Few things are more personally mortifying than watching a drunk person torpedo a social situation with no regard for the feelings of others, and so there were several moments of Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry’s new drama about a once-zeitgeisty rock star in deep personal and professional decline, that I sat through with a hand on my mouth and my face contorted like someone experiencing scat porn for the first time.
The rock star, cheekily named Becky Something and played by Elisabeth Moss, more or less resembles peak Courtney Love. She’s blonde, plays grunge-inflected alternative rock, made a ’90s Spin cover, and is pretty clearly out of control from the first time we watch her stumble through a backstage area while clumsily holding her infant daughter like an overweight bag of groceries. Becky seems specifically intent on turning everything around her into shit. At one point, she ferociously dresses down her mother for not having a romantic partner in a crowded room filled with their friends; in another, she addresses a rapturous club audience with blood on her nose (from getting decked by a bandmate) and handcuffs around her wrists (from attempting to stab a security guard), before clumsily stage diving and hitting the ground with no one to catch her.
It’s like A Star Is Born, except Becky is both Jackson Maine and Ally (no last name), though unfortunately there’s nothing as good as “Shallow” (the best we get is a tender acoustic cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” sung by Becky to her daughter). Seen through Perry’s jittery, intimate camerawork, and undergirded by a droning soundtrack that both mimics the muffled sound of live music heard in the distance and Becky’s own bleary-eyed train of thought, it’s an uneven but enjoyable movie, especially if you have any fondness for that dying breed of deranged rock star, who could probably not exist today without being immediately cancelled.
I had another thought, which made me feel like a humorless scold for noticing: Her Smell is an incredibly white movie, which, as is always the case, becomes very obvious when you attune your observational skills to recognize it. There’s just one speaking non-white character, a kooky black mystic named Ya-ema (Eka Darville) who gives Becky spiritual counsel despite being pretty obviously a charlatan, and who exists wholly on the periphery. Almost none of the background characters are non-white, save for a security guard and a couple faces at a rock show. At first, I wondered if the film’s monochromatism was a deliberate creative choice meant to create a conception of ’90s alternative rock as an extremely white space (though that isn’t exclusively true), but there’s nothing in the storytelling that constitutes any awareness of that fact.
Moreover, I was surprised to find that in an era where movie critics have increasingly advocated for on-screen diversity, almost nobody registered this in their review. I found just one example, Pitchfork’s Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, who wrote of Ya-ema: “It’s worth noting that he is the film’s only character of color, and even with the tokenism, this is somewhat of an improvement for the typically tone deaf and whitewashed worlds of Alex Ross Perry films (when the indie director last turned up, with 2017’s Golden Exit, he made modern-day Brooklyn look glaringly pale).”
Kim immediately moved on from the observation; there’s no reason to fixate on it in a larger review that considers a film in a vacuum. And also, to be fair, Perry is hardly the only white filmmaker failing to hire a diverse cast — there’s, uh, all of Hollywood — though for someone who professes to think about diversity in filmmaking “all of the time,” as he told Jezebel’s Rich Juzwiak in 2018, he really should know better.
In a separate Jezebel interview, Chloe Sevigny, who stars in Perry’s film Golden Exits, relayed a story in which the director had been confronted at a screening about the whiteness of that film. “Have you ever been to Park Slope?” he replied. That response, however miffed and tossed off in response to someone being rude to him, betrays a strangled perspective on non-white casting, given how whiteness (or blackness, or Asianness, and so forth) is rarely essential to every character in a movie, as well as a fundamental myopia about how the world looks — I have been to Park Slope, and rest assured, you will find non-white people walking on the street.
Sevigny then offered this galaxy-brain take on diversity casting: “When I watch a movie, it’s so transparent when they’re casting in that situation,” before adding, “I’m not saying they shouldn’t. It’s also like, this is that world... There’s too many white people, period.” It’s true that we can all recognize transparently mandated diversity casting (though I might ask Sevigny how, exactly, she defines it). It’s also just as true that we — though not enough of us, apparently — can recognize when a movie transparently doesn’t have a diverse cast. And it’s somewhat damning, though probably not surprising, that a supposedly well-intentioned liberal like Sevigny could instinctively identify casting in that situation — the one meant to break up the on-screen white hegemony, however awkwardly so — but more or less shrugs when the status quo proceeds as usual.
You don’t have to be a card-carrying SJW to agree that the world is a fairly diverse place, and that if you’re making a movie that doesn’t take place in a specifically localized community, there’s no good reason to not portray that on screen. Yet it often doesn’t happen, and the burden of recognition passes to the observing viewer, who must decide how much they want to care. When I figure out I’m watching a new movie that hasn’t cared enough to thread non-white actors into leading, supporting, or background roles, it forms a separate value judgment, as in: “Her Smell is good, but it is also white as hell.” One of my close friends, a black man, said of this realization: “Depending on what I’m watching, it can fuck up the movie for me.” And obviously there’s a much broader range of applicable reactions, which resist a firm rule such as the DuVernay Test, proposed by New York Times writer Manohla Dargis as a sort of racial Bechdel Test, which itself has been lazily approximated by viewers who think one woman = one point.
The most honest and also least useful answer is that sometimes it matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Certainly, with inclusion and intersectionality now mainstreamed parts of the discourse, contemporary audiences and critics are much better trained to watch with a discerning eye, whereas in the past our non-white ancestors all pretty much adjusted to the reality of representation if they ever wanted to enjoy going to the movies. But even then, it’s easy enough to ignore. Again: Almost none of the Her Smell reviews I read talked about this, and I felt guilty for even caring a little bit. It is, after all, just a movie — a minor movie, at that — and art doesn’t have to be the battleground on which political advances are won. Criticizing artists for what they didn’t do opens up a cascading series of considerations; it’s often just easier, if not fairer, to evaluate what’s in front of us. The whiteness didn’t ruin the film for me; on the whole, I easily enjoyed it. Original concept independent films are already a rarity. Why be a pedant about something most viewers probably didn’t even register?
But it’s unsatisfying for modern filmmakers to perform the bare minimum of expressing their desire to make more inclusive films without expanding their field of vision to consider all of the complicated political and social conditions enabling the soft bigotry of invisibility. Perry, again, is hardly the only filmmaker complicit in keeping things going as usual, but he’s positioned himself as someone who has the right idea — in that Jezebel interview, he confidently stated “there’s no reason to make movies with men as the lead,” as though the next step in that line of logic isn’t “there’s no reason to make movies with male directors,” an outcome I’m sure he’d protest.
And if the people in power will only do better on their own timeline even as its agred things need to change immediately, then critics (and viewers) must confidently develop a lexicon for pointing out these world-building deficiencies without guilt or intended shame. A formal disclaimer might be too much — we don’t need to petition the MPAA to add “W — a movie about The Whites” to its ratings system — but “we can’t help but notice what’s going on here” is a good start. It’s not going to get any less relevant as time goes on.