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The Sad Life of the Conservative Film Critic

Still from “Get Out.”

Pity the conservative film critic. Suffering through so many juvenile, raunchy flicks and mindless blockbusters. Why even the great films are marred. No matter how extraordinary the film, something comes along to spoil it. Something…politically correct.

Maybe it’s the villain, an evil giant multinational corporation dumping oceans of toxins into the local river, which also happens to be the town’s water supply.

Maybe it’s Mr. Potter’s bank threatening to foreclose on the old homestead.

Typical liberal pablum, snarls the conservative critic. All corporations are evil. Banks are foreclosing on everybody’s sick grandma’s farm.

It hardly matters that socially conscious films like A Civil Action, North Country, Norma Rae, Silkwood and Erin Brockovich are extraordinarily entertaining films with Oscar-level direction and performances. What matters to the conservative film critic is that they are mere whored-up vehicles for socialist propaganda. And only he (and it’s always a he) is wise enough to see it.

Whatever would American film audiences have done without the conservative film critic to enlighten them as to the “awfulness” of Jordan Peele’s Get Out? The film boasted a perfect 100 score from critics on the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. That is until National Review’s Armond White reviewed the film. Where other critics saw the “satirical horror movie we’ve been waiting for, a mash-up of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and The Stepford Wives that’s more fun than either and more illuminating, too,” Armand, who is African American, saw a film—which he dubbed “Get Whitey”—that was “tailored to please the liberal status quo.”

The Chicago Reader’s J.R. Jones must have been watching another horror-comedy called Get Out, because he saw a brilliant film “that sticks closely to genre convention even as its ribbing of white liberals hardens into a social point.”

Selma was another film with a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes whose perfect score was spoiled by a critic from a conservative publication, this time Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times. Andrews, unlike every other reviewer, panned Selma as “a dead-as-a-plank re-enactment of a pietised ‘then’: a 50-year-old battle of ideals between Good Guys (MLK, LBJ in civil rights reform mode) and Bad Guys (Governor Wallace, keeping the Alabama hate fires burning) that seems exactly that: 50 years.”

Unsurprisingly, National Review’s White similarly hated the film (though he loved that jingoistic homage to endless war American Sniper). White called Selma “a mediocre and disingenuous film” and criticized the movie for “rubbing soft spots” and “sore spots” (i.e., depicting the murders of black children and white allies) instead of “making meaning.” (“Soft spot” is certainly a strange way to describe the murder of four black girls by a white supremacist.)

Until recently there was a paucity of films starring, written by or directed by African Americans. Blacks largely played the role of thugs or servants. As the role of blacks in Hollywood has slowly begun to broaden it has presented a unique problem for conservative magazines. How to criticize socially conscious African American films without sounding blatantly racist?

National Review seems to have hit on a successful solution when it hired Armond White. As an African American, White can freely trash socially conscious, historical “black  films” like Selma and Twelve Years a Slave with little fear of a racial backlash. White can say things that white conservative critics are thinking, that they would have easily spouted twenty years ago, but dare not say in public today. And he says a lot of such things. For instance: “Who can forget the throwback image of British director Steve McQueen jumping Jim Crow at this year’s Oscars?”

Then there was White’s depiction of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African American girls as “one of The Movement’s Greatest Hits.”

Not to mention his constant dog whistles that Hollywood Jews control the media’s image of black people.

When Twelve Years a Slave (Academy Award: Best Picture) came out National Review cautiously asked scholar Thomas Hibbs to review the film. Hibbs turned in a thoughtful piece which lauded the film. The editors tried again. In the print edition, conservative New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat reviewed the film. Again, a positive review.

Soon after that, National Review hired White. He had dismissed Twelve Years a Slave in CityArts writing that it “belongs to the torture porn genre with ‘Hostel,’ ‘The Human Centipede’ and the ‘Saw’ franchise.”

Wrote White:

These tortures might satisfy the resentment some Black people feel about slave stories (“It makes me angry”), further aggravating their sense of helplessness, grievance–and martyrdom. It’s the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of ‘The Help’ and ‘The Butler.’ And the perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like ‘12 Years a Slave’ to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history. But, as with ‘The Exorcist,’ there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. The fact that McQueen’s harshness was trending among Festivalgoers (in Toronto, Telluride and New York) suggests that denial still obscures the history of slavery: Northup’s travail merely make it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad (as wags complained about Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ as an ‘official’ Holocaust movie–which very few people went to see twice). McQueen’s fraudulence further accustoms moviegoers to violence and brutality.

Just the thing National Review was looking for. A black reviewer who could spout highfaluting  hokum for its racist white audience.

White was immediately given a chance to write about the film. He went profoundly negative calling the film “decidedly unpleasant (and unpopular).” It was “awarded (Best Picture) purely to make the Academy feel good about itself as a defense against Hollywood’s standard segregated practices.” It “distorted the history of slavery while encouraging and continuing Hollywood’s malign neglect of slavery’s contemporary impact.”

Conservative film criticism is so easy any conservative can do it. Simply choose a film with a social justice theme (say, family farmers versus the bank), then ignore everything else about the film. National Review critic Kevin Williamson carried this off spectacularly when he was tasked with reviewing Hell and High Water. Again, the film garnered overwhelmingly glowing reviews, including a 96 top critics score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Hell and High Water, which pitted two rural everymen versus The Bank, seemed to resonate with everyone: snobby film critics and conservatism’s base in the boonies. One might think that in this day and age when conservatism’s base is rabidly anti-Wall Street, a conservative film critic would go ga-ga over Hell and High Water.

Wrong.

“[M]an, is this movie stupid,” wrote Williamson. Who then spends 700 words nitpicking ways other than bank robbery that the heroes could have raised enough money to save the family homestead. Like asking for a loan.

Conservative critics often seem unable to comprehend the basics of theme or characterization. One tried-and-true theme is that of the underdog battling some powerful entity–for example, the family farmers in Places of the Heart taking on The Bank, or the spunky legal assistant battling the giant chemical corporation poisoning a small town in Erin Brockovich. Conservatives would have us turn these themes on their head, so that we would root for the poor beleaguered chemical company that was only trying to maximize shareholder value like any true blue American company is expected to do.

Williamson offers an alternative movie pitch: Two brothers walk into a financial institution with an oil-lease document and say, “Hello, there, Mr. Banker! I’m about to have a passive income of $600,000 a year and would like a $40,000 loan to pay off the lien on my property until that first monthly check comes in. Would you like to be my banker?”

Perhaps this is why there are few conservative screenwriters in Hollywood. They think a man with a line of equity walking into a bank and getting a loan would make riveting drama.

This is not say conservative film critics hate every film. They love most Clint Eastwood movies. They love the Left Behind series. Not long ago National Review put out its own list of “greatest conservative films.” Among them, the amateurish B-movie Red Dawn, about the Soviet Union invading the US. Many of the films on the list have nothing to do with conservatism. A Simple Plan? It is hard to see what conservatives like about a greedy guy getting away with countless murders–unless they simply have a hard on for greedy guys. Braveheart? Why because of Mel “fucking Jews” Gibson? Team America: World Police. Conservatives don’t seem to realize this film was satire. Ghostbusters? Groundhog Day? Okay, fun films, but they are about as conservative as Bernie Sanders and far from the greatest anything.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the conservative film critic. Clint Eastwood still has a few movies left in him before he shuffles muttering and drooling into the sunset. As does Mel Gibson. And now that Steven Bannon has vacated the West Wing we will likely be treated to more documentaries about Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. But in the end it’s more fun to pan a great film than to praise a mediocre one. Besides, the base doesn’t tune into FOX News and Rush Limbaugh for good news or good reviews. It tunes in to feel angry. That’s why it reads conservative film reviews that begin “Man, is this movie stupid.”

They get off on it.

Chris Orlet is the author of the novel In the Pines: A Small Town Noir.

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