Sofia Coppola’s Blatant Erasure of Black Women in The Beguiled Highlights How White Women Are Complicit in White Supremacy


Clarkisha Kent | The Root

It’s been quite a busy couple of months for white women. After 53 percent of them handed Donald Trump the election at the conclusion of 2016, they have turned the nonsense up to 11.

From going on redemption tours where they cry into the arms of black men in order to breathe life into floppin’ albums, to trying to outdo each other in robbing from and swagger-jacking black women (again), they have shown no signs of slowing down.

Indeed. It’s not a normal week in these Orange States of America until a white woman shows her yansh, like my mom might say. This past week’s example came courtesy of Sofia Coppola and her upcoming film, The Beguiled.

Or, as I might call it: I Will Cut Off This Right Arm of Mine Before I Will Ever Work or Demand the Ballot for the Negro and Not the (White) Woman: The Prequel.

To make a long story short, Coppola—a white female director—has found herself in the middle of swirling controversy regarding her decision to completely omit canonical black female characters from her adaptation of The Beguiled, which marks the second time this book has been adapted.

Coppola, as expected, espoused a bunch of malarkey when explaining her “creative” decision to remove said black female characters. In her first explanation, Coppola stated that she wanted to “focus on the gender dynamics” rather than “the racial ones.” I call bullshit on this, mostly because black women find themselves at the intersection of both and because white women are not devoid of race, no matter how badly they want to be (that “white” in front of the operative word “woman” should be the dead-ass giveaway … as the lovely Seren Sensei put it).

Coppola’s second line of reasoning, which I’m actually gonna focus on, was that she implied that she decided to drop the black female characters because she didn’t want to portray them incorrectly.

Here’s why I don’t buy that:

Coppola removing the black female characters ensures that she doesn’t have to deal with how white women were complicit in slavery.

Coppola’s reasoning is cute in that “You tried it, Susan” kind of way, but ultimately, it rings false and remains an excuse that is often overused … especially when it comes to rendering women of color (black women, in this case) invisible on-screen. Marvel’s whitewashing of the Ancient One—by way of Tilda Swinton—ensured that it could conveniently opt out of discussing Marvel’s racist Asian caricatures and its history of employing “Yellow Peril” narratives, Coppola does a similar thing here. Because by erasing Edwina (a mixed-race, white-passing teacher) and Mattie (a house slave), Coppola opts to—intended or not—evade the responsibility of showing how white women were just as culpable in slavery as their male counterparts.

In the original story, there’s a lot of tension between the book’s white female protagonists and the Union soldier who shows up and fucks up their “[white] girl power” vibe. In addition to this, there is also plenty of tension between these so-called female-centric protagonists and Mattie, the slave they coerce (because, remember, white women don’t employ typical violence under white supremacy; it’s a bit more complicated than that) into taking care of said Union soldier.

Coppola could have included black women to acknowledge these problematic aspects of the source material she drew inspiration from and offered a more nuanced take that ditches what is likable for what is actually historically correct. But instead, because she didn’t want to portray the protagonists of her “white [girl] power” film as slave owners or people who were A-OK with owning slaves, she opted to leave them out entirely.

The whole idea here is that if you leave them out and they are not seen, you don’t have to talk about them. Or think about them. Or work hard at potentially misrepresenting them (never mind that you could find black women who actually know what they’re doing to help, but that would be smart, so … ). Except, if you were to do this, as Coppola has done this, you would be playing yourself. Because while it would be equally problematic to erase the inclusion of black women in a fictional story, erasing said women from a fictional story set during the Civil War goes beyond problematic. It is just plain inaccurate, period.

I know the American education system routinely likes to misremember what happened during the Civil War, pinning its root cause on “states’ rights.” But what these same jokers like to forget is that the states’ rights debate itself … stemmed from certain states wanting to own black people as slaves. So, by Coppola taking such a racially charged historical backdrop and saying that she decided to leave out all the black people because she wanted to do right by them and focus on “gender dynamics” is just a bunch of bullshit. You cannot even begin to explore the Civil War without the subject of race … at least, if you’re going to do so truthfully.

To be clear, one of the many facts that arose when Coppola’s initial comments were made was the fact that Coppola shot this film at the same house where Beyoncé filmed her magnum opus Lemonade. As you can guess, there are levels to that. Lemonade was an undeniable ode to black femmes everywhere. However, Beyoncé largely focused on Southern black femmes and their story.

And she accomplished this by boldly reclaiming images of the South that were historically used to brutalize and abuse black (femme) bodies (i.e., the plantation house in “Sorry”; the hanging tree in “Freedom”).

Her attempting to do so is not only insulting but also disrespectfully audacious, especially since she and company (Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst) hijack the creative imagery of a black woman to do it.

And that black woman, if you hadn’t guessed, is Beyoncé.

With this in mind, it makes the appropriation of this setting by Coppola and her squadron of white women all the more disturbing. In fact, their co-opting of these radical images put forth by a black woman wreaks of white feminist supremacist thinking in that Coppola and company do not want the burden that comes with including black women in their version of The Beguiled, but still want to reap the benefits of it.

Which is just not realistic; because as much as white women want to be the supreme gatekeepers of womanhood and femininity forever, it is not possible. Black women exist. Other women of color exist. And the Sofia Coppolas of the world have another think coming if they think we’re gonna stand idly by and let ourselves be erased from spaces we created and from spaces where we belong.

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