Movies are getting more diverse, both in subject matter and the faces onscreen. However, professional film critics are overwhelmingly white and male. Invariably, they review through their own lenses and life experiences. A 2018 USC Annenberg study found that of the critics who reviewed the top 100 domestic films of 2017, 82% were white and 77% were male.
It’s also hard to break into that rarified world. In an essay for Vox, Carlos Aguilar described the difficulties he faces as a non-white film reviewer.
As a life-long film lover, Aguilar says he aspired to work in film production while growing up. He recalls winning a contest that allowed him and his mother to watch movies at a local chain for a year, free of cost. He says the opportunity was life-changing, and it helped mold what he felt was a future in film.
But when he moved to the U.S. from Mexico City in his early teens, he says his dreams felt out of reach. As a DACA recipient, Aguilar saw no way to break into the industry.
“English is my second language. … This felt out of the realm of possibilities. There's no clear path for you. How do you become a film critic? For someone like me, living in southeast LA, in the city of Cudahy that no one has heard of, there was no clear pattern. It was a mysterious, rarefied world,” he says.
Instead, he began reviewing films on a personal blog. Then he got his foot through the door via a small website he found via Craigslist. He wasn’t paid for his work, but he got access to 10 screenings and was able to interview talent.
“For someone that had no connection at all to this world, just even that small level of access — to actually be doing this sort of professionally — felt like something interesting that I didn't have any other way to get into,” Aguilar says.
Feeling like an outsider
His break came in 2014, when he was selected for the Roger Ebert Fellowship, which allowed him to attend the Sundance Film Festival and garner concrete experience. He met other critics from new publications and created connections that turned into paid gigs.
But as Aguilar broke into the world of paid reviewing, he says he felt like an imposter.
“I always felt like someone was going to ask me, ‘What are you doing here? Who invited you to do the screening? … It is sort of like a cultural shock to sort of enter these spaces when you come completely from the outside.”
He notes that any critic, regardless of their heritage, is capable of reviewing a film, and those who come from underrepresented backgrounds can bring extra knowledge and unique perspectives.
“Of all the critics out there that have a voice with impact, that are saying these movies are the ones with value, they decide the canon and they decide what the cultural conversation is. That’s a little bit of the problem when only one group gets to decide what's valuable.”
Aguilar says much of the responsibility to diversify the critics pool is on editors who hire freelancers and staff. But he notes that in recent years, there’s been an effort to open doors to diverse voices.