There are critics who possess the awareness, understanding, and proper language to review movies by and/or about people of color without blundering their way into offensive stereotypes or gross generalizations. And then there are critics like Variety’s Peter Debruge, who, in an ill-advised assessment of the upcoming film Girls Trip, has become the latest poster boy for When a White Critic’s Review of a Black Movie Goes Wrong. In this piece, rich with the flowery, tone-deaf prose of a man who would’ve voted for Obama a third time if given the chance, he projects all kinds of assumptions upon black filmmaking, black women, and black audiences.
First, a bit of context. Girls Trip is a raunchy comedy starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, and Tiffany Haddish, beloved actors who among them have large, supportive fan bases and wildly successful careers. (Haddish is the newbie of the group, though she’s recently stolen scenes in last year’s Keanu and The Carmichael Show.) Malcolm D. Lee, of The Best Man fame, directed, and Black-ish’s Kenya Barris is among the credited writers. The premise is simple: Four BFFs reunite and rekindle their friendship during a trip to the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, and of course, chaos ensues. Dina (Haddish) is determined to get it on with as many of the hot men there as possible, drinks flow, zip-line mishaps occur. There are dick jokes, piss jokes, that-one-friend-who-is-way-too-uptight-and-needs-to-loosen-up jokes.
It’s all very familiar—I don’t mean that as a slight, based on the very funny trailer and the incredible talent involved—and the first reference points that will come to mind for a moviegoer well-versed in the blockbuster comedies of the ’00s will probably be something like Bridesmaids or The Hangover. If you're a black person of a certain age, you might even be excited to see Set It Off stars Latifah and Pinkett Smith reunited on screen. But this is a critic who once “all lives matter–ed” Moonlight. Nope, instead, the very first and foremost thing Debruge can conjure up when attempting to describe Girls Trip is an auteur best known for dressing in drag so as to pummel his audience over with dangerous morality tales about female promiscuity.
In his opening line, he writes: “Move over, Tyler Perry. Let Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee show you how it’s done.” A bit later, in a clumsy evocation of one of Perry’s films, Debruge assumes that the Madea star only appeals to “those who typically feel more comfortable going to church than the movies.” (Girls Trip, with its sexually explicit humor, apparently appeals more to the masses.) “Taking a page from the Perry playbook, much of Girls Trip's personal drama centers on infidelity, faith (more in oneself than in a higher power) and doing right by one’s sisters.” It appears that Debruge—who is paid to be an expert on film—has difficulties associating black female moviegoers with anything other than Perry’s Oprah-approved brand of two-dimensional, religious-tinged storytelling—or he’s just too lazy to try. Perry has not cornered the market on infidelity and faith, and just because a broad comedy is fronted by black women, that doesn’t mean he in any way inspired it, much less is directly behind it. The representation of blackness on screen still has a ways to go, but in 2017, when a movie is co-written by the same person currently behind one of TV’s sharpest socio-political comedies and directed by a person who's made a box-office hit that wasn't embarrassingly terrible, a critic at an influential Hollywood trade paper like Variety should have more acute insights to offer than that it’s significantly better than a Madea movie.
To close it all out, Debruge singles Dina out as a “uniquely black character” for her “irrepressible, unfiltered quality,” writing, she’s “every bit as important to the movie’s affirmational portrayal of African-American women as the way that the three other characters represent more colorblind ideas of success.” Perhaps unintentionally, wrapped up in that hullabaloo of a quote is a suggestion that colorblindness is a thing that exists (beware of anyone, of any ethnicity, who claims to “not see race”) and that because they don’t mimic the outrageousness of Haddish, Latifah, Pinkett Smith, and Hall’s characters could’ve been played by any old white ladies.
When Debruge was called out for his review on Twitter, he quickly shifted the responsibility away from himself and, unsurprisingly, projected his assumptions onto the tweeter. “@variety should do better at hiring black writers,” wrote @_miciagirl. “A film created for and starring black women/people could’ve been reviewed by one.” His response:
Applications welcome! Always looking for move diversity. But I disagree that critic needs to match content. Black crix can review ANYTHING. https://t.co/eQ6r7VpCMt-- Peter Debruge (@AskDebruge) July 12, 2017
Do critics have to be black in order to write thoughtful, smart reviews of black movies? No, and @_miciagirl didn’t say they did—she merely wrote Variety “could’ve” done so in this case. (Roger Ebert’s entire career is proof.) But Debruge utterly fails to recognize his shortcomings in this instance, and surely always will so long as he continues to tweet nonsense like that. To take a quote from Girls Trip via his insane review, “That’s some white boy shit right there.”
Girls Trip opens on July 21.