Sofia Coppola’s sixth movie, The Beguiled, has been making waves recently. An adaptation of a 1966 book and 1971 movie featuring Clint Eastwood, the plot follows a group of isolated Confederate women and the havoc wrought by an unexpected Union soldier who drops into their midst. Starring such recognizable names as Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, it has been lauded as a feat of mood, art direction, acting, and costuming, with the cast as well as Coppola herself garnering platitudes: she won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival for the film, making her the first woman director in 56 years and only the second overall to win the prestigious award. Oscar buzz is already swirling.
However, the film has also generated controversary for its use of an entirely white cast against the backdrop of the Civil War-ravaged South, despite the fact that the source material included Black women characters in Edwina, a free mixed race teacher who hides her Black parentage, and Mattie, a house slave. They serve as moral counterpoints to the white characters in the original material, with Edwina ‘passing’ as white in order to escape intense racism and Mattie ordered to nurse the male soldier back to health as an exploration of how white women maintain white supremacy by lording their racial power over Black women (and men). Mattie is the only one to make it into the Eastwood film, while both have been removed from Coppola’s version — Edwina whitewashed into Dunst’s character and Mattie written out entirely.
Asked about the lack of acknowledgment of Black people in a movie set against the backdrop of the Civil War and the Confederacy, Coppola replied that she “…wished to explore the gender dynamics of the Confederacy, not the racial ones.” The backlash was swift, as many felt the immediate implication was that Black women do not have gender dynamics. Coppola also said she felt uncomfortable showcasing African-American women onscreen because of the heaviness of the topic and the “responsibility” of portraying a character of color, an argument that was similarly used for the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It is a weirdly circular thought process, wherein instead of attempting to respectfully depict minority characters, you whitewash them or remove them entirely. Not wanting to explore race so you cast all white is also a fairly odd way of looking at it because ‘white’ — brace yourselves — is still racial. The idea that a white cast removes any racial context rests on the assumption that whiteness itself is not a race, and rather, that it is invisible, the norm, and the standard.
Coppola prides herself on her women characters, but in every film they are actively white and insulated from the world around them. She whitewashed a NBPOC Latina character in her film The Bling Ring, explored the hostile ‘otherness’ of Japan through the eyes of an expat white woman in Lost in Translation, and managed to create an entire film around the sympathetic plight of a white woman aristocrat so selfishly removed from her people that she requested they “eat cake” while starving in Marie Antoinette. Continuing the trend in The Beguiled, her white women protagonists are the victims of a male Union soldier without any accountability for being Daughters of the Confederacy. Because of gender dynamics, not racial ones!
As such, The Beguiled is a prime example of white feminism, which prioritizes the lives, stories, rights, and emotions of white women over women of color. The film is also presented as a revisionist history where this corner of the American South is romanticized as an isolated dream world of pretty gowns, Spanish moss and old mansions, with Coppola stating she found herself drawn to the “exotic” nature of the Old South and encouraging cast members to watch Gone With The Wind for inspiration. She CAN’T have Black women in that setting because then her gossamer white women protagonists — confronting their repressed feelings, and ideas of womanhood and the patriarchy when the male character, played by Colin Farrell, upsets their dynamic — would be unsympathetic as they’re complicit in slavery. (Side note: the film was also shot in the same house where Beyoncé filmed her Black women-centric magnum opus, Lemonade. Fanning & Dunst took a pic in the chair where Beyoncé & Serena Williams famously sat in the ‘Sorry’ video and captioned it ‘#Lemonade,’ despite the fact that their movie had no Black women. Ruminate on that.)
Daily Beast staff writer Ira Madison III recently wrote what was essentially an argument for Sofia to stay in her white lane, stating that it’s fine for her to focus on white women stories because that’s what she knows and is good at. He also maintained that white directors are not required to include Black characters and that, in fact, he doesn’t trust them to do it because they more often than not mess up Black narratives, anyway. While I don’t disagree with that particular sentiment, respectfully, I think it misses the point entirely. For one thing, had Coppola stayed in her white lane, this movie would never have been made in the first place, because even with no Black people, American chattel slavery is the center of any & all Confederacy narratives. The artistic choice to attempt to decenter race from gender in a Confederate narrative is so disingenuous as to be willfully ignorant.
And for another, if the argument is that Coppola just needs to ‘stay in her white lane,’ then every time they do an interview for The Beguiled they should be required to mention whiteness. Say ‘white women’. White. Women. The driving force of public relations for this film has been the pro-woman message of having a female director and a predominantly female cast, with interview after interview championing Coppola for her woman-centric point of view. An interview Kidman and Coppola did with ABC News, for example, intensely focuses on the ‘feminism’ of the movie, titled ‘Q&A: Coppola and Kidman on female gaze of The Beguiled. But an invisible whiteness hangs before every mention of ‘Women’ in the article, and we’re advocating for white directors like Coppola to stay in their white lanes, right? So MENTION the whiteness. If whiteness isn’t invisible, the norm, or the standard, but instead a deliberate artistic choice, then that title becomes: ‘Q&A: Coppola and Kidman on [WHITE] female gaze of ‘The Beguiled.’
Other direct quotes from the interview would be changed thusly:
‘…the headmistress of a [WHITE] girls’ school in the Civil War-era South…’
‘The two [WHITE] women gathered recently in Los Angeles to discuss their film… and the reinvigorated support of [WHITE] women in Hollywood.’
‘COPPOLA: ‘…& w/our movie getting attention — it’s a WHITE female cast, a WHITE female story.’
KIDMAN: ‘And that it’s seen from the [WHITE] female perspective… the [WHITE] female gaze… It is important.’
See how that changes the meaning of their words? Mainstream feminism says ‘women’ when they mean WHITE, and it’s exhausting. And again, while I respect Ira, as a Black woman I think that he, a man, missed the point. It’s not just about having or not having Black people in Coppola’s movie, or any movie. It’s not about asking white directors to tell Black narratives (hire Black writers and directors!). It’s not about diversity quotas or PC brownie points. It’s about white feminism as something that specifically & deliberately decenters Black women & other WOC because ‘gender not race.’ It’s about the normalization of white revisionist history and championing this as some type of feminist breakthrough when it’s straight up Confederate sympathizing and white supremacist nonsense centering White People Stories — because white women are still white — over everyone else.
And at the end of the day, Sofia Coppola is a cultural producer & we are allowed to critique what she creates, regardless of if we ‘trust’ her or not. Sure, I’d prefer a Black creative to make ANY and all Black narratives, if I’m being honest. But that seems like missing the forest for the trees. Coppola loves making her white girls tragic victims of circumstance due to gender instead of active participants in oppressive systems, and I will call her out — and all white feminists, for that matter — on their persistence in saying ‘women’ & ‘women’s rights’ when they mean WHITE women and WHITE women’s rights. Should she stay in her white lane? Absolutely. And that means she should own that her version of feminism is WHITE ONLY, as white only as a Jim Crow-era water fountain, AND CALL IT WHITE ONLY IN EVERY INTERVIEW. Own it. Own that she utilizes a racist, white supremacist point of view, because you can’t have it both ways. You can’t publicly champion yourself as some type of advocate for women, then openly admit to removing Black women from your narratives because of ‘gender dynamics, not racial ones.’
It’s racist & insulting. Especially in a story that has two (!!) canon Black women characters, ripe for their gender dynamics to be explored in a thoughtful way. Perhaps ‘staying in her white lane’ means Coppola should’ve passed on this one entirely, because this issue is so much deeper than, ‘Why should Sofia have to include Black people in her movie?’ Black women have to speak up, intentionally and thoughtfully, about the repeated erasure of women of color in mainstream feminism. I’ve seen a lot of Black men, people I admire & respect, misunderstand why this bothers Black women specifically. It’s just ‘Black people’ to them, and so often I have seen this argument reduced to, “Oh, so you think Black people should be in her white narrative? Why can’t she just stay in her white lane?” Not only should she stay firmly in her white lane, she should call her white feminism what it is: one of the foundational tenets of white supremacy.
One that only recognizes whiteness as having value and gender dynamics worthy of exploration. One that elevates white femmes to the ultimate pinnacle of purity and innocence despite their own violence and savagery towards Black people, including Black women. One that leads a white supremacist to say, “They’re raping our women,” before they shoot nine innocent people in a Black church in Charleston. One that requires Black women to march in the back of a feminist march. One that says a white woman would cut off her right arm before allowing a Negro to get the vote before her. Their entire feminist identity is bound up in white supremacy. That’s what this is. So just call it what it is. Say you wanted to make a racist, white supremacist fantasy, Sofia Coppola, and go.
That’s how you stay in your lane.
This piece first ran at Medium.com under the heading, “Should Sofia Coppola Stay In Her White Lane? Sure. But That Would Mean Acknowledging Her Racism.”
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.