Hollywood, Whitewashing and Race: The Beguiled

May 2nd, 2019

Sofia Coppola is one of the most respected and talented women directors currently working in the film industry. Her films feature compelling female leads in stories that resonate with many female audience goers. She has also been accused of displaying an utter lack of interest in telling the stories of anyone not white or privileged.

Her most recent film, The Beguiled, received a great deal of criticism for whitewashing two female characters who were portrayed in the novel upon which it was based. Whitewashing is the racially insensitive casting practice of using a white actor to portray a non-white character. In recent years, the definition of whitewashing has been expanded to include the practice of omitting non-white characters or changing them to a white character. The Beguiled omits two African-American female characters who are featured prominently in the book: a female slave named Matilda Farnsworth and a teenage student named Edwina Morrow.

Is the criticism that Sofia Coppola whitewashed these two female characters fair? Or rather, perhaps, the more pointed question, was there anything about the portrayal of these characters in the book that would have given a screenwriter or filmmaker pause for concern? I suspect that many of the people who accuse Ms. Coppola of racial insensitivity for omitting these two characters have never read the source material. The book’s portrayal of its two black characters during the Civil War is problematic to say the least and had the movie adaptation been faithful to the book’s portrayal of them, Ms. Coppola would probably have been subjected to even harsher criticism.

The female slave, Matilda Farnsworth, is reminiscent of a slave from the old Hollywood portrayal of the Civil War; a throwback to the Gone With the Wind era. Matilda refers to her former slave master as a “good and kind man.” Early in the novel when the head mistress of the school gives her an order, Matilda refuses to comply, and no punishment is given, not even so much as a word of reprimand. When Matilda remembers the time when the other slaves were sold off, she was assured by her owner that “they’ll be well cared for” and “Miss Martha gave orders that they’re to be sold to only the best places. She says she wouldn’t do it, Mattie, but she’s going to start a school here and she needs the money.” When the injured Union soldier is discovered and Mattie is asked by her owner what they should do with him, she is completely disinterested in providing aid and suggests they turn him over to the nearby Confederacy troops and let them deal with him because “this is a military matter and none of our business.” This is a very interesting portrayal of slavery, one in which slaves aren’t really slaves; the owners actually care for the well being of their human property, and that in fact they aren’t really property, but rather an extended member of the family who alternates as a servant and cook. There is never a clear sense of the subjugation and humiliation that a slave would inevitably have experienced as a daily reality. It is understandable as to why any American director would have been deeply ambivalent about portraying a slave in this manner. The other non-white character in the novel is also treated in a manner that would give many directors or screenplay writers concern as to how to adapt them into the screen version.

Edwina Morrow is a student at the school who it is implied is of mixed racial heritage. She is presented as unreasonably hostile, unable to get along with anyone in the school. She is also, at least, partially responsible for the chain of events that leads to the death of the Union soldier since it is she who attacks him when she discovers him in an intimate moment with another female student. Not only is she an unlikable character, she is problematic for another reason. The story is set during the height of the Civil War. Racial prejudice against blacks was so ingrained in the South that it is unlikely a character of a mixed racial background would even be allowed to attend such an exclusive school. Edwina is never shown having to contend with the virulent racism that a person of even a perceived racially mixed heritage would have inevitably experienced. To this day, the reality in the United States is that persons of mixed racial backgrounds have to contend with racial slights and prejudices. Yes, it is true that some people of color were able to “pass” for being white, but that was the exception not the rule. In the novel, there is a scene where Edwina is treated to condescending comments regarding her dark appearance and suggestions that she “does look rather Castilian doesn’t she?” However, other than these brief scenes, she is treated no differently than her white peers at the school. It’s also important to note that during the period of Jim Crow segregation, there was something called “the one drop rule.” This racial classification suggested that a single drop of “black blood” made a person black. Therefore, a person of mixed race was to be seen as black and then could be legally treated in a discriminatory manner. This rule was codified into the law after the Civil War, but had its racist origins from the time of slavery. The institutionalized racism is all but ignored in the novel and Edwina seems mostly unaffected by the virulent racism that was and tragically remains an integral part of American culture.

Is there something that Sofia Coppola could have done to have adapted these characters that would have more accurately reflected the cruel reality of the slavery era? Perhaps, but it would have been a very different film, one where the focus would have rightfully been on race and not gender. Perhaps Coppola didn’t want to make a movie  focused on the Civil War and the racist beliefs and practices leading up to it. Simultaneously, she was not comfortable telling a story that diminished the brutal reality of that time. Any film that would accurately depict the treatment of African American women during that period would inevitably include scenes of violence and harsh language. When questioned about the removal of the two African American female characters, Coppola said, “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in such a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show on film.” It matters not that these characters were in the original source material; if they were not developed in a realistic or respectful manner, then her instinct to not include them in the film is indeed the better choice.

~Amy

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