Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Reel Opinion: THE BEGUILED Brouhaha

Everyone secretly loves a good controversy. Some of us look at it as an opportunity to get something off our chests or to prove a point, while others just like to sit back with a tub of popcorn and watch the show. There are always heroes on both sides, and arguments are everywhere. In movies, debates rage all over the internet, and on occasion in bars over cold beverages which fuels the fun. One controversy of the film world of 2017 has somewhat flown under the radar of mainstream movie debate, and it comes from the latest film by Sofia Coppola, THE BEGUILED.

Coppola’s film, which she also wrote, is a re-adaptation of the Civil War-era novel of the same name, which was made into a movie in 1971 starring Clint Eastwood. The film has been met with critical acclaim (read Reel Speak’s review HERE), and recently earned Coppola a Best Director award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival; making her only the second woman to do so. The film is less of a remake of the Eastwood version and more of a fresh take on the novel, as this version takes the perspective of the women in the film. It has been hailed as a clever, and refreshing approach to a story that explores old themes of gender, morality, and loyalty.  

But Coppola’s decisions have not all been met with high praise, with one particular move, done during the writing stage, earning a lot of ire from women’s and black-rights groups. The 1966 novel had a black female slave as a supporting character, which Coppola cut from the film. The term “whitewashing” quickly was tossed around in criticism of the omission of the character, with Coppola defending it by saying that was not the depiction of an African American character that she wanted to present to young girls.

This isn’t the first time that Coppola has done some altering with history in order to spend more time with her characters and plot. In her 2006 film MARIE ANTOINETTE, the French Revolution was kept far in the background while the main character’s rise and fall took over. The 1971 Eastwood version featured the perspective of this black female slave, but Coppola disposed of the character and explained it away in the film with one line; something about all the slaves leaving during war.

From a nuts-and-bolts filmmaking perspective, Coppola’s omission of the character can be easily explained. Sometimes brevity and simplicity work best, and a film packed with female characters and one injured male soldier already gave her enough to work with. And there’s also the issue of the black female slave being extremely overdone in cinema over the last 50 years; from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to FORREST GUMP (1994), the character has become so commonplace it’s almost become a tired, boilerplate addition to every Civil War era film; nearly to the point of becoming part of the scenery. Perhaps that’s exactly what Coppola was trying to avoid.

Directors always have it tough when adapting a novel or remaking an old film; everyone wants a fresh perspective on it to make it seem new, but making too many changes draws complaints as well. There’s a balance to be struck, and while that is possible, it’s impossible to please everyone. Coppola’s explanation of wanting to insulate young girls from the image of a black female slave is well-intentioned, but seems to be delaying the inevitable as her audience has to at least be aware of history, and the film itself goes into some dark and nasty territory at its end anyway. But what it all comes down to is what we see on the screen. When watching THE BEGUILED, there doesn’t seem to be a gaping hole in the story, and that’s what matters most. Movie comes first; that’s what Coppola was likely thinking, and that’s what all directors should think about. The debates will happen anyway, as all good film should spark discussion from both sides of the bar.

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