Chaz Ebert: Where Are All the Diverse Voices in Film Criticism?

Meryl Streep is right that we need more female film reviewers. But more than that, we need a range of voices in the arts with access to the larger conversation in society.

12.01.15 6:00 AM ET

Meryl Streep’s use of the word “infuriating” to describe the disproportionate ratio of male to female reviewers on the Rotten Tomatoes is apt.

But the need for diverse voices in film criticism does not suffice with gender. A wide spectrum of voices is critical in challenging the mainstream white male-dominated narrative that drives much of Hollywood and the popular media. Being introduced to diverse critical voices and opinions in the arts not only affects how we see the world but also has a profound influence on how we begin to heal it.

Films allow us to immerse ourselves in stories and interpretations of the world that are either familiar or unfamiliar but nonetheless vital to exciting our mental curiosity. The value of the experience lies in the vast range of emotional responses a film inspires. Ideas, storylines, and characters coalesce with our own understanding of the world and create opportunities for the beliefs we live by to be challenged or reinforced and reinvigorated. In that moment—during that exchange—no one can deny the experiences that have informed our perspectives on a film’s impact.

My husband Roger called the movies a giant machine that generates empathy, allowing us to walk in the shoes of a person of a different race, or age, or gender, or economic circumstance. From there, he said, the greater understanding that results can inspire increased kindness and compassion.

It is not enough to have reviewers who understand how to discuss film. We need reviewers who can speak deeply and with nuance because of their lived experiences. The trusted voices in film criticism should be diverse ambassadors who have access to the larger conversation. If we can’t recognize ourselves within the existing public discourse, we are implicitly being asked to devalue our experiences and accept a narrative that is not our own. Excluding diverse voices from the conversation de-emphasizes the value of our different experiences. It is critical that the people who write about film and television and the arts—and indeed the world—mirror the people in our society.

Recently, I partnered with the Hawaii International Film Festival to launch the first Ebert Young Writers for the Arts program in Hawaii. Roger and I fell in love in Hawaii and developed an interest in its history and culture. We attended the film festival there for many years and witnessed the importance of a strong authentic voice in film. This program is meant to broaden and strengthen film criticism culture in Hawaii. In a swiftly changing media environment, informed writing and criticism on cinema by diverse voices is vital to a strong film culture and industry. For our first class of eight students, we chose Chicago-based Kevin B. Lee, an award-winning filmmaker, educator, and film critic, as a mentor.

Championing diversity is a particular passion of mine. The issue affects the kind of stories we see every time we step into a movie theater or turn on a television or pick up a newspaper or digital tablet. If only one race or gender is allowed to tell their story, then the experiences of so many other lives will be left off the screen. So many moviegoers have actively sought out independent and foreign titles in order to diversify the stories they consume.

Earlier this year at the SXSW film festival, I hosted a panel we called “The Future of Film Criticism: Diversify or Die.” I left that panel feeling hopeful because the audience, through their questions, showed that they not only understood why diversity is a good thing but also that it isn’t just limited to racial or ethnic diversity. It means an expanded definition of diversity where there will be more sexual identities represented, more women, and more people who are differently abled writing about film from their standpoint. This was the same conclusion a panel on “Empathy” I hosted at the Cannes Film Festival in May reached.

The call for gender equity in Hollywood is on the rise, led by actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence and directors like Catherine Hardwicke. In a recent article published by Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, Hardwicke noted that the $400 million gross of her Twilight film did little to help launch her next project. “My next job actually took a year and a half to happen, and I got paid less, with a lower budget,” Hardwicke said. “I didn’t get that three-picture deal like the guys did after they made a $400 million movie.”

Without a doubt, we are witnessing change on the screen. But sexism and racism have been so engrained in our culture that seismic change is guaranteed to be an all-too-gradual one. Yet it is our role as journalists and critics and cinephiles to aim a spotlight on the artists whose work stand as inarguable proof of the boundless talent ignored when we green-light only those projects of white males. When we respond to whitewashing, ignorance, or misappropriation in film and the arts with indifference, we allow them to fester in the hollowness of silence. Silence is seen as approval and deliberately perpetuates barriers, pushing diverse voices to the periphery.

2015 marked the second year in a row that recipients of the Roger Ebert Scholarship for Film Criticism covered the Sundance Film Festival. Reading their thoughts on the experience was a joy for me. This has also been the second year in which RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia College’s youth journalism Links program to mentor high school students during Black History Month. They reviewed several provocative documentaries for our site, and we compiled them in a table of contents for this year. (Click here to read them.) It was also the second year that the students in the Ebert University Seminars covered the Telluride Film Festival. And at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, the College of Media and the Ebert Center sponsored the first class of students who will be mentored in critical thinking by Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune.

I am excited about preparing a group of emerging writers and artists and technologists to find their voices. It is my hope that one day I can bring together the students from Sundance, Hawaii, Columbia College, Telluride, the Chicago Urban League, and the University of Illinois to measure the effectiveness of these small steps toward effecting change. In a world too full of bad news, I am hoping they will help provide light to lead us into a brighter future.

For more information on the Hawaii International Film Festival, visit its official site.