Normally on these pages, I write about what I’ve been researching. Today, I want to write about why I would love others to write more and better reviews.
There are two prompts to this post. This past weekend I watched First They Killed My Father (Angelina Jolie, 2017) a Netflix film about a child soldier in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. There were things that I wondered about the film that led me to look up reviews and comments on the film. I had read some promotional material about how Jolie had come to the project through her role with the UNHCR and her interest in supporting her adopted child in understanding his heritage. Beyond that, I was particularly interested in her collaboration with the filmmaker Rithy Panh, how the film was received, and I had a feeling that the US framing of the film must have provoked some reaction. This is a film told from the child’s perspective thus flattening out the fact that her father was in the army (pre-Khmer Rouge) and what that might mean. I hoped for some comment on context from reviewers. Some, but not all of what I hoped for emerged, as I will get to later.
The second prompt was a detailed and negative response to a review of American Dirt in The Observer.
I came across Myriam Gurba’s take down of American Dirt, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”, while scrolling through Twitter. It’s a lively, detailed, and angry reflection on whose perspectives are privileged and the power of literature to reinforce negative stereotypes.
I have not read American Dirt which Gurba describes as “a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle” (2019), and may not because it seems like a number of other books about the drugs trade in Mexico that pick up tired tropes and reinforce a single story about what is a complex, messy, and ever-evolving situation.
I don’t want to get into a debate around a book I have not read nor pick on an individual reviewer, but central to Gurba’s piece is a critique of what can be found in reviews like the one in The Observer. It is likely that the reviewer will have been curtailed by word count and will have been prompted by the editor to write a particular type of review. This resulted in a review that is just under 450 words and focuses on plot with brief allusion to issues on migration. What The Observer review lacks is a sense of the wider significance of this book, how it compares to (the many, many) others of its ilk, nor does it provide any detail on the author. In part, these gaps can be explained through word count, they also are because it’s not a book that will have the same impact (culturally or in sales) in the UK as the US. The review can also be explained through a wider reflection on the decline in criticism. There are fewer critics, fewer professional venues for review, less space for reviews, and, consequently, fewer applied reviews.
As a powerful platform, The Observer has done a disservice in this review. By endorsing a book without situating it, Gurba’s assertion that it “perpetuates harm” resonates for me. I have read reviews of other books that function as mere brief signalling of the existence of a book (or film) without saying much else. It is not unusual practice and provides some press presence. But, it has serious limitations when work has political implications. The polemic around American Dirt prompts me to reflect on the purpose of reviews when fewer works get reviewed and brings me back to what I wanted from the reviews of First They Killed My Father as opposed to what I found.
In my Saturday search on my phone (I include this detail as a probably typical second screen scroll), only two reviews popped up. Not sure why it was so limited. The first was a typical Hollywood Reporter review which was a mix of industry information and brief assessment of its positive qualities and the second was a negative review by Emily Yoshida Vulture frustrated by the child’s performance and the pace of the film.
Subsequent searches on my laptop reveal more reviews from a range of sources including one from Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian and another by Peter Debruge in Variety. Bradshaw’s alludes to some production issues, but mostly focuses on his assessment, while Debruge’s is more complete in its comparison to other films centred on children and considers the significance of the contribution of some above the line workers (DoP and Producer). The space given over in Variety is greater than The Guardian and greater still in RogerEbert by Matt Zoller Seitz. As a consequence, Zoller Seitz’s is by far the most informative placing the film in a a wider historical context as well as covering much of what Debruge and Bradshaw do. This is made possible through having 1,620 words as against Bradshaw’s 612 and Debruge’s 1,046. Space matters. Word count costs more, but it allows for more detail and nuance.
As someone circling around how key individuals and institutions (I include publications in this) determine what gets attention and how, I am interested in how reviews help us (me) navigate the range of content that is available. This means that reviews can be short. I don’t necessarily want plot, I want to know what form of entertainment/experience it will be and whether that is something I want to spend time with. Coupled with that I would like to know something that only a specialist would know: what I would miss had I not read the review. Brevity rarely allows for that. I want more detail from reviews and I want more perspectives. I want nuance and range. I know newspapers are financially squeezed, but less (and shorter) content will not improve their positions. At a time when we need cultural guides more than ever, I want more reviewers.
Even more urgently, when literature, film, and television can be touchstones for attitudes towards others -whether they are minority populations within a nation or peoples from other nations – we need better reviewers who take a big picture perspective when reviewing work. Tell us where this work fits in the pantheon of work of this type, what does it contribute, and why we should care.