film was shot in a southern mansion– the same house used as the exterior for Beyonce’s Lemonade music video).

Yet, with all of her expert craft, Coppola seems to have forgotten something, or someone. Both the 1971 film and novel, on which it was based, feature a slave character named Mattie, who cares for the union soldier when he arrives on the southern plantation.

Mattie does not exist in Coppola’s film. Additionally, a bi-racial character from the novel is portrayed by blonde, blue-eyed Kirsten Dunst. In the book, Dunst’s character struggles to navigate the world of wealthy southern white women as a POC, a conflict not so uncommon in the present. The erasure of important aspects of the characters entirely eliminates the lens through which the audience can unpack the Civil War, the reason for the great conflict as well as the catalyst for the film’s narrative.

This apparent whitewashing was initially explained away by Coppola as she “wasn’t really looking at the political aspects” of the story, but rather those related to gender.

“At the heart of the story, it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women that are universal, but that is sort of heightened in this kind of premise,” Coppola explained.

Are the stories of black women not the stories of women? While she reasons that the inclusion of these black female characters did not fit this specific story she was trying to tell, Coppola has a history of making films exclusively centering beautiful-by- western-standards white women (“Marie Antoinette,”  “Lost in Translation,” “The Virgin Suicides”).

“The Beguiled,” featuring the likes of Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and the aforementioned Kirsten Dunst certainly fits this mold.

https://twitter.com/Ameriie/status/876206394604519424

Coppola has stated that the 2016 election resonated with the cast and crew while the film was in production, and certainly topics of sexual assault and toxic masculinity addressed in the film are relevant in today’s political climate.

Over half of white women in this country, elected a man accused multiple times of sexual assault into the presidency. White women don’t always speak for the rest of their gender.

Films are not obligated to tackle every political issue of the time, but sometimes there are obvious missed opportunities. “The Beguiled” may be one of them.

By: Lucinda Ellman

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