Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled, an antebellum thriller about a Civil War-dodging Lothario who seeks refuge in a Southern all-girls boarding school but quickly learns the consequences of messing with the wrong one, opens in wide release this Friday (June 30). After Coppola became the first female filmmaker to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and given the film is a story told unabashedly from the “female gaze,” white feminists have been celebrating and anticipating its release. But many Black folks are already giving the film a hard pass because the director goes out of her way to avert her gaze from us. Not because our pain is too great for her to bear, but because our existence conflicts with her idyllic sense of self and sparks conversations she is not ready to engage in.
As descendants of the enslaved Black women Coppola chose to push completely out of her Civil War-era white feminist fantasy — yes, there is nary a Black person in sight in this film set in the height of the Civil War — we know her choice to erase our great grandmothers from history represent the kind of passive aggressive racism that allows White Supremacy to thrive, mostly unchallenged, today.
The Beguiled is based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name. Clint Eastwood first adapted the novel to film in 1971. Popular culture has obviously changed in the time since the source material was published, and even the first version of the film was released, but common sense suggests that passed time would allow the filmmakers to add nuance and perspective to the racial strife that surrounds their characters. Instead, Coppola and her team chose to remove the Black characters Cullinan created because she didn’t want to deal with the weight of their presence.
She’s admitted in multiple interviews that her film purposely focuses on the gender dynamics of the Confederacy, not the racial ones. Only a white woman in America could be detached enough from reality to believe you can separate the two. Coppola’s full explanation attempts to paint her decision as respectful and thoughtful, but it only serves as further proof of her blinding privilege and casual bigotry. “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them,” she told BuzzFeed. “I was clear about my decision—because I want to be respectful to that history,” Coppola went on to explain, begging the question: who’s history? So instead of brushing over slavery lightly, she decided to overlook it altogether.
The character to whom she’s referring, a young slave named Hallie who attends to the needs of the women and the wayward soldier, plays a small but important part in the book and Eastwood’s film — predominantly because she is literally the only reminder that these women are not heroes, but Confederates and slave owners. With her erasure, the women in Coppola’s film, as well as its audience, are unburdened of any moral indictment. And we all know America is looking for any reason to champion the cause of white women, no matter how problematic they may be.
It doesn’t take a Masters degree to understand that America’s sexist patriarchy is built on the foundation of racist capitalism — the former cannot be honestly explored without the context of the later. If not for the hundreds of years of slavery, discrimination and structural racism that built America into a global superpower, the wealthy white women Coppola’s lens are focused on would not be sitting pretty in the American south. The white men they fawn and cry over would have no power or authority in America if not for the institution of slavery. So basically, the entire world of The Beguiled wouldn’t exist if not for slavery and the slaves its director chose to ignore. And still, Coppola wouldn’t let Black characters exist in her fantasy world for fear their pain might overshadow the struggles of her lily white leads, or worse, remind viewers of the uncomfortable realities of the world they still live in today.
Black Americans don’t have the luxury of erasing those pesky parts of history that make the country’s white masses shift uncomfortably in their seats. Most of Hollywood’s roles for Black actors and directors are based in history — slave films and biopics about athletes or entertainers — but few view the Black American as a whole, multi-dimensional being. Coppola didn’t even waste time trying to pretend she cared about slaves in Cullinan and Eastwood’s portrayals of The Beguiled. She simply deleted them from the story so that everyone could focus on how perfectly Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman fit America’s preferred antebellum aesthetic — lush, quaint and free of guilt.
Respecting history means sharing its ugly truth, no filter. And Coppola did a bigger disservice to her viewers, young and old, by avoiding America’s painful past instead of confronting it. As a filmmaker whose writing has won her an Oscar, her refusal to accept the challenge to reimagine the source material’s Black character the same way she did the white ones is inexcusable. At best, Coppola’s choice represents lazy storytelling. At worst, it’s a betrayal of her responsibility as an artist.