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Jessica Chastain: Film Criticism Needs to ‘Represent What Our Society Represents’

The actress and her "Woman Walks Ahead" director Susanna White told IndieWire why they agree with Brie Larson's remarks about the need for greater inclusivity in film criticism.

Yvonne Russo, Chaske Spencer, Susanna White, director, Michael Greyeyes and Jessica Chastain'Woman Walks Ahead' film screening, New York, USA - 26 Jun 2018

Yvonne Russo, Chaske Spencer, Susanna White, Michael Greyeyes, and Jessica Chastain at “Woman Walks Ahead” premiere

Gregory Pace/REX/Shutterstock

Actress and producer Jessica Chastain has long been outspoken about the many ways in which Hollywood can change for the better, from helping her co-star Octavia Spencer get equal pay to calling for more diversity in front of the camera and speaking out against sexual predators. Naturally, she has some thoughts about the latest debate to upend Hollywood: the lack of diversity in film criticism, and how it might impact the way audiences react to movies.

“I think that it would be a wonderful day when film criticism represented what our society represented, because right now there’s a few people that are telling us what is worthwhile,” the actress and producer said in an interview with IndieWire this week. “There’s one group in particular that is telling us what is worthwhile and whose stories should be told, and who is valuable and who isn’t valuable. I believe that we’re a multicultural society, and everyone’s story is worthwhile, so why can’t that diversity be reflected in the criticism?”

Earlier this month, Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson used her acceptance speech at the Crystal + Lucy Awards, where she was honored with the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film, to address the lack of representation among film critics. Just days earlier,  the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report that examined nearly 20,000 reviews of last year’s 100 top-grossing movies. The report found that 63.9 percent of those reviews were written by white men, versus white women (18.1 percent), underrepresented men (13.8 percent), and underrepresented women (4.1 percent).

“[If] you make the movie that is a love letter to women of color, there is an insanely low chance a woman of color will have a chance to see your movie and review your movie,” Larson said in her speech. “[Audiences] are not allowed enough chances to read public discourse on these films by the people that the films were made for. I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about ‘[A] Wrinkle in Time.’ It wasn’t made for him. I want to know what it meant to women of color, to biracial women, to teen women of color, to teens that are biracial.”

Asked by IndieWire her thoughts on Larson’s speech, Chastain was quick to answer. “I agree,” she said.

Her “Woman Walks Ahead” director, Susanna White, is also on board with more diverse critics. As White noted, making feature films continues to be a struggle for women, and one that does end once they complete a project. That’s when critical appraisal becomes essential.

Woman Walks Ahead

“Woman Walks Ahead”

“So, you get the opportunity to make your film, but then how it’s received in the world depends a lot on the critical press,” White said. “It is absolutely crucial that there’s diversity in the critical community, as well as in the creative community, because they affect how our work is seen. We need them to be a fair reflection of our society, just as the filmmakers need to be a fair reflection of our society. I’m not just talking about women. I’m talking about diversity across the board.”

Larson concluded her call for diversity in the profession with some news about actionable change, noting that both Sundance and TIFF were kicking off new initiatives pledging that underrepresented film critics would be offered at least 20 percent of their top-tier press badges for coming festivals. “Brie Larson, in her speech, gave some really good solutions,” Chastain said, pointing beyond just representation in the film criticism realm to the changing face of Hollywood.

“People are showing that they’re interested in more than just the stories of the few, and you see it in the box office,” she said. “For years, I’ve been saying movies with female ensembles have a better chance of making money than movies with male ensembles. That’s a fact, if you just look at all the statistics of those movies. So if someone’s interested in making money, they should be interested in making movies about women.”

Recent studies have proven Chastain’s point, finding that movies with female protagonists tend to make more money than those with only male protagonists. That’s a shift that started years before the introduction of the #MeToo and Time’s Up into the national conversation, but Chastain and White both think those discussions have helped accelerate change behind the camera. (It doesn’t hurt that, just last month, Universal paid a reported $55 million for a pitch for a female-led spy film that Chastain envisioned and plans to star in.)

“I think it took a couple months to shift gears,” Chastain said, when asked about how the past few months have impacted the industry. “When I started working, I was always being told that studios didn’t want to make stories about women because no one would go see them. I actively see now a shift in that scripts that someone would’ve deemed as not worthy are now being produced. So I don’t know how long it’ll last. I guess that’s the question: Are people just trying to stay in favor, or are they trying to create a lasting change?”

White, who has been working in the industry for over 30 years, is also enthused about the shift towards more diversity and inclusion across the board. “People really are making an effort,” she said. “But I think we have to keep the conversation going, and I still think it’s very, very hard for women making movies. We have to keep talking about it.”

“Woman Walks Ahead” will hit limited release on Friday, June 29.

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