The Criterion Collection needs to be better.
The Criterion Collection, which comprises more than 1,000 films by more than 450 directors, has only 4 African-American directors with feature films in the collection overall. This is less than 1%. There are only 8 black directors represented in the collection at all.
According to the New York Times, "Criterion began in the 1980s as a producer of high-end laser discs, and pioneered several special features for that format — letterboxing, director’s commentary tracks, deleted scenes — that would later become industry standards. Today, the company, which is privately held, oversees a sister streaming service with an independent catalog — the Criterion Channel — and employs a staff of around 50."
Criterion has been curating movies via disc releases and its streaming channel.
“I think in a community of filmmakers, actors and people who are knowledgeable about cinema, that Criterion stamp means a lot,” said Prof. Todd Boyd, the chair for the study of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California. “It’s like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It’s a stamp of cultural and filmmaking relevance.”
I proudly own several of their box sets and find them must-owns for cinephiles everywhere.
But the lack of diversity in the catalog is troubling, especially since that's where many of us turn to learn about movies we have not seen and directors we've never heard of.
Every year, 50-60 new titles are taken into the Criterion Collection, so it's worrisome to think that even during that mass influx, diversity has been ignored. Especially when you take into account that the New York Times reported there are more directors in the Criterion Collection with the last name Anderson than there are African-Americans.
Yikes! The New York Times breaks it down:
4 African-American directors
- Charles Burnett: To Sleep With Anger, 1990
- William Greaves: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, 1968, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2½, 2005 (released on the same disc)
- Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing, 1989, and Bamboozled, 2000
- Oscar Micheaux: Body and Soul, 1925
4 Black directors from outside the U.S.
- Steve McQueen: Hunger, 2008 (Brittain)
- Djibril Diop Mambéty: Touki Bouki, 1973 (Senegal)
- Ousmane Sembène: Black Girl, 1966 (Senegal)
- Euzhan Palcy, A Dry White Season, 1989 (Martinique)
(Palcy is also the only black female director in the Criterion Collection.)
What is Criterion Doing About it?
“I think canons end up being defined as much by what they leave out as by what they let in,” Criterion president Peter Becker tells The New York Times. He continued, “There’s nothing I can say about it that will make it OK,” Becker said about the lack of Black directors in the Criterion Collection. “The fact that things are missing, and specifically that Black voices are missing, is harmful, and that’s clear. We have to fix that.”
Ava DuVernay told The Times, “There are all these gates that are closed to Black filmmakers. It’s a minimizing of the Black film canon. But also it’s a minimizing of the audience, to think that they wouldn’t be interested in Haile Gerima’s Sankofa or Ashes and Embers or would not want to see all the work of Julie Dash.”
These are reasonable requests.
Becker had the chance to include Julie Dash's movie Daughters of the Dust into the collection, but he turned it down. In his words, “I didn’t understand what I was looking at,” he said, reflecting on the decision. “I didn’t understand it for what it was. And I wasn’t talking with people who were going to help me.”
This does not bode well...when you have someone as an arbiter of taste, not having diverse sensibilities will obviously stunt what we see and appreciate.
Another knock, the Criterion Collection has no African-American directors born after 1957, with no word why they don't appreciate first features from people like Ryan Coogler and even Barry Jenkins.
While there are rights issues with some of the titles, Becker knows that's no excuse. And he says he will do better.
“We looked up, looked around, and went, ‘Oh my God, we have to actually really deal with the fact that, one edition at a time, we’ve knit together something that is almost all male and predominantly white,’” Becker said.
What are some movies you think should be added to the Criterion Collection?
Let us know in the comments...