The Beguiled grossed over $3.2 million in its first weekend of nationwide release, but Sofia Coppola still hasn’t explained why she cut Hallie (Mae Mercer), the lone Black character, from her remake. In Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel and the 1971 film adaptation, Hallie takes care of union soldier John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) when he flees the Civil War to hide out at the girls’ boarding school where she’s enslaved. But Coppola told the Village Voice that she “didn’t want to make a movie about racial politics in the Civil War. So I decided just to focus on the women.”
Apparently, it never crossed Coppola’s mind that Hallie is a woman, too, and that she’s even more vulnerable than the school’s students and staff because she’s enslaved. In the 1971 version, McBurney threatens to rape her, and she’s willing to die rather than endure another act of sexual violence. But according to Coppola, Hallie’s story is “a whole other story,” which is nonsensical and ahistorical because The Beguiled directly explores the aftermath of slavery. However, like the hundreds of white couples who get married on plantations because they find them beautiful, Coppola created the movie to shine a spotlight on genteel Southern women. She told Film School Rejects that after her 2013 film, The Bling Ring, she wanted to “do something gentle and pretty,” and highlighting white women’s complicity is clearly something she’s not interested in doing.
And for Coppola, “gentle and pretty” has solely applied to a very narrow cadre of women. Most of her films feature pale, willowy blondes, with the Germanic Kirsten Dunst serving as the Apollonia to her Prince. Dunst has starred in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Marie Antoinette (2006) and made a cameo in The Bling Ring. Elle Fanning, who starred in 2010’s Somewhere, stars in The Beguiled, along with Nicole Kidman and Dunst. In 1993, W Magazine published a glowing profile of Coppola, praising her Southern Italian features—Modigliani eyes, Roman nose, and full lips—and declaring her the new It girl. But the magazine also highlighted Coppola’s struggle to recognize her beauty while growing up in an era dominated by Christie Brinkley clones.
“I think it’s cool that people are now into more diverse ideas of beauty, ‘cause when I was in high school, the pretty girls were blonde and perfect,” she told W. “Those were the girls the guys were after.”
In 2017, there’s little evidence that the filmmaker’s ideas of beauty have expanded beyond what the boys from her high school found attractive. The Beguiled’s aesthetic is stubbornly similar to her previous body of work—with a Southern gothic twist. “I’ve always loved the women in the South, and the South in general; it’s so exotic and different,” she told Film School Rejects. And while The Beguiled explicitly erases Black women, she shot it on the same plantation where Beyoncé’s ode to Black women, Lemonade, was set. It’s telling that Coppola used the word “exotic” to characterize the South, because few people who’ve spent significant time there would do the same. She should have researched Southern racism to understand its impact on women like Hallie, as well as Southern Italian people, herself included. In Louisiana, a mob lynched 11 Italian men on March 4, 1891. The immigrants were accused and later acquitted of killing New Orleans police chief David Hennessy, but a lynch mob still executed them in what’s considered the largest mass lynching in U.S. history.
The lynching was linked to anti-Italian prejudice that grew in the South after Italian workers flocked there after slavery to perform cheap labor. The same racism that dehumanized Blacks for generations led to the murder of those Italian immigrants. Accordingly, the Southern women in The Beguiled may have treated her forebears more like Hallie than as equals. But it’s unlikely that Coppola made the connection between the horrors Italian immigrants faced in Louisiana and her choice of location because she frequently disregards history. As she prepared to adapt a biography of Marie Antoinette, she reportedly asked the author, “Would it matter if I leave out the politics?” The question betrays Coppola—known for the enchanting visuals in her films and her unique fashion sense—as someone who’s all style and no substance.
When she’s telling a story rooted in historical events, like The Beguiled, or based on real-life events, like The Bling Ring, Coppola has an obligation to dig deeper. The Bling Ring—about a group of teens who burglarize the homes of celebrities—fell flat with critics and moviegoers alike, but Coppola also failed to include the story of Diana Tamayo, the undocumented Mexican immigrant involved in the burglary ring. In doing so, Coppola ignored the reasons someone in Tamayo’s predicament might be convinced to commit such bold crimes, even though the stakes are exponentially higher for undocumented Americans. Coppola, as always, missed the opportunity to explore these social issues.
The Beguiled achieves this as well: Erasing slavery to focus on a Southern gothic aesthetic is particularly harrowing because it advances the efforts of the right-wingers who’ve suggested with alarming frequency that the institution wasn’t all that bad. It also narrows womanhood to the experience of the white elite. By leaving Hallie out, Coppola insinuates that the African American experience of womanhood during this era doesn’t matter. Coppola doesn’t consider herself a feminist, but her brand of girl power centers white women in crisis while ignoring that women of color exist and failing to invest in telling their stories. While she’s said that she worries her characters are too privileged, she’s still chosen to take the “write what you know” advice to an extreme that marginalizes women of color.
Unfortunately, Coppola has never handled accusations of racial bias in her work very well. In 2004, antiracist groups boycotted Coppola’s Lost in Translation because of its stereotypical portrayal of Japanese people repeatedly mixing up their L’s and their R’s and cluelessly imitating American pop culture trends. When Asian Mediawatch urged Oscar voters not to back the film, Coppola doubled down on the film’s mocking of Japanese-accented English. “Even on our daily call sheets, they would mix up the R’s and the L’s—all that was from experience, it’s not made up,” she told the Independent. “I guess someone has misunderstood my intentions. It bugs me, because I know I’m not racist. I think that everything you do, people could be offended by—unless you’re just trying to be nice about everyone.”
Declaring that she isn’t a racist won’t rid Coppola’s films of racial stereotypes or make the women of color she’s erased magically reappear onscreen. Antiracism requires one to actively challenge white supremacy. As a filmmaker, that means providing work to people of color and representing their stories with the dignity directors routinely give to white characters. Coppola must expand her view of womanhood beyond the whitest of white women. Black women deserve screen time. Latinx women deserve screen time, as do women with Modigliani eyes and Roman noses.