Sofia Coppola has been receiving a lot of fanfare for her latest movie The Beguiled, which stars Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. It was a hit at Cannes, where Coppola became just the second woman to win the award for Best Director in the festival’s history.
But as the Confederacy-set film approaches its Friday release, a new conversation has emerged regarding its treatment of race—or rather, the absence of racial discussion. The film has been billed as a much more nuanced exploration of sexual repression and Antebellum-era female dynamics than the 1971 film it’s remaking, but as many have pointed out, Coppola left out a character from the original book and the 1971 version of the story: a slave who initially takes care of an injured Union soldier.
In an email to BuzzFeed, Coppola said that she wanted to concentrate on the gender dynamics of the story and not the racial ones, writing, “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” While it’s true that the depiction of black enslavement and pain is too common in Hollywood, parsing out gender and race as separate ideas only works for white people—for most people of color, they are intertwined, especially if you’re making a movie about women in the South during slavery.
Yes, a slave character is probably difficult to develop if you’re trying to create a vacuum of white womanhood in which to throw Colin Farrell, but to completely take the character out of the story only makes things worse. I’m pretty sure that if The Beguiled can undermine male desire, there’s a creative way to also undermine racial oppression, but perhaps that’s too optimistic.
Coppola also discussed the issue at a public screening of the film on Saturday, as the Los Angeles Times reported:
“In the book there was a slave character … and it was treated in a very stereotypical way,” she said of the portrayal of the character, played in the 1971 film by blues singer and actress Mae Mercer. “It didn’t seem respectful. I thought it was too big of a subject to brush over lightly, so I decided not to have that character at all.”
While it seems pretty wild to be able to successfully ignore any racial discourse at all in a film set during the Civil War, I suppose Coppola is just being honest in her inability and refusal to thoughtfully engage with the racial reality of the time. If only she hadn’t also whitewashed The Bling Ring, rendering Diana Tamayo, an undocumented member of the notorious group of teen thieves, as just another rich white kid. Both instances of whitewashing could come from a fear of not wanting to be a white woman portraying people of color in a less-than-positive light, but to ignore reality is in itself racial insensitivity.
Rendering a very white film setting even more white is certainly an artistic decision, but it still ignores the fundamental racial realities of the Civil War, an issue that is more relevant than ever before.