Since the release of “The Beguiled” earlier this summer, Sofia Coppola’s film has faced criticism that it fails to include the African American character featured in Don Siegel’s 1971 version. As the new film continues to open around the country, Coppola provided this exclusive statement to IndieWire in response to the backlash.
There have been some questions regarding my approach to my new film, “The Beguiled.” More specifically, there have been objections to my decision not to include the slave character, Mattie, in Thomas Cullinan’s book on which my film is based. I would like to clarify this.
My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor.
I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.
The circumstances in which the women in my story find themselves are historically accurate—and not a distortion of history, as some have claimed.
From “Mothers of Invention” by Drew Gilpin Faust: “War and emancipation revealed that many white women felt themselves entirely ignorant about how to perform basic functions of everyday life…A war that had at the outset made so many women feel useless and irrelevant soon demanded significant labor and sacrifice from even the most privileged southern females…”
Throughout the film, we see students and teachers trying to hold on to their crumbling way of life. Eventually, they even lock themselves up and sever all ties to the outside world in order to perpetuate a reality that has only become a fantasy. My intentions in choosing to make a film in this world were not to celebrate a way of life whose time was over, but rather to explore the high cost of denial and repression.
In his 1966 novel, Thomas Cullinan made the choice to include a slave, Mattie, as a side-character. He wrote in his idea of Mattie’s voice, and she is the only one who doesn’t speak proper English—her voice is not even grammatically transcribed.
I did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story of these white women in complete isolation, after the slaves had escaped. Moreover, I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting.
There are many examples of how slaves have been appropriated and “given a voice” by white artists. Rather than an act of denial, my decision of not including Mattie in the film comes from respect.
Some have said that it is not responsible to make a film set during the Civil War and not deal directly with slavery and feature slave characters. I did not think so in preparing this film, but have been thinking about this and will continue to do so. But it has been disheartening to hear my artistic choices, grounded in historical facts, being characterized as insensitive when my intention was the opposite.
I sincerely hope this discussion brings attention to the industry for the need for more films from the voices of filmmakers of color and to include more points of views and histories.