Sometimes, Non-Black Critics Shouldn’t Critique Black Media

Panelists including the director, screenwriter, editor and composer attend the Film Independent Special Screening of
Panelists including the director, screenwriter, editor and composer attend the Film Independent Special Screening of

Panelists including the director, screenwriter, editor and composer attend the Film Independent Special Screening of "The Woman King" at Harmony Gold on Dec. 15, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

So, I saw the new “House Party”film last weekend. 

The feature film debut of music video director Charles “Calmatic” Kidd II, the remake of the beloved 1990 classic is…interesting. The hook: Two 20-something, struggling professional cleaners-slash-party promoters (Jacob Latimore and Tosin Cole) need to come up on some quick cash, lest their lives fall apart. After cleaning LeBron James’ Los Angeles home, they decide to throw a, well, house party there while James is out of town on a retreat. 

The mere conceit of executing a celebrity-laden party in the home of the NBA’s biggest star (who produced the film with Maverick Carter) without him, the police or anyone else who matters being alerted in advance is preposterous ― but that’s probably the point. Suspension of disbelief makes the film work. 

“House Party”currently sits at 32% on the film critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with no shortage of scathing reviews. Katie Walsh at the Los Angeles Timeswrote: “This comedically and narratively muddled take on the title (not even the original premise) is deeply unfunny and downright tiresome.” The Guardian’s Andrew Lawrence wrote in his one-star review: “James’s heart and hangups might be in the right place. But unless you’ve got nothing else going this weekend, his House Party is one to skip.”

The original film has cult classic status, and the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry last year. The remake is not as good as the original, but it’s still fun enough to not merit a one-star review. It’s perfectly serviceable entertainment, much like the original was when we watched it for the first time three decades ago. I’d defy any middle-aged Black person who appreciated the first film to find zero enjoyment in the music, the callbacks to the original or the celebrity cameos, which are so numerous I’m sure I missed a few.

At the risk of reducing Black folks to the monolith (I know we aren’t), we’ll always have a different context of cultural appreciation toward material created for us, by us, as I imagine is the case with every underrepresented minority group. I believe that’s represented in some of the non-Black (and especially white) critics blasting “House Party”with poor reviews.

As it stands, most professional media critics are non-Black. According to Zippia, a website that tracks these numbers, some 71.3% of film critics are white and just 5.3% are African American. The disparity is so vast and the culture differences are so stark that Gil Robertson co-founded The African American Film Critics Association just to give Black film excellence the flowers that the Academy Awards never seem to recognize. 

When I read certain reviews of Black media, I often wonder how influenced they are by their inherent separation from Black culture, and how much of an impact that has on their final reviews. I call it the “Seinfeld” Paradox: Comparing highly beloved yet incredibly white content to anything with even a tincture of ethnic culture.

If a non-Black television critic compares the humor of, say, HBO’s “South Side” ― which might be the funniest and Blackest show on television right now ― to the unrepentantly alabaster “Emily in Paris,” methinks something gets lost in translation. Do I believe “Insecure”had excellent seasons and seasons that didn’t quite work? Yeah, but I don’t want a 700-word critical analysis of the show from a white critic born and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 

Would your average non-Black critic ever deduce, as I did, that Nicco Annan’s Uncle Clifford from “P-Valley”was the best character in all of television in 2022? Probably not, and that’s just fine, but I recognize that we’re not bringing the same cultural context to our deductions.    

I recognize that the “Power”universe doesn’t exist in the pantheon of universally beloved television shows like “The Wire”or “The Sopranos.” But Black folks watch more television than other ethnic groups, and we made those shows ultra-popular because the characters connect with us in a way that the token Black characters written by white writers on network television do not.

If you need any truly definitive proof of what I write, know that “The Last Dragon”sits at a meager 59% on Rotten Tomatoes, while every Black person between 35 and 65 knows that film is the single greatest creation in the history of all creation.  

There’s also a subtle racist undertone to some of these reviews, as we saw with the recent Will Smith drama “Emancipation.” Problems with that film are manifold: cloying Oscar bait, Smith’s ridiculous accent, and that it’s the 5,028,482nd slave narrative film that no one asked for.

But it’s almost impossible to read a review of “Emancipation”that doesn’t mention Smith’s almost year-old assault on Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars. I absolutely believe Smith was out-of-pocket and that the penalty the Academy meted out is just. But white critics using the attack in the context of a negative review (and putting it in the headline) feels more insidious than just a condemnation of the film.  

It all underlines a larger issue regarding how Hollywood in general applies its lens toward the critiques and professional awards of Black content. If film and television awards committees have shown us anything, it’s masturbatory, Damien Chazelle-directed paeans to “old” (read: white) Hollywood like “La La Land” ― which famously lost Best Picture to “Moonlight”in the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony in what was the most shocking Oscars momentbefore last March ― that really get their blood pumping. 

In recent years, there’s been a social media-driven push to acknowledge this discrepancy, with April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite borne from the fact that there were zero non-white actor nominees in the 2015 Oscars. Eight years later and things haven’t improved much: “The Woman King”and “Till,” two Black woman-directed-and-starring films, were both snubbed for the 2023 Oscars, renewing calls that the Oscars are, indeed, still so white. For contrast, The African American Film Critics Association acknowledged Gina Prince-Bythewood the association’s Best Director award for her work with “The Woman King,” which also won Best Picture.

This issue tends to persist across multiple awards ceremonies, as Jerrod Carmichael so hilariously (and uncomfortably) reminded everyone when he took the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to task as host of the 2023 Golden Globes ceremony earlier this month. 

The Powers That Be tried to make it up to us before, lest we forget the 2002 Oscars when Denzel Washington won the Best Actor award for “Training Day” and Sidney Poitier received an “honorary” Oscar. I remember it feeling like a capitulation of sorts to give Washington the big award for a decent role in a decent film considering one of the biggest travesties in the ceremony’s 94-year history is not awarding Washington the Best Actor Oscar in 1993 for Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” 

Speaking of “Malcolm X,” for Black stories to get accolades and rave reviews from white critics and awards committees, there seems to be an unspoken requirement that the story has a connection to antebellum slavery, the Jim Crow South, or some other sympathy-inducing socioeconomic hardship that comes with being Black on planet Earth.

Many argue that these stories are necessary for non-Black people to understand what we have historically endured and continue to, but many actual Black people are over the glut of this material ― though I’m sure it’s a fine film, it’s why I refuse to watch “Till.” “Sideways”is one of my favorite films of all time and was justly nominated for a bunch of awards…but it’s just a story of two white dudes white dude-ing. No deep trauma, wild tragedies or white saviors. Why can’t we have more awards-caliber films with Black folks just…existing?

Every now and again, it feels as if some of these Black “prestige” films are nabbing the White Guilt Award in the form of a small metal statuette. “Green Book”isn’t a terrible film despite the negative responsemany Black folks had to it. But I believe it cleaned up during awards season because there’s no greater ambrosia for white folks than a true-ish tale of a hard-edged white dude becoming unlikely pals with a queer Black man in the Jim Crow South. 

I don’t have a ready-made solution to any of this. I believe every awards committee can benefit from ethnic and gender diversity, but I stop short at the idea that, say, only a person of Hispanic descent should be allowed to professionally review “Encanto.” But when it comes to determining what Black-created, Black-casted material I’ll consume, I’ll consult Black Twitter or my own Facebook feed before Rotten Tomatoes.  

And even if we don’t give a film or television show love, I might pay to support it anyway, because I’m rooting for (almost) everybody Black.