Gatekeeping Is Precisely Why Most Films Don’t Receive Diverse Reviews
Freelance writing as a Black writer or PoC writer is filled with stress. At best, we are ignored by major outlets except when Black History Month rolls around or another month that focuses on a non-white group. The consensus is “we will look like assholes if we don’t have one of them write something for us”. Albeit, we are hired to contribute. Our income is a game of “will I survive this month” because they only want one or two tokens, if that, same as on their staff.
Few outlets staff us and even fewer staff us in numbers. You’ll usually find one or two Black people or people of color and the rest are variants of white. Pay as a contributor is rarely good, and often you’ll wait 3–6 months—prayers up it’s only that—to receive compensation. As a freelancer you want to pitch the major outlets but also know it’s a minefield even at the best of times because you rarely know how much they pay before you pitch or how long you will wait to get paid. How was this okay prior to a pandemic? How is this still happening now in the middle of one?
Typically we are ignored or our ideas are given to someone else, usually white, to write. Other times, we are let in briefly during times of significant racial upheaval because then performative allyship is important, not to mention it will boost their views. Even half the organizations to join and sign up for have enough gatekeeping rules in front of them that will prevent freelancers, particularly from a certain demographic, from joining. “You have to see X amount of films and write reviews. You have to write for notable publications” and the list goes on.
As a freelancer, your income will fluctuate wildly. So how are you supposed to make time to see and review “X” amount of films when, you likely won’t even be paid for half of them? How do we succeed when, even when we are not ignored, it’s still not a financially viable option?
This and all else that follows is gatekeeping. It’s purpose is to keep out certain groups, while allowing a few of the “chosen” to succeed so they can say there is no bias, after all “[insert name] got a screener and wrote a review.”
The name of the game is timeliness. To be one of the first to get a screener and shoot out a review gets eyes on you and your piece. Same goes for interviews with the cast and crew. That is at the discretion of the publicity contacts. From Warner Bros, to Hulu, to Netflix, to Disney to every other place promoting films and shows. If you’re from a major publication, there is little chance you won’t get the screener you request; on the contrary, you will likely receive it before you even ask.
The rest, especially freelancers, have to email a request listing where we’ve written and link prior works. Is that enough? Sometimes. But others, you’ll receive emails asking you “which publication you’ll be writing it for”—heaven forbid you want to see the film so you know what you will be writing about and can craft a pitch around that (even had one say the editor would have to request the screener or I wouldn’t get it) and lord save you if you tell them you will put it on your own site especially if you don’t get a lot of traffic.
This is precisely why reviews of films—both positive and negative—are usually from one main group: white men. It’s not that there aren’t any writers outside of them, it’s that we are not given screeners to review and critique a film. Would you want to review a film after requesting a screener and then were ignored or told no because they are “selective” in who sees it. Often they want reviewers from big outlets and are especially happy when they are sure the reviewer will sing the film’s praises. Similar to what happened with Wonder Woman 1984. Initially, the Rotten Tomatoes score was high, but once diverse reviews increased, the score dropped significantly.
This isn’t to say that those who reviewed it first didn’t love the film. They likely did. But not everyone is a white or a man or a white man. We see things through a lens of what matters to us. That’s why diverse lenses are necessary.
For interviews with writers, directors, actors freelance writers also have to go through the same channels. Even when writers, directors and actors say they were willing, if you hire someone who purposely ignores or rejects freelance or smaller outlets, what does that say about the company you’re keeping?
Another way to build your writing, skill and networking is through festivals. But again, as a freelancer, not all festivals will be for you. Sundance Film Festival has the Inclusion Initiative to help those from marginalized backgrounds financially—this year some amazing writings I know received it—and they allow you to apply as freelance. This seems to be a rarity in the gatekeeping film criticism industry.
Many festivals require you to be writing for a one publication and don’t even have an option to select freelance. Some you not only have to be part of a publication, but you also have to tell them how much traffic that their site gets.
As most Black, Indigenous, PoC film writers are freelance, who does this harm? So again, we often review films well after every other film critic has seen it. We can’t participate in discussions, so we sit on the sidelines wondering what’s going on.
If a film critic has written film reviews and provided links that should be all that is needed to send a screener because they have established they are a film critic.
The film will be seen by everyone in the end anyway and all this does is create the same reviews and talks about films that limit not only film criticism, but limit the quality of films in future as there’s only one voice being heard and listened to.
The industry, as with all others, is inundated with white male viewpoints. That’s not because they’re better but because, in this society they are favored regardless of their skill. All of this doesn’t solely apply to race. It is seen with gender, disabled, LGBTQ and any other group that isn’t a white cis man. It’s heartbreaking to hear fellow critics say they want to stop or have stopped because they are tired of begging for screeners and interviews. It’s heartbreaking to wonder if I should quit too.
But that’s what happens when you scream “diversity and inclusion welcome” out the window while putting a deadbolt on the door.