Let’s imagine that the entire slate of films nominated for the Palm d’Or this year at this year’s Cannes Film Festival consisted solely of films directed by white men.

Oh, sure, they’ll put Marilyn on their poster, but they won’t allow a women-directed film to enter competition.

Or how about this: imagine that every single director nominated for this prize was French. Would anyone argue, in defense of such a decision, that all those other directors of color “just weren’t good enough,” that such a decision could be based purely on the merit of the films involved?

Yet when the Cannes organizers advertised their final slate of nominees — none of which was directed by a woman, just as it had been all-male in 2010 — the worldwide uproar prompted the jury to deputize its sole female jury member, Andrea Arnold, to respond with such a statement:

I would absolutely hate it if my film was selected because I was a woman. I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I’m female.

Now, I’m not interested in attacking Arnold for getting stuck in this position, or even for believing this statement. In fact, her framing the problem in these terms reveals the real problem: at least as articulated here, she (and many other women and/or directors of color) actually isn’t sure she’s good enough.

Given the way women and people of color are viewed when it comes to these conversations about merit, is it really any wonder we don’t sometimes believe we’ve failed? A year ago I wrote about exactly this question — the insidious “what if I’m not good enough?” worry that proves a self-fulfilling prophecy if asked often enough, as it did in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 2008 film, Sugar, about a Dominican baseball pitcher trying to wend his way through the American minor leagues. Riddled by fears that he’s not good enough, Sugar proves to himself that those fears were correct.

But to claim that Cannes’ 22 films in competition are objectively better than any work by a woman this year isn’t just a depressing example of women and people of color internalizing those fears. It’s also a manifestation of the concept of meritocracy used as a weapon against exactly those populations intended to benefit from it in a truly meritocratic world.

  • Tell me, how does one objectively compare a film by a film great like Abbas Kiarostami or David Cronenberg to a film by an unknown  woman director?
  • What incentive does Cannes have to feature unknown directors if they can stock their nominees with favorites who’ve won prizes in the past?
  • If your jury has only one woman on it, as this one does, how likely are those jurors going to be to fight to include the unknown director’s work?
  • Jurors who are white and male will generally find greater merit in stories about white male protagonists because that’s the norm in film.

The notion of meritocracy is infuriatingly persistent, no matter how much we acknowledge that money, connections, and normative notions about white men onscreen all combine to alter views of merit.

  • SAT scores can win you a spot at a prestigious university, but if your parents have enough money, they can buy you the SAT prep course and/or tutors that raises your score by 200 points.
  • Having more money for a film permits you to buy favorite/ highly talented actors and crew who make a film objectively better and subjectively more appealing.
  • Having strong connections to money is often equivalent to having strong connections to power and influence.

The question is not whether you have “earned” your spot. The real question is how we can still be using the notion of merit in a real world of college admissions any less than to official selection for prestigious festivals, for the inevitable result is to give more to society’s haves, and less and less to the have-nots who cannot buy themselves a place at the table.

So, what’s a girl to do? Sign a petition. (Hey, at least it’s a start.) Melissa Silverstein over at Women & Hollywood now has a petition seeking to pressure Cannes into changing its tune of this issue.

And read more. A fiery group calling themselves La Barbe (“the beard”) has barraged the jury with questions on this topic and has offered up a scathing sarcastic congratulatory statement to the festival’s directors for their achievement this year:

Last year, doubtless due to a lack of vigilance, four women somehow sneaked in among the 20 people nominated in the official competition. Thierry Frémeaux, the festival’s director general, correctly remarked: “It is the first time that there are so many women.” How weak! 

[This year] Sirs, you came to your senses and we are glad. The Cannes film festival 2012 applauds Wes, Jacques, Leos, David, Lee, Andrew, Matteo, Michael, John, Hong, Im, Abbas, Ken, Serguei, Cristian, Yousry, Jeff, Alain, Carlos, Walter, Ulrich, Thomas, all of whom show us once again that “men are fond of depth in women, but only in their cleavage.”

…With great understanding of the monumental importance of such an event, you were able to dissuade women from aspiring to set foot in this closely-guarded world.

Signing the petition over at Change.org takes less than a minute. (And thanks, Tam, for pushing me to get on this!)

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from Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls (2010)

Q: Why were the Academy Awards this year such a total white-out?

A: Because films by/about people of color just aren’t good enough. Did you see Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls? Gawd.

Replace “race” with “gender” and we get the same answer — except using Jennifer Aniston’s The Breakup as evidence — and, with that, we all die a little inside. You’re just not good enough. In this conversation I feel like I’m talking to a film critic version of Stephen Colbert: someone who claims “not to see race” (or gender) and is solely concerned with the merit of a good film. The reason why Hollywood keeps rewarding films by/about white dudes, we learn, is simply because the rest aren’t good enough. This is the flip side of Natalie Portman’s “I just want to be perfect” line from Black Swan that I wrote about in January (most viewed post ever!) — isn’t it interesting that wanting to be perfect and not being good enough are the fates of women and minorities, not white dudes?

from Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (2010)

This subject has been on my mind for a while, since reading a thoughtful lament by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott in the New York Times, but even more after seeing the tepid Oscar tribute to Lena Horne by Halle Berry. Berry is the first and only Black actor to have won an Oscar for Best Actress (for 2001’s Monster’s Ball), yet her lines for this tribute didn’t mention race at all (and let me note that I doubt Berry had a say in writing those lines). “Lena Horne blazed a trail for all of us who followed,” she said. “Thank you, Lena Horne: we love you and we will never ever forget you,” she said, blowing a kiss to the screen. Ah, Hollywood, your racial anxiety is showing. By us did Berry mean people of color? And where exactly is that trail for Black actors in a year of all-white winners? 

from Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's Sugar (2008)

One might argue that this is a problem of metrics: it’s not that Hollywood is racist, but viewers are. The Wire was the best show ever on TV but it never made much money for HBO because, reportedly, shows about African Americans don’t sell well either domestically or overseas. And if you think it’s tough to sell films about American Blacks, just imagine trying to find an audience for a film about Black people who don’t speak English. Which leads me to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s extraordinary film Sugar (2008) — which is secretly where I’ve been going with this post. Tracing the career of a Dominican baseball pitcher, Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) who arrives in the US with the hope of making it into the major leagues, this film is really about how hard it is to believe you’re good enough.

Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar (2008)

At first it seems that Sugar’s future is golden. He stands out in his Dominican baseball academy and gets plucked to participate in spring training with the (fictional) Kansas City Knights, where he’ll have the chance to prove his worth to the big club. He begins to glimpse there the uphill battle before him:  many terrific players who lose their confidence or get injured orjust aren’t good enough. So when he again moves up the ladder to the Knights’ Single-A feeder team in Iowa, he has to face those pressures in a lonely, rural environment where few speak Spanish. “All the players here are really good,” he tells his mother on the phone to keep her expectations realistic, to no avail. Even the kindly white family who take him in bark rules at him in that patronizing tone: “NO CERVEZAS IN THE CASA,” they say. “NO CHICAS IN THE BEDROOM.” It goes without saying that there’s also no familiar food, salsa dancing, or girls to flirt with without cultural pushback. It’s horrible — and what if he’s not good enough?

The fact that Sugar’s a pitcher makes his plight all the more believable. More than virtually any other position on the team, pitching is a lonely, mental game: when you stand on the mound you feel the other players’ expectations, the coaches’ critical judgment, the powerful need for precision and self-control. When it all comes together, he feels like the golden boy he was in the Dominican Republic — but tug at a loose thread and suddenly it starts to come unraveled. One bad game can bleed into another bad game. Add to that the language barrier and Sugar starts to become a different guy than he used to be.

It’s a beautiful, smart film. Boden and Fleck earned a pile of prize nominations for this film, fewer than for their magnificent Half Nelson (2006) but then, that was mostly about a while guy who speaks English (and is played by Ryan Gosling). Most of their nominations for Sugar came from indie festivals — because, perhaps, it just wasn’t good enough for the Oscars? At RottenTomatoes.com it has a whopping 93% approval rating, yet David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (with only a 72% approval rating) edged it out for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Benjamin Button was better?

Race in Hollywood is the flip side of gender in Hollywood — god forbid you try to film while being Black (or female), as we’re still worshipping at the altar of the white male teenager and his penis, as Helen Mirren put it. But rather than deal with the implications of that prejudice, let’s just stick with our pronouncement that women and people of color just aren’t good enough. In the meantime, can someone please tell me why Paul Giamatti keeps getting so many roles as despicable shlubby men who score fabulously beautiful women when I don’t even want to think about him, much less watch him on the screen?