Unless speaking about criticism as a standalone piece of art, critics do not technically create, they only judge. Discounting slight internet ridicule, that judgment is never evaluated with the same intensity as the artists they’re criticizing, yet holds a striking amount of influence with potential viewers. And it’s safe to say the collective opinion of major film critics on Rotten Tomatoes (RT) has a societal impact. People, including myself, decide whether or not they’ll go to the theater based on that highly coveted score. They’ll even decide whether they’ll bother seeing it at all.
Basically, critics decide whether or not many of us experience one of the most powerful forms of artwork known to mankind, and arguably the most influential. They’re deciding what has merit and what does not, and the difference between a 69% and a 70% on RT can go a long way with a potential movie-goer’s psyche.
But there doesn’t seem to be much recourse, and certainly little consequence, in response to their opinions (unless, I guess, they’re poorly written). Critics’ jobs are safe if they’ve produced a well-crafted commentary. Then they just move on to the next movie, leaving their previous review to dictate the public’s decision on what they should bother supporting. The accountability is even more diminished since they generally influence their readership at a direct level, able to become one of over a hundred other reviewers in aggregation scores like RT offers.
I understand that a critic’s job is to tell people what they thought of a film. In fact, it annoys me when creators say the art of criticism is lazy bullshit. It might not compare to creating a film, but it’s necessary. I mean, how else would we know not to see a garbage movie?
But these are professional influencers! It’s not some dude at work telling you that a movie sucked because of a kid kicking the back of his seat in the theater. Critics should be, at some level, responsible for their opinion, since TV and movies are the most awesome force in societal shifting ever created. And, as any lover of quality cinema can attest, a single movie can shift your entire world view.
For example, there was one top critic on RT who gave Moonlight (2016) a poor review, stripping it of its 100% score and bringing it down to a 98%. The Best Picture winner is a gripping story about poverty, masculinity, sexuality, love, desperation, criminality, parenthood, childhood, and so much more, told in a completely new way. Given the racially charged political climate surrounding the time it came out; the level it humanized an aspect of American society that’s largely regarded as stats and figures rather than people and life; and the fact that, as agreed upon by nearly the entire breadth of major modern film criticism and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it was a fantastic, timeless, and important movie, this dude gets a total and utter pass on calling it, quote:
“…a hackneyed tale of a young black man’s passage from childhood to maturity in a tough Miami neighborhood. Bullying, poverty, closeted sexuality, drug abuse, and racial strife combine to form an overworked agenda of cultural woes that’s more concerned with rubber-stamping issues than telling an original story.”
I will never know how you could consider that movie unoriginal, and the very idea that he brushed off the issues addressed by regarding it as an “overworked agenda of cultural woes” is telling in and of itself. It’s also shudder-inducing to think that many of the readers of the San Diego Reader, which “has the largest circulation of any alternative weekly publication in the nation,” read that review and decided not to see the movie despite every other major film critic giving it a positive rating. Without the overall RT score comparison, his word becomes gospel to the readers who take his title as film critic seriously.
I read this and it annoyed the hell out of me. It’s the very example of what motivates some creators to go, “Shut the hell up with your opinion unless you’ve created something yourself.” There’s no way I could say for sure whether racism or prejudice or just the social position of white supremacy as a straight white man in America led someone to give Moonlight such a horrendous review with that reasoning, but it’s tough for me not to look at it that way.
What else did this critic give a scathing review? 12 Years a Slave (2013), a movie with a 96% Top Critics RT score that also went on to win Best Picture, which he described with this little tidbit: “They might just as well have named it The Passion of the Slave.” (That almost passively regards slavery as faith-based myth.)
What would happen if the director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, publicly defended the movie based on that review? He’d be called petty. Just look at the flak Rob Schneider got for calling out his critic. But when it comes to the critic, he has the privilege to defend himself and no one will question the motivation.
Take Patriots Day (2016) as another example. When the trailer was released, I publicly regarded it as another anti-Islam propaganda movie, propagating the distrust of an entire religion and validating the position that believing in it is poisonous to American idealism. (I got a lot of shit for it.) And, as if on cue, just a few weeks after the film was released, the Trump administration banned immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Twice. The movie has a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. The first four shots of the trailer feature an American flag, and the movie poster depicts the flag ripped up. Patriots Day definitely, at least on some level, helped set the tone for what was to follow.
It’s an intuitive assumption to think some people who entered the theater to see Patriot’s Day felt passive about the idea of banning those who practice Islam and then left favoring such a practice. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people went in thinking outlawing Islam would be ridiculous and came out thinking it could be a valid solution (or “The Final Solution”) against terrorism. In many (if not most) cases, the cinematic depiction of an event is more powerful than the media’s depiction. You go in feeling safe, you leave feeling unsafe.
Do critics then, as a collectively major driving force behind a movie’s audience, have a responsibility to look at the implications of a film as well as its quality as a cinematic form of art? Is it the responsibility of that San Diego Reader critic to send people to the theater to see a humanizing look at a sect of black America largely unseen and largely dehumanized? Was a portion of the support for the Muslim ban thanks in part to critics who sent their readers to Patriots Day?
The problem comes in when we think about how to hold critics accountable. There isn’t really a tangible method for ensuring that critics who create a review that’s irresponsible, biased, or without merit experience any consequences whatsoever. But that’s where we could come in.
People who voice their opinions on social media, who take the time to write reviews on r/movies, IMDB, or Medium for free are doing their part. But even more important are those who spread awareness via word of mouth, which is hugely influential in driving people to the theater. Your words, though not necessarily immortalized through the written word, are the only weapon that wields proportional power compared to critics. You also have the power to get people fired by voicing outrage, or check the validity of those in positions of power by voicing decent.
I encourage you to exercise that power, even if it’s towards me. I think it would be fair to cut those who put forth the most effort a little slack while demanding more from those who crank out over ten reviews a week while dictating our decision to see a movie. But that’s just me, another biased, bitter douche. (At least I can admit it.)