To say Woody Allen is controversial is an understatement. This February, after his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow’s open letter to the director repeated allegations that he had sexually assaulted her 21 years prior, I vowed to never again watch a Woody Allen film. Allen denies Dylan’s claims, but I chose to believe the victim, instead of the accused. I’m not going to shy away from the fact that a lot of my decision came down to me deciding to believe the woman over the man, in a sexist society which silences victims of misogynistic violence through fear, shame and dismissing or trivialising the voices of women.
I am a firm believer in being able to separate art from the artist. But for me, Woody Allen and his films are too inextricably entwined. He is the director, the writer, the star. So therefore the number of Woody Allen films I have seen, and ever will see, is 1 – Blue Jasmine. From just this small snapshot into his filmography, I got a sense of problem with women. Seemingly unashamedly, Allen rehashed A Streetcar Named Desire into his own ‘original screenplay’ which asked us to feel no ounce of pity for Jasmine, his Blanche DuBois. What I got from the film was ‘who cares that she’s deeply lonely, or that it’s suggested she’s having issues with mental health and alcohol dependency due to her husband’s recent suicide – she’s a rich, vapid and narcissistic liar!’. It reminded me of a screen-cap I often see floating around from Annie Hall, in which whatever semi-autobiographical character Allen is portraying waxes lyrical on Sylvia Plath’s life and suicide being romanticised by the ‘college girl mentality’. Young women find comfort from Plath’s work, often focused around the impact a patriarchal society had on her, but Allen devalues this effect she has into a stupid, immature morbid curiosity of girls.
It’s no wonder, then, that Allen’s adoring fans seem to be comprised mostly of white men like the director himself. For them, a ‘college girl mentality’ is no issue, because their interest in literature, film or pretty much anything will be revered rather than mocked, seen as intelligent, not pretentious. White men have the power to dictate to us that Allen is a genius and to shower him with praise and awards; of the 6,028 Oscar voters, 76% are male and 94% are white.
White men are the default. If it matters to a white man, it must matter to the world. Macklemore was hailed for his apparently pioneering voice in LBGTQ activism in rap, when he was saying the same things that queer people of colour in the rap community had been saying for years. White men are default in terms of representation too, film included. Everywhere you go, films about white men. Hard-hitting dramas, enthralling action blockbusters, quirky comedies. Of course, these aren’t inherently terrible films for being about white men, but it’s important to acknowledge that what we’re watching is so hideously disproportionate to actual society, because hopefully through open acknowledgement, more people will fight to change this.
Woody Allen could help change this. He’s the director, the writer, the star – and the man responsible for helping to cast the coveted roles. The actors in his films are not exclusively, but overwhelmingly, white. This criticism has followed him throughout the decades, and he has recently responded to it in an interview in the New York Observer. Allen said that he will only cast a person of colour if the role ‘requires it’. This implies that Allen’s idea of writing a character that isn’t white would be to write a character built on racial stereotypes, or alternatively, perhaps he believes that a character of colour’s story could simply only focus on their race. For Woody Allen, people of colour must be a distinctly ‘other’ category, seeing as white is the default for all his characters. Allen is refusing to recognise that his white privilege means he can see white men just like him in everything he watches, characters who are collectively extremely broad in their differences and multidimensional, and as a result he creates more complex and layered white men in his own films. He’s seen a limited representation of people of colour and instead of challenging this, has decided that people of colour are limited as characters and therefore rarely required, even as one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers – since 1977 he’s directed at least one film a year.
Obviously, this problem does not begin and end with Woody Allen. Hollywood continues to try and force people of colour into boxes that it feels they fit, which prevents real diversity and equality in film. But as a very active director, who inspires many current and future directors, Woody Allen is a fitting focus for a wider discussion. In Allen’s latest release, Emma Stone plays a mystic and Colin Firth a skeptic. Did these roles require the casting of white actors, Woody? Would the character change if say, Stone was replaced with Lupita Nyong’o, or Gabourey Sidibe? The talent of these actresses can’t be denied, and both have been nominated for Oscars. Perhaps, you and the Oscar voters are more comfortable seeing these women in roles that require a black actress, as a slave in the 19th century, or as a woman living in poverty and with abuse in Harlem. That’s worrying, and as long as you keep dismissing whitewashing as just choosing what’s ‘right for the part’, Woody, you’re telling people of colour that they’re wrong.
Words by Ashley
Illustration by Chloe