Failures in film criticism

28 Dec

Things are getting serious today at TPY. I don’t claim to be a great writer, and I’m not that confident in my ability to get my point across in this post. But who cares, I’m trying. This is the point of my blog. Try not to be mad at me if I say something dumb.

David Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker. Before The New Yorker, he was a film critic for New York magazine. I don’t think he’s a very good critic. I frequently disagree with his opinions and sometimes I think he doesn’t understand the point of movies in general. I wish The New Yorker would fire him and turn the film beat over full-time to Anthony Lane, who is terrific, insightful, and often hilarious in his pans of bad movies.

Mr. Denby recently reviewed The Central Park Five. This movie is a documentary that centers around the rape of a jogger in Central Park in April 1989. Five innocent black teenagers were soon arrested and they were all convicted the next year. They spent twelve years in jail before a confession by the actual culprit and corresponding DNA evidence got their convictions overturned. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I don’t have an opinion on Mr. Denby’s opinion of it. What struck me about the review was that it’s impossible to read it without thinking of another review of his. I’m referring of course to his famous, or maybe infamous, review of Do the Right Thing, published two months after the Central Park rape occurred, in the time between the arrests and the trial.

Do the Right Thing is a great movie that everyone should see. Mr. Denby’s review of it is probably the best-known thing he’s ever written. It’s embarrassingly bad. He totally missed the entire point of the movie.* His main concern seemed to be that black teenagers would see it and take to the streets to attack white people. His secondary concern seemed to be that Spike Lee hated white people and made a movie glorifying violence against them. He doesn’t have anything positive to say about any of the movie’s black characters. He not only thinks that they all misguided, stupid, or worse; he seems to be under the impression that Mr. Lee intended to portray them as such. Mr. Denby is effusive in his praise of Danny Aiello, and describes his character Sal as someone “who doesn’t panic easily.” He must have forgotten the part where Sal smashed Radio Raheem’s boombox with a baseball bat. I could go on. The takeaway is that reading the review today makes Mr. Denby seem like a clueless and careless racist. To me anyway.

*For a reviewer who did get the point of the movie, read Roger Ebert’s review or his essay for the Criterion Collection.

My understanding of The Central Park Five is that it does a very good job of portraying the racial tension and fear that was prevalent in New York in 1989. Mr. Denby’s review describes it thusly:

In the late eighties, crime rates were high in New York; a rancid atmosphere of fear and recrimination had taken hold, abetted by frenzied tabloids and an often abrasive mayor, Ed Koch.

Mr. Denby is very complimentary of the movie, and seems eager to follow in its condemnation of the kind of public fearmongering that was such a large part of the case against the five teenagers. It is fairly mindboggling to me that Mr. Denby was willing to ascribe to 1989 New York “a rancid atmosphere of fear and recrimination” while pretending that he wasn’t a highly visible figure contributing to that atmosphere. It was hard for me to respect Mr. Denby or take him seriously before his Central Park Five review. It’s even harder now.

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