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Discuss: Are You Racist If You Don't Like 'The Paperboy'?

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 28, 2012 3:31 PM
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The Paperboy Zac Efron Matthew McConaughey Nicole Kidman David Oyelowo

To say filmmaker Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" is the most controversial film at Cannes is a massive understatement. A pulpy, tart and sordid-sounding Southern potboiler that features moments like Nicole Kidman's character urinating on Zac Efron to cure a jellyfish wound (among other apparent follies), Daniels' follow-up to the well-recieved, but still polarizing "Precious," has been called everything from a "transcendentally awful piece of filmmaking" akin to "Showgirls," to an "instant trash masterpiece." Our reviewer from Cannes pulled no punches, describing the film as a "disastrous flop" and going as far as to claim anyone hailing it as a "camp classic" should not be trusted by the general public (and to even things out, here's another Playlist contributor who prefers it to Daniels' past work).

Suffice it to say almost every single published review has a polarized, love-it-or hate-it-perspective. Featuring scenes of Matthew McConaughey engaging in violent on-screen bondage, a racist psychopath and a narrator that keeps frustratingly changing point of view, the film is divisive to say the least. Variety said, "the film seems possessed by the spirits of blaxploitation and 'Baywatch,'" but also noted the film was "not unenjoyable" while The Hollywood Reporter praised the film for its "down and dirtiness."

But more troubling is Daniels' reponse to the mixed reviews, especially an interview with GQ, where the filmmaker raised the race card. A difficult topic to discuss without being seen as a bigot for one side or the other, here's the GQ transcript in full where this subject is broached:

GQ: I don't know. Some prominent critics like it, others don't.
Lee Daniels:
I think, too, that, and it's so politically incorrect to talk about racism—you simply can't—but I think that if it were Pedro Almodovor or some Italian director telling the story we wouldn't be in the situation we're in. I should be doing Precious—urban stories that make sense for me. How dare I step out of my comfort zone and tell a story like this. That's the way I think it is. But, that's not my destiny.

GQ: I wonder if part of the racism is that you're a black director taking one of the most adored white actresses of our era and you make her squat and pee on Zac Efron. And even what you have Matthew McConaughey do for you...
Lee Daniels:
And you know what? They love me. As much as I love them. And they trusted me and they believed and we're all working together again. I don't know what it all means. It means: Get ready, it is what it is. Am I really the most talked-about?

There's a degree to which we sympathize with some of what Daniels is saying. African-American directors are all too often pigeon-holed -- filmmakers like Tim Story or Clark Johnson get to make films for wider audiences, but they're all too often anonymous, hired-gun studio fare. Daniels was only the second African-American to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar (after John Singleton in 1991), and one of the few with the cache to make what he wants to, and it must have been sour to see the critical response so different as when he made a film set, as he puts it, outside of his "comfort zone."

And his intentions are good, certainly. He made David Oyelowo's Yardley, one of the leads in the film, a black character rather than a white one, and gave Anita (Macy Gray) an expanded role, telling a Cannes press conference, via the Associated Press, that "there aren't enough roles for African Americans in the world today" -- a sentiment that few would disagree with. And he's not wrong that he probably faces a harsher jury for what is by most accounts a campy melodrama than someone like, say, Pedro Almodovar or Luca Guadagnino might have for the same critics -- one of the disadvantages of bringing a genre-y, star-laden picture to Cannes (film festivals are always bubbles, and we'd expect the reviews to be a little kinder when it goes into general release). So Daniels does absolutely raise valid points.

All that being said, we think he's displaying all kinds of hubris here. If the reviews of "The Paperboy" out of Cannes had complained about Daniels being ill-suited for the material, or arguing that he should stick to the kind of African-American stories embodied by "Precious," that would be one thing. But even the most vicious reviews of the new picture don't contain anything of the kind: instead, they focus on tonal lurches, Instagram-esque photography, script weaknesses and all-round bad filmmaking. And when he brings up, say, Almodovar, he ignores that the Spanish director has absolutely had the kind of kickings from the press that Daniels is now complaining about, especially early in his career.

This writer hasn't seen "The Paperboy," and is kind of looking forward to it, despite the worst of the reviews. But he can certainly sympathize with some of the criticisms when it comes to "Precious." In that film, Daniels showed an astonishing affinity when it came to working with actors, eliciting an Oscar-nominated performance out of newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and an Oscar-winning one from stand-up comedian/actress Mo'nique. And he seems to have done the same here, as the actors have generally been praised in "The Paperboy," Nicole Kidman and Macy Gray in particular, and as Daniels says in that GQ piece, his cast adored the experience: "They love me. As much as I love them. And they trusted me and they believed and we're all working together again."

But "Precious" was marred for many by sub-student-film choices when it came to the decisions Daniels made shooting and editing the film, and many of the criticisms recur with reviews of "The Paperboy." Indeed, we expressed concern with a clip, which showed some really clunky, look-at-the-new-setting-I-found-with-my-editing-software cutting. And there was a heavy-handedness to "Precious" that seems to have carried over here too.

Daniels is absolutely within his rights to disagree with the reviews of his films, or indeed not read them altogether, as many do. But impugning the motives of the people who write them -- 99.9% of whom, we're confident in saying, could give a shit what race he is -- is a childish and over-defensive way of reacting to it. It's healthy not to take your critics too seriously, but in some circumstances it can be fatal to ignore them. Look at M. Night Shyamalan, whose ego has seen him make worse and worse films as he became convinced he was the saviour of filmmaking, or Richard Kelly, who was similarly savaged at Cannes six years ago for "Southland Tales," and who, if anything, ramped up his directorial excesses with his next picture, "The Box."

There will always be people who love Daniels' films, and there will always be those who hate them. It's the case with literally every movie ever made. But by dismissing his reviews as coming from racists, Daniels risks sealing himself inside a bubble which can become hard to break out of. It'll certainly be interesting to see how the studio-funded, star-studded "The Butler" turns out next year. And we look forward to making our own minds up on "The Paperboy" when it opens later in 2012.

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  • george wells | May 30, 2012 6:40 PMReply

    One of the first anti-racist was Leon Trotsky. He invented the word "racist" as a way to attack people who opposed his multi-racial basis for empire. He is the patron saint of many anti-racists.

    We know how that thing with Trotsky and communism worked out with 60 million dead bodies of whites. RACIST WHITES!!! They didn’t even know they were racists but the patron saints of communism did!!!!

    Seems the anti-racists are always considered good intentioned, but leave dead bodies in their wake.
    Let's just look at the real effects of anti-racism, the real world. That is way I continue to ask this question:

    White countries are being flooded by non-whites. We are told to be TOLERANT. We are forced to integrate. With assimilation we see the
    extinction of one race only, the white race.
    How is this not genocide?

  • Zack | May 31, 2012 10:13 AM

    It was nice of FreeRepublic to lend us their commenters.

  • a | May 30, 2012 6:56 PM

    "How is this not genocide?" Because your definition of genocide is apparently "people having children with whomever they please," while the definition most people use is: "the deliberate killing of a large group of people, esp. those of a particular ethnic group or nation." Big difference.

  • Andrew | May 29, 2012 8:56 AMReply

    Wait a second this is a false argument that can only elicit vicious denial from all. I've read some of the reader responses to the Playlist review of PB which suggest something similar but I think a point is being missed, which is that once upon a time we enjoyed movies like Sweetback, Coffy, Cleopatra Jones, thru to Beyond the valley of the dolls, and Polyester; now we may look back fondly on those films, but that's only with hindsight, released today I could imagine them violently dividing audiences in the way PB has. The point for me is that cinema has become far too white, conservative, and safe, it's lost it's counter culture, it's deviance and it's sense of danger, partly due to the critics that have become the gate keepers of the art form. We need to loosen up remember the history of film in it's entirety and allow other attitudes into the party. I don't like how this particular argument is framed in such a way that it can only serve to bring the gates down once again, and equally I don't like the fact a movie I want to see and which many people liked, has been beaten to an inch of it's life and as far as I know doesn't yet have a distributor.

  • Whitey Genseric | May 29, 2012 8:48 AMReply

    "Africa for Africans. Asia for the Asians. White countries for EVERYBODY?!"

    Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

    The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.

    Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites.

    What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

    How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

    And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?

    But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

    They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

    Anti-racist IS a code word for anti-white.

  • Zack | May 31, 2012 10:34 AM

    Did you just have that saved up for a while and go to town as soon as you saw the word "racist" in a headline? Because it has fuck-all to do with the actual post.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 29, 2012 10:26 AM

    No. It's not. Anti-racist is a code word for not liking people who blather on about racial purity. And the next person who brings it up gets deleted on the spot.

  • seapeamp | May 29, 2012 10:21 AM

    @Oliver Lyttelton: Speak for yourself and leave it at that. The rest of us can handle our own.

    Anti-racist IS a code word for anti-White.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 29, 2012 8:57 AM

    I think I speak for everybody when I tell you to fuck off.

  • Caspar | May 29, 2012 8:20 AMReply

    He's got it all wrong. I loathed 'The Paperboy' when I saw it at Cannes - but it's because I'm homophobic, not racist.

  • cinematic_high | May 28, 2012 11:20 PMReply

    Not liking a piece of shit film does not make you racist....I'm a black movie fan who couldn't stand Precious...and I'm pretty sure I'd hate this too......

  • Precious based on the book push by sapphire | May 28, 2012 11:19 PMReply

    Ya'll are most definitely not racist... just guilty of bad taste :)

  • Zack | May 28, 2012 8:18 PMReply

    I don't think for a second that not liking "The Paperboy" automatically makes one racist (I snark on the Playlist a lot, but I really do respect their critical judgment 9 times out of 10, and they have successfully dissuaded me from touching it with a ten-foot pole), but I do think there's an argument to be made that a black filmmaker (or a woman filmmaker) gets far fewer chances to fuck up than a white male one does. Compare how many second chances we gave someone like Woody Allen between "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Vicky Christina Barcelona" or "Midnight in Paris".

  • jimmiescoffee | May 28, 2012 8:16 PMReply

    this is so typical. no, this movie likely blows just as much as 'precious.' if anything is "racist" its fawning over that film because it made white people feel like they care. sorry daniels, their are plenty of african american directors more talented (and profound) than you.

  • kris | May 28, 2012 7:00 PMReply

    personally i love precious and he did great job with it but can anyone blame spike lee for 25th hour or steve mcqueen for hunger?

  • Ken | May 28, 2012 7:42 PM

    blame them for what? making great movies?

  • Brett | May 28, 2012 6:58 PMReply

    Only Playlist give "F" ...THINGS I DON'T UNDERSTAND

  • Nolan | May 28, 2012 6:57 PMReply

    I feel like every conversation about Daniels ends up being about race. If everyone was so racist, and only wanted to see black directors make a very specific type of film, then what is Steve McQueen doing?

  • Brad | May 29, 2012 3:00 AM

    Steve McQueen maybe as polarizing a director as Daniels but that is where the comparisons ends. One is a hack and the other is a talented artist and filmmaker.

  • Zack | May 28, 2012 8:20 PM

    I dunno, I think McQueen's pretty polarizing. There are people who think "Shame" has the same cultural value as the Playlist review thinks "The Paperboy" does. But I'll concede that's probably less about race and more about his choice of deliberately provocative subject matter.

  • Brett | May 28, 2012 6:56 PMReply


  • Travis | May 28, 2012 8:10 PM

    Can you provide examples to back this up?

  • BEF | May 28, 2012 6:50 PMReply

    I hope this becomes similar to Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" reception at Cannes. Massively panned, but it turned out (to me) to be the best film of her career and one of the top ten movies of the last decade. I think with minorities of women and men given so few chances that if they get an early success they are overly-scrutinized and set up for failure because they represent all of their gender or race at these esteemed festivals. (boxofficebuz has a good point about baseball players -- the more black filmmakers and female filmmakers we put on this stage the less they will be required to be the great hope for their filmmaking community and can just make what they want). The boos at Cannes probably tempered expectations for "Marie Antoinette" and it was reviewed (mostly) accordingly. I am very interested in "The Paperboy" and hope that critics will approach it as if they'd never read these reviews before. It sounds like it might be akin to "Black Snake Moan".

  • lacy | May 28, 2012 6:48 PMReply

    blah blah blah *THAT PIC OF NICOLE* blah blah blah

  • Da5id | May 28, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    Les Daniels is the racist, he's always playing the race card: 'Oh you don't like me because I'm black, right?'. No, I don't like you because 'Precious' is a piece of crap...

  • George | May 28, 2012 9:06 PM

    I don't think the use of the word racist in relation to Daniels is appropriate, but I do get where you are coming from. Daniels seems to be using the accusation of racism as a weapon when something doesn't go his way. What a way to get attention, right? The film is apparently pretty bad. More likely self reflection and a reanalysis of his own work in order. Knee jerk assignment of 'blame' only makes him look like an idiot.

  • Zack | May 28, 2012 8:11 PM

    The quote in the article makes Daniels sound like an idiot, but I'm not entirely sure what definition of "racist" you're working from.

  • dan | May 28, 2012 6:23 PM

    "Les Daniels is the racist" *massive eyeroll*

  • Michael | May 28, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    I don't know about racism but it sure seems like a sense of fun/adventure helps in appreciating this film. The huge number of horrified reviews are making me wonder if campy trash is ever really appreciated in the present day. It seems a little hypocritical for people to enjoy safely canonized works like Rocky Horror Picture Show and Pink Flamingoes and yet be appalled by someone who seems, in my eyes, to be the next John Waters (which I think is great, because John Waters stopped making John Waters movies a long time ago). I liked Precious a lot and I'm looking forward to The Paperboy, which I view less as the "vital work of an important new black filmmaker" (lol) than the dicking around of a John Waters/Almodovar fanboy. I think our mistake in the first place was assuming Lee Daniels ever meant to deliver stone-serious messages on race (why did we assume that about Precious in the first place, by the way? What about that movie didn't scream "dark comedy"?). Judging by Precious and what people are saying about this one, Daniels seems to be gleefully anarchic about, well, everything. Which is awesome, because no one else seems to be. Maybe we need a Lee Daniels to help us laugh at these confusing times.

    Let me also add, though, that making fun of pretty much everything doesn't necessarily preclude occasional seriousness. I don't think anyone laughed at Precious being raped by her father, for example. Lee Daniels is working in a very tricky register, where the tone can swing from outright farce to subtle satire to open horror and back again all in a matter of seconds. Some people seem bothered by this, but to me (and others!) it's like a cinematic rollercoaster. Maybe not for everyone, but if you're on that wavelength, I think Daniels has something to offer you.

  • yco | May 28, 2012 10:10 PM

    Thank you Michael for that thoughtful comment. I loved Precious. For all the adjectives thrown at that film - grotesque had more balls, more heart, life-affirming energy and soul than anything I've seen in film in years. I like Daniels' passion and slightly off-kilter way of dealing with the press and interviews. There is something genuine in that kind of unadulterated will sometimes falter in the execution of a work, but I respect it more than just another polite, politically correct aesthetic any time.

  • boxofficeBUZ | May 28, 2012 5:09 PM

    Your second paragraph reminds me of something that Chris Rock said.

    He essentially says that baseball didn't actually stop being racist until crappy black players were in the league.

    He basically explains that when black players were as bad as the worst white players is when racism really left the league.

    I actually think this is a good way of looking at things, and is why I totally agree with that paragraph. It slightly seems like people wanted another "Tyler Perry", but if he wants to be a film maker, and make any film he wants to make, whats the issue ?

  • Michael | May 28, 2012 4:59 PM


  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 28, 2012 4:37 PM

    Sincerely, thanks for this Michael. You might have restored my faith in commenters.

  • Michael | May 28, 2012 4:24 PM

    Wow okay cool, definitely there was supposed to be a paragraph break there. Thank you IndieWire formatting. Anyhow, to more directly answer the question, the most racist way to view The Paperboy is "Lee Daniels is not what I want out of a black filmmaker." As if there's one monolithic way for black people to make movies. Some people seem to be implying this, suggesting that Lee Daniels is throwing away an opportunity to be the new voice of black cinema. But why do we assign him this duty? Why can't he make campy trash if he wants to? That's where the racism comes in. And in that sense I think Daniels is right, because he knows there's a lot of scrutiny on a Cannes-feted black filmmaker's work. The Paperboy, for better or worse, is nothing like what anyone expected, and this seems to be bothering some people. I'm not sure why, as I haven't seen it yet, but if the core issue with certain reviewers is that their expectations weren't met, then yes, I would call that racist. The Paperboy (and Lee Daniels) should succeed or fail on its own terms, and I don't think anyone's quite sure what those terms are yet. When we find out, this movie will be due for an honest re-appraisal, as I have a feeling wider release won't be much kinder to it.

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