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Jojo Rabbit film, Taika Waititi
Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbitcourtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Does anyone outside of Twitter really care about films being woke?

From Marvel’s attempts at representation, to Oscar nomination snubs, and Film Twitter in-fighting – the ‘woke left’ is not winning the supposed culture wars

In 2020, even as the Oscar nominations rolled around to prove the contrary, a myth persists that critics are too concerned with appearing ‘right-on’ (woke, PC, catering to the SnOwFlaKeS) to appreciate films properly. In past years, this perspective could be seen anywhere from an article by Wesley Morris in the New York Times (an admittedly long and thoughtful one), to enraged tweets by the film critic Sasha Stone about Green Book, talking about a gulf between critics pretending to hate the movie and “people out in the real world” who love the film. But Green Book is certified 78 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with Matthew Norman of the Evening Standard calling it a “flawed but oddly joyful movie elevated far above its limitations by two sublime performances”.

Mere days ago, professional opinion-haver and journalist Janice Turner was to be found fuming that the WW2-set comedy Jojo Rabbit had been done dirty by “po-faced one-star woke reviews”. Leaving aside for a minute the deathless bugbear of journalists using the phrase ‘woke’ as a derogatory term, it may be worth digging a little further into the bizarre contention that right-on journos are out to destroy art and fun by being so absurdly doctrinaire. 

“It can’t be long before Comment is Free suggests a state panel to assess whether works of art pass strict ideological criteria before release,” Turner went on to say. “This now seems to be the sole criteria on the left over whether anything is good.” It’s worth citing this sort of opinion in full, because its bad faith cuts to the heart of the so-called ‘culture wars’ in which we have all apparently been drafted, and which, it’s worth reiterating, the left is not winning. Jojo Rabbit is currently certified 80 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Film – so whatever beef some critics may have with it, it’s hard to see it as a victim. Moreover, while a lot of reviews take issue with the film’s politics, a far more ubiquitous criticism is that the film isn’t funny: indeed, “not funny” are the last two words of Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review

The film industry is not being damaged by a culture of wokeness – it’s barely even affected by it. A 12-year study by the Inclusion Initiative found that of the 1,300 highest-grossing films between 2007 and 2019, 4.8 per cent were directed by women. This week, the Oscar nominations were released, and all the actor nominations but one are for white actors. There are no women, people of colour, or queer people nominated for Best Director – again. One film by a woman – Greta Gerwig’s Little Women – is nominated for Best Picture. Green Book, a film that elects to tell a story of racism and homophobia in the American south in the 1960s from the perspective of a straight white man, won Best Picture last year. The default, vague, apolitical liberalism of Hollywood is a cover-up for kneejerk American rightwingery, which continues to tell and sell stories of white male supremacy, even as a politics of equality has gained a foothold in the public consciousness. This is the culture in which huge corporations like Marvel make appeasing gestures towards the LGBTQ+ community while obviously reckoning that being too inclusive would be financially risky. Repeat after me: the woke left is not winning this fight. 

But beyond all this, the idea that art is now subject to a tyrannical sort of moral inquisition is an idea that refuses to die. The most alarming part of it all is the implicit belief that art can, or even should, be divorced from politics. Why is it so hard to accept that poor history and politics – in other words, a failure to do right by people, show kindness to characters, represent people fairly – can in themselves be an artistic failing? How did we reach a situation where people truly believe art and politics to be discrete forces, the latter not to be considered in an honest appraisal of former? 

“The idea that art is now subject to a tyrannical sort of moral inquisition is an idea that refuses to die”

The truth is that this broadside usually comes from people who had never been forced to think about their own politics and privilege until very recently, by the democratising force of the internet – and the thought is painful. So criticisms of the art they had been thoughtlessly enjoying until so recently take on an almost personal quality, start to feel like an attack. 

In 2020, three years into a four year Donald Trump presidency, only the truly myopic don’t perceive the politics of the art they watch or listen to. We have seen this over and over, from Gamergate to the battle erupting online over the all-female Ghostbusters (during which Leslie Jones was subjected to vicious misogynoir). Film does not exist in a vacuum: therefore, what does it mean that in recent times we have had so many high profile films giving a ‘balanced’ perspective on both sides? A couple of years ago, I wrote about this problem of perspective in the films Wind River and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – which both centre white saviours and treat racism as a question of choices rather than a structural disease. This pattern is not, I think coincidental. 

In these bitterly divided times, it’s only right for critics – whose job it is to offer expertise, thoughts, insights, and guidance on art – to reflect deeply on the politics of the works they’re writing about, and their wider application in the world. In turn it is to be hoped that viewers can also learn to ask questions of the art they enjoy and of themselves.