How The Beguiled Subtly Tackles Race Even When You Don’t See It

The women of The Beguiled. Photo: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Southern belles are cinema’s clearest and most evocative demonstration of the ways white women’s status is built upon the subjugation of black women. Overwrought, opulent, and obsessed with their own lineage, they are an easy archetype to romanticize — if you maintain a blinkered perspective on America’s history with race. With their delicate disposition and ritualistic approach to beauty, they embody the decadence and sense of tradition that the South likes to believe about itself. It’s almost surprising that writer-director Sofia Coppola hasn’t explored them before The Beguiled, given how neatly they overlap with her greatest obsessions as a filmmaker — the beauty and fragility of white women.

The Beguiled, the second film adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel of the same name, revolves around a group of women at a girls’ school in Virginia during the twilight of the Civil War as they try to find solid ground during the upheaval of everything they know. Miss Martha Farnsworth (a steely Nicole Kidman), the headmistress of the girls’ school that is the only setting for the film, fiercely tries to instill order during these chaotic times. But her control slips away when one of the young students (Oona Laurence) brings a wounded Union soldier back to the school, the dashing Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). His presence ignites the girls’ dormant passions, setting off a chain of events with harrowing consequences, especially for the yearning Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and the too curious Alicia (Elle Fanning). Coppola has gotten a lot of mileage in her 18-year career out of focusing on the interiority of delicate white women. Her films are rich with mood, texture, color, and detailing. No modern director can wring such romanticism from even the most mundane events. She eschews any historical realism in favor of interrogating the desires of the women that inhabit her films. Marie Antoinette, for example, which also starred Dunst, keeps the French Revolution at bay in order to anachronistically relish the grandeur of its lead character’s swift rise and devastating fall. That’s why it isn’t surprising that in The Beguiled, Coppola exorcises the more obvious signs of the South’s brutal history with racism and slavery. She isn’t interested in historical realism, but in depicting a point in history defined completely by the perspective of the young women she turns her gaze to. This creative decision has drawn a lot of ire in recent weeks, after Coppola enjoyed a great reception at Cannes this May, where she won the Best Director award, marking only the second time a woman has garnered such a prestigious accolade in the festival’s history.

Cullinan’s original novel has a black slave and a biracial character, whose story lines Coppola distributed among the other characters, particularly Edwina. Even Don Siegel’s hothouse 1971 adaptation starring Clint Eastwood includes the perspective of a black female slave, Hallie (Mae Mercer), as another view into the ways men can wreak havoc on women’s lives. In a time when audiences are rightfully calling for more representation in media, and right-wing antagonism toward people of color has reached a fever pitch, Coppola’s decision to not include any black characters feels like an affront. The film only directly mentions slavery in a single line during the first scene, when the young woman who discovers McBurney casually mentions that the slaves left. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Coppola explained her decision: “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films, and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” The response was swift. A Slate piece argued that Coppola completely strips the story of its politics and misrepresents history to a damning degree in order to revel in an exoticized account of the Old South’s most prevailing myths. Bitch magazine highlighted Coppola’s troubling history with whitewashing and argued that The Beguiled “insinuates that the African American experience of womanhood during this era doesn’t matter.” A review at Lainey Gossip explored the schism within the film between its beauty, the interiority of its female characters, and its “ignorant” perspective on history.

As a black southern woman who has an overall tepid response to Coppola’s work, I had my guard up when I first saw the film, given the outrage that swelled around it. Within just a few moments, I recognized that despite being set in Virginia, the film was obviously shot in Louisiana, which immediately colored my understanding of it, bringing to the surface my own experiences navigating the mores of white southern women. (My family is from rural Louisiana as well as New Orleans, and I consider these places home.) I was struck by Coppola’s ability to stretch her usual obsessions into fascinating new dimensions. The Beguiled is arch, lovingly crafted, impeccably curated, and brimming with nuanced performances, even as it holds back from going further into the horror territory it teases. Coppola succeeded at creating a southern Gothic swooning with romanticism that tips into surprisingly grotesque territory. Could The Beguiled have taken a more unflinching approach to the history of the Civil War–era South and its lingering scars that affected black people most acutely? Undoubtedly. But Coppola isn’t the filmmaker to do so — her greatest strength and weakness has always been her myopia. More broadly, I find this obsession with making every film intersectional to be misguided. As Ira Madison aptly put it for the Daily Beast, “We should demand that studios and producers give those opportunities to black filmmakers instead of looking for meager scraps from white people who don’t fully grasp our stories and will portray them horribly.” And upon closer look, Coppola has also accidentally created a film that acts as an indictment of the very brand of womanhood she’s been enamored with throughout her career — white, privileged, and unable to see the world beyond their own desires.

Much of the criticism of the film has hinged on the idea that by exorcising a character like Hallie, race itself doesn’t exist within the landscape of the film. But blackness and racism in general can never be fully removed from stories set in the South, even if black characters themselves are not present. I was struck by how often the absence of black characters felt like a commentary in and of itself, and how distinctly this absence could be felt. When Alicia whines and sloppily tends to the land, I saw the posturing of a young girl only recently aware of the labor black people were forced to do and the privilege she used to enjoy. The untended garden was an unavoidable visual marker for the labor of black people as well. In many ways, the three most important characters — played by Fanning, Dunst, and Kidman — are emblems of whiteness and its toxicity. Martha’s obsession with the grand past she’ll never return to is a curious dynamic that still exists in the South, as conversations rage about the Confederate monuments that punctuate the land. Edwina’s forlorn yearning to have a higher station in life and ability to nearly grasp it are things a black woman could never quite experience in that time. Alicia’s lazy insolence and desire to wield her sexuality with no regard for the repercussions may be an honest depiction of burgeoning adolescent sexuality and curiosity, but it also echoes how white women, both cinematic and real, have used their desire and cunning in ways that don’t take into account collateral damage.

Coppola thought that by removing black characters, she was scrubbing race from the film entirely. But that presumes white isn’t a race that has long been treated as the norm from which all other races deviate. Whatever her intent, The Beguiled is a curious reckoning of the myths of white womanhood — how they use fragility as a shield for deviousness and insulate themselves from the horrors of a world that they too are responsible for. More than anything, the conversation around the film — which involves necessary critiques, even if I don’t fully agree with them — demonstrates how auteur theory limits conversations.

It’s important to establish that the critiques of The Beguiled are rooted not necessarily in the film itself, but in Coppola’s justifications and her alarming track record when it comes to depicting people of color. The harshest criticisms rest on bringing Coppola to task, and somewhat rightly define her perspective as a microcosm of white women’s racism and narcissism. In doing so, the directorial intent within this collaborative medium is deemed more important than the sly, surprising criticisms of whiteness that flourish within the film. The Beguiled is at once fairy tale and nightmare that shows that the gentility of the South is a fallacy. Like all of Coppola’s work, it ties itself to the perspective of its female characters, not the world as it really is. Given this, bringing in a character like Hallie would break the illusions these women maintain about themselves that the film interrogates. The mythology of the Old South that some still fiercely believe — which Coppola has echoed by calling it “exotic” — cannot exist without downplaying the horrors that black people have endured, or ignoring them altogether. But these horrors don’t need to be directly seen to be apparent. Slavery, colonialism, and racist strictures echo within every period piece of this nature, even if the filmmakers can’t or won’t reckon with them directly.

I have often found myself drawn to the lineage of southern belles, because understanding the ways white women exalt themselves and terrorize others has become an act of survival. (It’s why I and other black women were not surprised by the voting habits of white women reflected in the most recent presidential election.) I find myself both lured by their opulence and rituals, but also acutely aware of how said beauty could not exist without destroying my ancestors. Perhaps because of this, I am also hyperaware of the cinematic history The Beguiled exists within and the ways the film embodies (and undermines) the most flagrant fairy-tale notions of southern belles. In Fanning’s Alicia, I saw the bullheaded insolence of Bette Davis’s Julie Marsden from the 1938 antebellum-based William Wyler film Jezebel. Davis’s character isn’t just headstrong, but a wrecking ball in human form, willing to destroy anyone in her path in order to attain her desires. It’s the kind of myopia every character in The Beguiled embodies. In Kidman’s Martha (and all the characters to a degree), I found a whiff of the ne plus ultra of cinematic southern belles, Scarlett O’Hara, given her obsession with the past. Gone With the Wind is many things — one of the most successful films in Hollywood history, a gorgeous testament to the artistry film is capable of, a stirring depiction of a young woman’s narcissism and desire to return to a privileged past, and one of the most offensive fictions on blackness during slavery. Like The Beguiled, it exalts white womanhood in the form of Scarlett. She’s positioned as an ingenious figure even though it would be the slaves teaching her how to work the field, not the other way around. Authenticity is thrown aside in favor of an American epic that imagines the ghost of a civilization that never truly was.

It’s important to consider The Beguiled in the context of cinematic southern belles, from the romantic leads of classic Hollywood to the brutal savagery of Sarah Paulson’s plantation mistress in 12 Years a Slave, because the film’s power comes into focus when doing so. Whether their story is rooted in the antebellum period or not, southern belles illuminate how white women achieve power using their beauty and perceived delicacy. White womanhood exalted to this degree in southern narratives is predicated on the minimization of black women, which is a commentary on the way oppression continues. The Beguiled’s place within this lineage doesn’t make it a better or worse film, just a more complicated one that is less easy to write off, despite appearing on first glance as too enamored with the whiteness and beauty of its leads.

One of the most adroit depictions of white women’s active participation in racism in the South does not come from the present day, but Hollywood’s golden age. The 1942 film In This Our Life centers on Bette Davis as the southern belle Stanley Timberlake. She’s a scheming, underhanded, soulless creation that could only be so incisively depicted by an actress willing to not only be unlikable but also actively hateful. In the film, she kills a child in a hit-and-run accident and decides to blame the crime on a black chauffeur in her paramour’s employ, played by Ernest Anderson, with Hattie McDaniel of Gone With the Wind fame playing his mother. Davis’s character uses her whiteness and womanhood as weapons that shield her from closer scrutiny. In a less honest film, she would have gotten away with her crime, dooming this young black man to death, and may have also been softened in order to grant her sympathy. Director John Huston and Davis chose instead to display the rot at the heart of the southern mind-set and whiteness itself by indicting her character at every opportunity and giving her a gruesome fate. It’s a towering performance that James Baldwin astutely considered “a ruthlessly accurate” portrayal of southern womanhood, as well as a depiction of “the white descent from dignity” black people are routinely confronted with in America. More white filmmakers could learn from Huston. I don’t think every film needs to be inclusive, even one as frustrating as The Beguiled. But I do think more white filmmakers should consider actively exploring and indicting whiteness itself, rather than acting as if it’s a neutral existence. There’s a way to speak to racism and race itself without necessarily depicting the subjugation of people of color and the brutality we’ve experienced. Curiously, The Beguiled demonstrates that intermittently. This is why the moment that most got under my skin comes later in the film, when Kidman’s Martha gets lost in reverie, recalling when her now dilapidated home was grand and mighty, housing extravagant parties with men and women in full regalia. Much like The Beguiled itself and the southern-belle history it illuminates, she’s imagining a time when white women could elide the horrors foisted upon the black bodies that their wealth and status couldn’t exist without. Her memory isn’t historically honest, but it is a white fairy tale that deserves to be examined closely.

The Beguiled Subtly Tackles Race Even When You Don’t See It