Criterion President Peter Becker knows that his company’s film collection has long ignored Black artists. And now, he says, he’s ready to do something about it.
In a fascinating feature well worth reading in full, The New York Times spoke with Becker about the scarcity of Black and African American directors within Criterion’s ranks.
“There’s nothing I can say about it that will make it OK,” Becker told the Times. “The fact that things are missing, and specifically that Black voices are missing, is harmful, and that’s clear. We have to fix that.”
Criterion’s DVD collection can be coveted among cinephiles as something of a classic film canon. But as the Times points out, the Criterion channel only includes work from four African American directors—despite having licensed a collection of more than 1,000 films. The collection also includes the work of four Black directors from outside the U.S.
Becker attributes this disparity to his personal “blind spots.” Explaining his decision to pass on Julie Dash’s critically beloved Daughters of the Dust, he said, “I didn’t understand what I was looking at. I didn’t understand it for what it was. And I wasn’t talking with people who were going to help me.”
The Criterion Channel, the company’s streaming service, has been one space in which Becker notes diversity has already improved. Adding a streaming pick to the collection is cheaper and more efficient than the process of a DVD or Blu-ray release, allowing diverse picks to be added more quickly. Still, as the Times notes, it’s the physical releases that tend to carry prestige.
To avoid oversights in the future, Becker told the Times he’d made a few plans. For one thing, he vowed to regain the rights to several films from Black directors that were once a part of the collection on laser disc but lapsed out during the transition to DVD.
Becker said Criterion itself also plans to hire more Black employees; the Times reports the company currently has no Black leadership. As Becker told the Times, Criterion is “just beginning senior leadership coaching for all of our management teams in terms of antiracist hiring practices.”
And finally, Becker also said he’s forming a “curatorial advisory group” to help him avoid missing the next great Black auteur. Because the next Barry Jenkins is a terrible thing to waste.