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Cast of The BeguiledPhotography Mark Borthwick

Sofia Coppola responds to The Beguiled race controversy

‘It has been disheartening to hear my artistic choices, grounded in historical facts, being characterised as insensitive when my intention was the opposite’

Sofia Coppola has responded to criticism surrounding her latest film The Beguiled. Coppola’s adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, has faced a backlash for its omission of a black character, Mattie, from the story.

In an essay for IndieWire, the filmmaker detailed her decision to leave out the character, a slave, from her American civil war-set drama.

“I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world,” she wrote. “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 Beguiled explores the lives of white women of varying ages living together at the tail-end of the civil war. They deal with the loss of men and slaves who had been kept captive, and end up taking in an enemy soldier. Speaking in the summer issue of Dazed, Coppola said of the story: “I liked that the premise (of The Beguiled) was so loaded. (How must it have been) for these women, to be raised to be lovely for men and then there are no men around?”

Coppola wrote in her piece for Indiewire: “The circumstances in which the women in my story find themselves are historically accurate – and not a distortion of history, as some have claimed.”

She went on to address Mattie’s ommission from the film, explaining how the original story was embedded in a racist stereotype.

“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.” 

As detailed in Dazed’s interview with Coppola, the director read conduct books from the era and consulted with a civil war expert in preparation for the film, which was shot at Madewood, a real plantation house in Louisiana also used for Beyonce’s Lemonade video. 

Coppola added that she thought treating slavery as a side-plot would be “insulting”. She also acknowledged the criticism the film has received and what she would maybe do differently in the future. Social media had been damning of the production, where outlets like Bitch challenged it for “insinuating that the African American experience of womanhood during this era doesn’t matter.” An article from Slate argued that politics and true history had been stripped away.

“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,” she wrote. “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 characterised as insensitive when my intention was the opposite.”

Coppola finished her essay with a statement about the importance of filmmakers and creatives of colour leading the way with nuanced storytelling.