In interviews, director Spike Lee often tells the story of the miseducation (or an attempt at one) that he received during his first year of graduate film school at NYU about the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. “They taught that [Nation director] D.W. Griffith is the father of the cinema,” he has recalled. “They talk about all the ‘innovations’—which he did. But they never really talked about the implications of Birth of a Nation, never really talked about how the film was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK.” He rebuked Nation’s racism directly in his freshman film project, The Answer, and it nearly got him kicked out of the school.
Nation, certainly, was trailblazing in its approach to long-form filmmaking during the medium’s infancy. Griffith helped invent film’s language, including the concept of parallel editing. Nonetheless, Lee’s professors’ focus on the film’s form and disregard of its politics—which portrays Black men (many played by white men in blackface) as savage threats to the sanctity of white womanhood and the Ku Klux Klan as a necessary corrective—bespeaks reverence to a “classic,” a film whose importance as art was allowed to supersede its content and real-life effects. According to Lee and several experts, the film inspired a Klan renaissance that led to lynchings. (If there is any question as to the power of representation in pop culture, Nation suggests it was already answered at the dawn of the movie industry.)
Nation, you see, is canon, and canon is shorthand for institutionalized excellence. The film canon is roughly comprised of works widely recognized as important and being of high quality, as determined by organizations like the Academy of Arts and Sciences (responsible for the Oscars) and the American Film Institute. Other potential canon-building factors include critics (as contributors to list-publishing periodicals as well as their own consensus-forming mass), universities, distributors, and even audience consensus (measured most reliably by a film’s box office).
Generally speaking, the canon filled with the usual suspects (Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, The Godfather, Citizen Kane). There are canons within the canon (Black film) and canons within canons (Black queer film), but when I talk about the canon here, I’m talking about the supposedly unimpeachable classics that most people in the United States with a working knowledge of film have seen or are at least aware of. It’s a bit of a difficult thing to nail down and discuss with absolute precision partly because it’s based on a necessarily subjective rubric (even when voted on by a committee) and is prone to reconfiguration, albeit slight. Canon like a bag blowing in the wind, letting in and out air, shifting and contorting slightly, while retaining its general shape.
Rarely is that which has been let into the canon, though, work made by people who aren’t straight white men. The correlation between greatness in film and the creativity of straight white men is so strong that one could easily infer the gatekeepers are in fact arguing for causality. In this time of monument demolition and the rigorous reconsideration of orthodoxy, here is a way of thinking about the way that the film canon upholds white supremacy: It seeks to recognize supremacy in film, and the vast majority of the filmmakers within are white. It’s that simple.
“The issue is systemic,” said Andrew Ahn, who directed 2016's acclaimed Spa Night and this year’s Driveways. “You have an industry, created from a country, from a world that is racist. It reveals itself in the work. There’s an opportunity to correct that now that there’s an awareness of it, in a way that I don’t think people were wise to even 10 years ago.”
Time does change things. When streaming platform HBO Max announced a few weeks ago that it was taking down Gone with the Wind, it raised the hackles of the right, with perhaps Megyn “Santa Claus Is White” Kelly shouting the loudest (at least, as loud as tweets can be) about censorship. The streaming platform, though, announced it will be putting the movie back up with a new introduction by cinema professor and TV host Jacqueline Stewart to frame the movie with proper historical context. Context is crucial, as it chips away at the notion that “classic” status renders a film beyond critique.
Institutions that help determine canon are, unsurprisingly, predominantly white. While Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden is Black, the members of the National Film Preservation Board that she heads are vastly white. The National Film Preservation Board is responsible for the National Film Registry, an annually updated list of films “selected because of their cultural, historic and aesthetic importance to the nation’s film heritage.” Meanwhile, in July 2019, a piece on the Academy that ran in the New York Times announced in its headline that “Minorities Make Up Nearly a Third of New Oscar Voters.” However, the reporting betrayed the story’s titular hopefulness:
The new class would not do much to change the overall makeup of the elite group. If all the invitations are accepted — some people have declined in the past, one being Woody Allen — female membership will rise to 32 percent from 31 percent, according to the academy. The percentage of minority members would remain 16.
But even the most diverse group of gatekeepers would still only have a finite pool of existing films to choose from, and Western film has historically been the dominion of white men. In the 2020 edition of its annual Hollywood Diversity Report, published in February, UCLA reported that in 2019, almost 85 percent of the directors of Hollywood’s top films were white and 85 percent of them were men.
Even without giving the canon-building institutions the benefit of the doubt for their recent attempts at diversifying, it is clear that it’s very hard to assemble a diverse canon out of monocultural constituents.
In terms of being able to create something that’s even eligible to be canonized, there are fundamental factors informed by privilege. “I think about who has the money to go to film school, who would have been admitted to those programs and therefore has the experience and network to make a film in the first place,” said Dr. Racquel Gates, associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, and author of the book Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture. Additionally, in the event that someone with lesser access to resources does make a film, Gates said, the lack of resources may inhibit the film from achieving certain tenets of “quality” associated with making a film worthy of the canon: things like strong performances, pristine editing, perfect lighting. She said that when she has shown her students the existing works of early Black film director Oscar Micheaux, some have responded by describing them as “bad.” “He didn’t have endless amount of film to shoot on and so if an actor screwed up a line it just stayed in,” explained Gates.
It’s rare, too, for a director to achieve classic status their first time out of the gate. Canonization often requires a sense of paying one’s dues. “Part of getting your one film in the canon is actually making a lot of other films and staying in consciousness,” said Ahn, citing the work of Alice Wu, who released her second film, The Half of It, this year, 15 years after she made a quiet splash with the queer romcom Saving Face. “That is ultimately going to favor people who can make it in the industry much easier, which is still: straight white guy.”
Whether intentionally or not, those with the opportunities create the norms, which is why until very recently (and still frequently as it is), movies centering marginalized identities have been considered niche.
“I always talk about what things get to be considered universal,” said Gates. “Why can’t a story of a Black queer woman like Pariah be considered a universal coming of age story according to social norms?”
UCLA’s data suggests that we’re a long way off from a film playing-field that would allow anything close to a fair game in terms of canonization. In the meantime, people who work on, present, teach, and write about film are making do with what they have, and even for those who are specifically interested in social justice, that can mean a direct engagement with canon.
“For me, it’s important for [students] to know that there is a thing that is considered the canon,” said Gates. “I can’t responsibly let them come out of our program with no familiarity with Citizen Kane, to use an example of a thing I teach that I don’t particularly love. I always teach it in quotation marks: These are the things that film studies scholars and cinephiles have regarded as the best, as classic. That doesn’t mean that they are. Whether we agree with that or not, that categorization impacts all of film culture.”
“As a maker, [canon] is kind of unavoidable,” said Ahn. However: “As a queer Asian American trying to make American film, at some point, I just have to put that aside because it almost feels irrelevant. In some ways, if I don’t consider the canon, it allows me to make work in a liberated way that would hopefully help it become part of canon.”
Director of film programming at Brooklyn Academy of Music Ashley Clark created a programming series called Beyond the Canon. Since 2018, the monthly series has, per its mission statement, sought “to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion.” (Lockdown, naturally, has temporarily suspended the series’s run.) Clark’s programming has paired, for example, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil with Carl Franklin’s One False Move, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon with F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off, and Alan J. Pakula’s Klute with Jane Campion’s In the Cut.
“I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to do something fun and accessible and certainly not in a framework that was dismissive of these great works. In my introductions I always say, “I’m not trying to say, ‘Fuck Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg,’” or, ‘Destroy Orson Welles,’” said Clark, who describes the work he does alongside BAM VP of Film and Strategic Programming Gina Duncan as “intentional.” “The reason we play these so-called canonical titles is because they have actually been foundational in a lot of people’s film knowledge, so it’s really a case of the expansion of that.”
Executive producer at the Criterion Collection Kim Hendrickson said the company is focused on “aggressively changing how the canon is defined.” Criterion is its own mini-canon. As a distributor of physical media (with about five monthly new Blu-ray/DVD releases a month) and the operator of the streaming platform the Criterion Channel, Criterion is a label that lends a certain refinement and prestige when presenting a film. Criterion’s partnership with the film distribution company Janus, which has distributed the work of canonical European white men like Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Federico Fellini, as well as male Japanese master directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu, means that the label is frequently regarded as the provenance of slightly artier usual suspects. But the company has a long history of disrupting its own canon. Relatively early into its issuing of DVDs, Criterion released an edition of Michael Bay’s Armageddon (sandwiched between releases of Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V). In 2016, Criterion released editions of camp classics Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (in the same month, no less), the latter of which was the studio debut of soft-core pornographer Russ Meyer.
“It’s never meant to be an unwelcoming place,” said Hendrickson of Criterion. “It’s meant to show films that are exemplary of their kind. It’s not meant to define what is great and what is a classic, because classics can be many things. Genre films have their own integrity and we love them. The collection as a whole is meant to be representative of the breadth of filmmaking, not of a certain mentality in the office about what makes something part of a canon.”
In May, via phone, Hendrickson described how the company chooses its typically deluxe reissues—the criteria of Criterion, if you will. She said that while things like release anniversaries sometimes play a role, it largely has to do with what restorations are underway at various film labs, and what they themselves have access to. “It’s not always about desire; it’s about practicality,” explained Hendrickson. “When you want someone to be part of the collection, you have to obtain the rights, you have to get the materials, and those things don’t always line up.”
In addition to releasing more movies by women than it ever has and spotlighting women directors every Wednesday on its streaming platform, Criterion has been using its channel to “highlight films that focus on Black lives.” On June 4, in the wake of the national Black Lives Matter uprising and many brands’ scrambles to signal compassion, the company sent out an email blast announcing it would be donating to Black causes and that works by Black directors like Charles Burnett, Maya Angelou, and Julie Dash would be made available for free, with no subscription necessary. (Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust is canon, depending on who you ask, and perhaps pushed into that echelon as a result of renewed interest in it when it was referenced in Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade.) Because work cannot become canon without being seen, a move like tearing down a paywall facilitates the critical component of access (at least in theory, since good broadband is another necessary component, and one that is tethered to economics).
“The question then is: How do we sustain that so it doesn’t become a special thing?” said Clark, who’s worked with Criterion on multiple projects. “It’s an extension of the question of Black History Month or particular heritage months when really these are things that should be philosophically foundational to who you are if you believe in the diversity of film culture.”
Film critic Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, whose writing regularly appears in the New York Times, watched a relatively obscure 1978 film she championed become, if not canon, then something with all the markings of canonical film. In an email, Kim (who is, full disclosure, a friend of mine), recalled:
I had programmed Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends at Olympia Film Fest in late 2017. In early 2018, I wrote about that film for my [Reel Women column at Broadly], and then was invited to introduce it at BAM. And then it hit the Criterion Channel. I am not taking credit for the canonization of Girlfriends, but it had this resurgence thanks to a synergy of programmers and writers supporting it (obviously 40 years later, but still in the filmmaker’s lifetime). That was really cool to watch.
Last year, Girlfriends was one of the seven films by a woman that was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
A force that speaks directly to and of subjective taste, canon is at the mercy of the people it serves and, as Clark points out, “Young people don’t really care about the canon. Alternate Gen Z canons are being made on Tik Tok right now.” And people who do care broadly about film culture can do so without being fully invested in its parameters.
“I grew up Catholic and I think of the Oscars as going to Catholic mass,” said Gates. “I’m not really on board with the dogma that’s happening here, but there’s a spectacle that I enjoy and not only do I enjoy it, but it’s familiar because it’s what I grew up with. The politics of quality at the Oscars are distinctly Oscars.” Gates qualified her comments here as not intending to invalidate the “very real arguments and efforts to diversify the Oscars,” such as April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, but nonetheless believes that “there’s a problem when you confer upon these institutions the ability to validate or assign value.”
Gates recalled the 1990 ceremony, when a movie about a racist-but-not-too-racist old white woman and her Black chauffeur, Driving Miss Daisy, won four awards and Spike Lee’s searing and hilarious portrait of racial unrest in Bed-Stuy, Do the Right Thing, won none. The latter wasn’t nominated in any of the big five categories, and while the former won Best Picture and Best Actress (Jessica Tandy), “nobody’s teaching Driving Miss Daisy,” said Gates. “Nobody’s commemorating the 30th anniversary of Driving Miss Daisy. Nobody’s doing discussion panels about Driving Miss Daisy.” Do the Right Thing is still taught, still watched, still written about. It is not a stretch to call it one of the most important films of the past 50 years.
It strikes me that with the existing canon that we have, especially that of it which is blatantly racist, a move like what HBO Max is doing with Gone With the Wind is one in the right direction, and perhaps the best thing that can be done for the sake of film education. It doesn’t ignore the historical relevance of Wind (its popularity, in fact, is telling in itself), but it does check it for its point of view and overall historical accuracy. The days of allowing something to rest on its laurels simply for being a classic will be numbered if such notions are interrogated with rigor. And a mass consideration of what we supposedly hold dear as a culture would be pure, unadulterated progress.
As Kim wrote in her email to me: “I think ‘canon’ is often thought of as a stationary fixture when really it is and should be fluid. I think it absolutely can be a relevant way of thinking about film, but it doesn’t just stop at acceptance—it should be a resource to challenge and add to.”
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated Ashley Clark’s position at BAM. It is director of film programming.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)