Why does Cannes film festival exclude black directors?

Now in its 70th year, the festival premieres the year’s biggest films – but its lack of diversity is becoming hard to ignore

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Still from I Am Not A Witch (2017)Courtesy BFI

What’s the first thing that you think of when you think about Cannes Film Festival? Glitz, glamour, red carpets and sun? Or, if you’re more cinematically inclined, maybe you’re eagerly refreshing Twitter for the duration of the festival, waiting to find out what the great masterpieces to grace our screens in 2017/18 are going to be. The festival is such a hotbed of activity, both cinematic and celebrity, that it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks, diversity being one of them. Every year the festival seems to come with one controversy or another, but one that the internet seems happy to sweep under the rug is that (at the time of Cannes initial competition line-up being announced, anyway) there wasn’t a single film by a black director screening work at the 2017 festival. Not just in competition, where, if you were curious, a film by a black director hasn’t been in the running for a staggering four years, since Abderrahmane Sissako’s stunning Timbuktu. There literally wasn’t a single film by a black director screening in Cannes at all. Luckily this has since been remedied with the addition of Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch to the Director’s Fortnight, adding one whole film by a black director to the festival.

“If we lived in a simplistic world, the obvious thing to do would be to label the festival as racist, yet things are trickier than that”

If we lived in a simplistic world, the obvious thing to do would be to label the festival as racist, yet things are trickier than that. While there may not be films by black directors in this year’s competition, there are, as usual, several films by non-black people of colour in the festival, most notably new films by Asian directors Naomi Kawase, Bong Joon-ho, and Hong Sang-so in competition. Cannes, it would seem, is the inverse of the 2017 Academy Awards – at the Oscars, “diversity” was represented solely by black nominees, bar Best Supporting Actor Dev Patel. At Cannes, “diversity” is represented by everyone other than black people. While there are films by women and POC at the festival, of course there still simply aren’t enough. Therefore, any headline space about Cannes lack of diversity seems to be dedicated to how female directors fare in the competition. There’s a decent enough selection of website dedicated to stats of how many female directors there are in each year’s competitions whereas non-white ones… less so. So, gleaned from hours of hard-core Wikipedia-ing, here’s what I’ve learnt about how non-white films and directors, in particular black ones, have fared at Cannes in recent years. In the history of the Cannes, a film by a black director has never taken home the prestigious Palme D’Or award, whereas 11 films directed by non-white POC have. Eight non-white directors have taken home best director, whereas no black director ever has. Over the past 20 years of the festival, there have been 86 films (give or take) by non-white POC to compete in Cannes main competition, compared to 5 by black directors.

The aim of this article, I should note, isn’t to create an “us vs them” mentality between black and other non-white directors. A win for any people of colour should be seen as a win for us all, and it is heartening at least that every Cannes line-up over the past 20 years has featured at least one non-white director on its line-up – the most diverse year of which being 2010, where eight films by non-white directors were in competition. But given the success of black cinema at awards ceremonies and other film festivals in 2016/17, the omissions on the Cannes line-up are oddly fascinating. Take the Academy Award Winner Moonlight for example, a film that premiered at both Venice and Toronto film festivals in 2016. And Sundance film festival seems to have tried to embrace diversity in recent years… True, it did give its Best Drama award to Nate Parker’s underwhelming and now extremely controversial The Birth of a Nation in 2016, but it also gave awards to Morris from America and Life, Animated. And the highlight of 2017’s festival it would appear, was not necessarily the films in competition, but the surprise midnight screenings of Jordan Peele’s acclaimed Get Out.

If Toronto and Venice has now become known as the festivals where Oscar-winning films will premiere (the last three Best Picture winners, Moonlight, Spotlight all premiered at one or both), then Cannes has the reputation of where the highest calibre cinema of the year will first be seen. Perhaps not your La La Land’s, or your 12 Years a Slave’s, but rather films like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann that will go on to top various “Best of” lists. In its omission of films by black directors this year, and its scant inclusions in past years, do the Cannes programmers feel as though black directors simply do not have the kind of “Cannes-worthy” films in their arsenal?  The problem with Cannes seems to be that the parameters for what exactly is a “Cannes-worthy” film seems to be shifting every year – if a film such as Shrek 2 can compete in competition in 2004, then I don’t see what output by a black director can’t live up to this mantle. Another way of looking at this problem is the country of the festival itself – is this silent snubbing a reflection on the French industry’s views on black directors? As someone non-French it’s hard to comment with complete authority on the French film industry, but when I think of French films that deal with race from recent years that played the festival – La Haine, Girlhood and Dheepan – these films were all made by white directors.

“Cannes, it would seem, is the inverse of the 2017 Academy Awards – at the Oscars, ‘diversity’ was represented solely by black nominees, bar Best Supporting Actor Dev Patel. At Cannes, ‘diversity’ is represented by everyone other than black people”

Perhaps, then, we’re back to the age-old problem of there simply just not being enough black directors out there, both in France and globally. But, given that 2017 is a year that’s given us not just the aforementioned Moonlight and Get Out but also Fences and I Am Not Your Negro, I’m not sure this is a justifiable answer anymore. It’s undeniably difficult for black filmmakers to fund and make their projects, but in the age of the internet, work is being produced in all manner of mediums, exactly the kinds of work that deserves to be nurtured at festivals. Take I Am Not a Witch for instance, a film funded in part by BFI and Film 4. Funding like these, as well as a showcase in Cannes, could make Nyoni’s career.

And how rewarding it would have been to see other black directors alongside her at this year’s Cannes, a festival that’s greatly boosted the careers of directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ryan Coolger and Rick Famiyuwa. But perhaps two triumphs in cinema for black directors is too much to ask for – we got our Oscar, and demanding our Cannes too is out of reach. As underrepresented people, we are no longer surprised when we are underrepresented, but it’s hugely demoralising and frustrating nevertheless. Kids can now look to Barry Jenkins and Moonlight and aspire to be the next Best Picture winner, but what about those black children who look towards the sandy beaches of Cannes? For another year at least, they, like the rest of us, will have to keep waiting for the day we get our black Palme D’Or.

Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17–28 2017. Learn more about the current lineup here

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