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Armstrong: The Beguiled erases blackness, actual history

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, while a compelling portrayal of white Southern Civil War femininity, erases actual history and black stories by cutting out African-American characters.

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Armstrong: The Beguiled erases blackness, actual history

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Dot Armstrong, [email protected]

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When I finally saw The Beguiled, my excitement waned after the first 15 minutes of dewy mansions and frayed petticoats. A dark fairy tale about white Southern women, with no people of color in sight? Something felt distinctly, disturbingly anachronistic about this — and it wasn’t the corsets.

It’s a trite feminist tale, beginning with the arrival of a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) at Farnsworth Seminary (run by an imposing Nicole Kidman, populated by a host of diaphanous young actresses), and ending with the assertion of the power of the matriarchy. OK, fine. I stayed, of course, through the passion, and betrayal, and emasculating amputation (spoiler alert), and manslaughter (bigger spoiler alert) because I wanted to know why Sofia Coppola made the darn movie in the first place. Turns out Coppola’s film is a remake of a 1971 movie by Don Siegel, which in turn was an adaptation of a 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. What?

Having never read the novel nor watched the original film, I went into the theater quite blind — like many other viewers, no doubt. I had no idea that there were two black women missing from the plot. Coppola trimmed them out like weeds to allow the white ladies to blossom. I hope my innocence and subsequent research will assist you in making the call on Coppola’s artistic choices. Some sources cry “whitewashing.” Others defend Coppola’s delicacy in tiptoeing around potentially stereotypical portrayals of black folks. Coppola, to her credit, articulated her motivations and ideas for the film in a concise essay published on IndieWire, but I’m not persuaded.

Though Coppola makes a convincing case for her gloss of slavery and erasure of black characters, she’s got a history of subtracting people of color (Bling Ring) and avoiding the messy bits of history (Marie Antoinette). Look those movies up, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s something coy, blithe, and unnervingly true to form about the way she pruned the problematic racial material from the typical plight of Southern belles pent up with their passions.

OK, back to the mysterious invisible women of The Beguiled. According to an article in Slate, Coppola combined Edwina, a biracial teenager, with Harriet Farnsworth, sister to Martha, resulting in the Edwina played by Kirsten Dunst; the slave girl Mattie (Hallie, in the Siegel film) was straight-up subtracted.

Coppola, an expert in portraying wealthy, disillusioned white women, stuck with what she knew — for better or worse. She defended herself with careful sentences about her concern with correct portrayals of slaves, her need to develop the drama between the main (white) characters, and her contempt for the stereotypes perpetuated by the original characters she excised. Coppola made one important point in this essay: Evidence does support her hazy vision of upper-class Southern white ladies isolated and altered by the ravages of war. Yes, such a phenomenon had its own intriguing struggles and maybe deserves a cinematic re-enactment. But Coppola breezes past any hint of the complicated facts of the Civil War with three damningly simple words: “The slaves left.” That’s it? Highly suspect. Slavery did not just disappear when the Union soldiers descended upon the plantations.

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