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Will audiences be the key to changing the mainstream film industry?

Content warning: sexual harassment

To an extent, we are all complicit in maintaining the established power structures at the core of the Western film industry. Hollywood has been scrutinised, in recent years, over its inability to successfully diversify racial, sexual and social representation in film. I would argue that film journalism, even at the most informal level, has shaped itself in such a way that it unintentionally disguises the deeper issues in contemporary cinema, choosing to direct the audience’s gaze away from context towards content.

Analysing a feature as an audience member involves, primarily, a discussion of the composition – all of its elements and devices, and whether or not they are effective. This formalistic approach is a tool of connoisseurs, the use of which appears to excuse the lack of exploration in the wider social impacts of mainstream films. Should a film be intentionally socially critical, then similarly critical discussion opens up, and complex interpretations of a feature’s quality and influence arise. Is it fair, then, to judge some films on different criteria to others? Should we not also be questioning the social politics and influence of Hollywood’s key releases?

The film industry’s status quo can be maintained by continually praising films with conventionally limited scope as masterpieces. When put into context, classic Hollywood keystones seem to have a degree of flexibility, as social progress has evolved a great deal since the early ages of cinema. There are still a vast number of earlier “masterpieces” blighted by bigotry or general unawareness, but a retrospective discussion of politics of classic movies is seldom seen in the mainstream media.

Cinema today should have cleaner politics, as our media is ever powerful and can be damningly critical, yet there are still so many issues to be processed and addressed. Mistakes in representation where “realism” is intended to be applied is concerning, as it frequently looks as though cinema’s mainstream has no clue what the world actually looks like. Constantly reinforcing the normalisation of an outdated view of society makes progress and change much more difficult to attain. Therefore, as it stands, the status quo will remain intact indefinitely and use their influence to keep a specific group of individuals at the top of industry, unless communities demand something different.

The allegations against prolific Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein bring to light fundamental issues in the industry at present. Decades of sexual misconduct have often been overlooked because of the influence held individuals with power to prevent victims from speaking out.

Why is power so tightly concentrated in the film industry? Abuse claims directed towards Woody Allen throughout the past few years have not prevented his films from still being revered as highly influential historical landmarks in modern cinema. Weinstein’s filmography as producer is impressive, and prestigious; his associated films will likely escape scrutiny, yet the accusations of illicit behaviour occurred within cinematic production parameters. Are audiences going to cease enjoying his work because of what they now know about the man? Likely not.

Are audiences then partly complicit in allowing poor practice to continue, on screen and off screen, due to a lack of challenge? Do all releases need to be contextualised and assessed on their value to wider society? Seeing more just, liberal and diverse representation on screen will come from hyperawareness of who and what we do and don’t see in Hollywood, and appropriate criticism reacting to the result of our awareness. Though television may be doing a more successful job at liberating film – employing a greater spectrum of writers and directors, casting lead and supporting roles sensitively and appropriately – cinema still has a very long way to go, in terms of creating a film culture which supports all communities across society, and so does film criticism.

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