Ana Lily Amirpour seems like the ultimate counterpunch to Hollywood’s diversity problem. She’s an Iranian woman director raised in America, directing inventive genre movies with an anarchic sensibility all her own. While much of the country celebrated the feminist leanings of “Wonder Woman,” Amirpour had already finished “The Bad Batch,” her horror-sci-fi-western hybrid about a dystopian world in which a young woman battles cannibals in a desolate wasteland. The movie, which premiered at the festivals last fall, confirmed Amirpour’s capacity for exploring marginalized figures through the empowering lens of ferocious female characters first seen in her acclaimed debut, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.”
Which was why, eight months into her promotional tour for “The Bad Batch,” Amirpour was astonished to find herself accused of racism. During a post-screening Q&A for “The Bad Batch” in Chicago, Amirpour was confronted by a woman named Bianca Xiunse, who demanded to know why all the black characters in the movie were killed.
The complaint appeared to be a reaction to one scene in particular. In the film, which is set in a near future in which prisoners are unleashed into a lawless desert, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) comes upon one of the cannibals who had kidnapped and mutilated her in the opening minutes.
Now armless, Arlen confronts Maria (Yolonda Ross), the wife of Cuban cannibal Miami Man (Jason Momoa), along with her young daughter. Arlen shoots Maria, but spares the child; later, Miami Man tracks Arlen down to exact revenge, but the pair end up falling in love as they face down a much scarier threat — a stone-faced tyrant named The Dream (Keanu Reeves), who lords over the nearby town of Comfort with an iron grip.
While one reading of “The Bad Batch” would find two outcasts (a one-armed woman and a vilified immigrant) joining forces to take down an evil white man, Xiunse wanted to know why Amirpour felt it was necessary for the black characters to perish.
“I found it offensive,” she said. “So I’m curious, what was your message for it?”
In video of the moment, Amirpour cocks her head, seemingly baffled by the response, and asks the moderator to repeat the question. (As she would later explain, the filmmaker is 30 percent deaf.) Finally, she offered a succinct response. “Just because I give you something to look at, doesn’t mean I’m telling you what to see.”
The audience cheered, and Xiunse turned to Twitter to further vent her frustrations. “I have never felt such an embarrassment in my life,” she wrote. Later that night, Amirpour checked her social media account, saw the complaints, and blocked Xiunse; when Xiunse called her out, Amirpour wrote, “How am I supposed to respond you calling my film anti black? It’s so crazy. It offended me. So I blocked you.”
So began a social media storm of vitriol on both sides, with Amirpour’s fans leaping to her defense and others lashing out against her; Xiunse herself even did an interview about the experience. Amirpour acknowledged that she reacted too quickly on Twitter, which she has since deleted from her phone, but she’s still aghast about the experience as a whole.
“I’m a brown woman immigrant, my family escaped the Iranian Revolution, I grew up on two continents, English wasn’t the first language in my home,” she said over lunch in New York a few days before the film’s release. “I know what it is to be the ‘other’ very, very well. My film and my filmmaking is all about asking questions about how the system pits us against each other. If anything, this movie is about how we are eating each other. It’s fine, I get it, some people don’t see those things or ask those questions. Cinema is a private, personal experience for individual. But this felt personal against me.”
She was also astonished about the complaints regarding the color of the character’s skin. “Why wouldn’t he be married to a black woman? Jason Momoa is married to a black woman. It’s how I see the world — it’s a modern relationship,” she said. “They have a mixed-race child. She’s the future, in this wonderful way.”
But Amirpour didn’t have the opportunity for that nuanced reaction at the time, and then came the second wave: Internet forums picked up on an old photo posted to social media in which Amirpour dressed up as Lil Wayne for Halloween. If she had been a white person wearing blackface, that would have been ever tougher to wriggle away from — but Amirpour’s not about to apologize for that one, either.
“What could I do?” she asks. “I feel nothing but joy about the fact that I dressed up like Lil Wayne for Halloween. I’m brown. I didn’t do anything wrong. That’s what I look like when I put my hat on and tattoos on my face. I love Weezy. I just have to believe in myself, that I’m a good person, having fun on planet Earth like anyone else.”
Amirpour’s experience may not permanently tarnish her reputation, but it’s indicative of a single-minded director who has been gradually forced to deal with the challenges associated with a rising profile. The last two years of her career were all about forward momentum, with support systems to sustain her vision on her own terms.
When she came to Sundance with “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” in 2014, she had no agent, and insisted on controlling every facet of her film — including its distribution deal, which she decided to avoid closing until after the festival. “I was going off instinct, but my instinct was, if you want to fuck me now, you have to want to fuck me four months from now,” she said. (The movie eventually sold to Kino Lorber, well after it opened New Directors/New Films in New York that March.) In the meantime, she had started writing “The Bad Batch,” and after Sundance she was approached by Vice creative director Danny Gabai. From there, a wealth of new resources came her way.
Next page: The creative wisdom of taking acid at Burning Man.