Sofia Coppola erased Black women from ‘The Beguiled’ because white women always have to be victims
By Sherronda Brown
*This essay includes spoilers and discussion of sexual violence.
At some point in the midst of filming The Beguiled on the same plantation where Beyoncé’s Lemonade was filmed, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning attempted to pay homage to the singer through a gesture they no doubt assumed would garner celebration and envy from onlookers rather than ire.
On June 17th, Dunst posted this image of the two actresses on Instagram, coinciding with the release of the film. Dunst and Fanning are seated in the same high-back chair and in the same no-fucks-given poses as Beyoncé and Serena Williams from an iconic scene from the video for “Sorry”.
The actresses are in costume for a film that takes place in the South during the Civil War, a film in which they portray Confederate women. Directed by Sofia Coppola, this remake follows their dramatic story and disposes of the original narrative which also included an enslaved Black woman.
Fans and followers did not hesitate to critique this attempt to occupy the same space in the same poses as Black women––a space created with a vision specifically for, by, and about Black women––after having been complicit in our erasure from their film.
These two white actresses took this imagery that Beyoncé created in a narrative about Black women being free and inserted themselves into it, while in dress from a period in time when white women literally owned Black women, re-centering white womanhood on the plantation.
The Beguiled was first a 1966 novel written by Thomas Cullinan about entitled, gullible, petulant, and horny racist white women and girls trapped in a boarding school during the Civil War, and was originally adapted into a film in 1971. In the story, the main characters get manipulated and mistreated in various ways by a misogynistic, racist white liberal fuckboy. Then things get very, very ugly. It’s disturbing on multiple levels, with pedophilic undertones, gory body horror, vengeance, abuse, and injurious white masculinity on full display. Why anyone would ever want to remake it is beyond me, but Sofia Coppola decided to resurrect this tale.
Coppola recently spoke with BuzzFeed News about her decision to do so and her thought process behind removing the enslaved Black woman, who is called Mattie in the novel and Hallie in the 1971 adaptation, from her film:
“At the heart of the story, it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women that are universal, but that are sort of heightened in this kind of premise.”
There is no such thing as “universal” gender dynamics. They are always racialized and always impacted by other societal factors like sexuality, socioeconomic status, and (dis)ability.
Taking place in the Confederate South, slavery is integral to understanding the dynamics of the era and locale of The Beguiled. Racial and gender dynamics are never separate from one another, but especially not in this setting. Any story that takes place in the Confederate South relies on racial undertones, especially one that centers white Southern Belles.
The invisibility of Black women in Coppola’s revisionist film avoids accountability, because by erasing Hallie, she also erases the violences that Black enslaved women endured from white women and white men alike. She does this both to ease her own discomfort and to ensure that the perceived innocence and victimhood of her white subjects is not disrupted. After all, the film’s tagline is “Innocent. Until betrayed.”
“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.”
This film is rated R for violence, gore, and sexual situations. Young girls will (hopefully) not be watching it. At any rate, if Coppola was so concerned about young Black girls seeing this film and about their reading of Hallie’s character, a simple solution to this would have been to include Black women in the creative process. Someone with an understanding of the anti-Blackness inherent to this setting and how it specifically manifested onto the bodies of Black women. There is a reason Coppola chose not to do so.
Furthermore, the material from which Coppola draws her inspiration does not brush over the subject of slavery or the violence of whiteness at all. It also affords Hallie what I believe is the single best line of dialogue in the entire film.
In the book, as Hallie is dressing the cunning Union soldier’s wounds, he says to her, “You and I ought to be friends, Hallie… We’re both kinda prisoners here, aren’t we?… You should pray for the North to win… You don’t like being a slave, do you?”
She quickly responds with solid conviction, unimpressed and unconvinced by his white saviorism: “You white folks ain’t killing each other ‘cause you care about us niggas. White man’s the same, everywhere in this world.” Why wouldn’t Coppola would want to depict an enslaved woman with this astute of a summation of whiteness (and white liberal faux allyship), who speaks her mind so openly to a white man who brings so much patriarchal violence into these women’s space?
Later, edging towards the film’s climax, the soldier has essentially taken over the household and is armed with a pistol. In an assertion of dominance, he says to Hallie in a threatening tone, “I’ve been having a run of bad luck lately. I understand the way to fix this is to have a Black woman.”
This is a threat of sexual violence and Hallie quickly understands it as such. Her eyes glaze over with rage as she flashes back to an attempted rape by her former master, whom she successfully fended off with a pitchfork. “Then, white boy, you better like it with a dead Black woman. ‘Cause that’s the only way you’ll get it from this one.”
Here, we have even more moments of assertiveness from Hallie, and even more opportunities missed by Coppola to heighten and further complicate this already complex character, which could easily have been done with the help of Black women creatives behind the camera and in the writing process.
“I feel like you can’t show everyone’s perspective in a story. I was really focused on just this one group of women who were really isolated and weren’t prepared. A lot of slaves had left at that time, so… that emphasized that they were cut off from the world. [Hallie’s] story’s a really interesting story, but it’s a whole other story, so I was really focused on these women.”
Except it’s not. These stories are not separate. They are forever entwined. Even in Coppola’s attempt to divorce them, the weight of chattel slavery and the genocide of Black people is palpable, especially in the initial tension between the women and the Union soldier. They refer to him as their enemy and “a most unwelcomed guest” because they are Confederate women who want the institution of chattel slavery to remain intact.
“I would love to have a more racially diverse cast whenever I can… It didn’t work for this story, but of course I’m very open to stories about many different experiences and points of view.”
It doesn’t work for Coppola’s story because hers is disingenuous. Her version is safe and comfortable in that it does not have to contend with the responsibility of white women in the enslavement and genocide of Black people. She does not have to interrogate the gendered and racialized dynamics between Black women and white women, or Black women and white men.
Her insistence upon her version of The Beguiled as a story about gender dynamics rather than racial ones, and in which Hallie would be out of place, is simply unconvincing, and it is indicative of a long-standing issue within white feminism. From its very beginnings, Black women have been excluded from their feminism because white women often exclude Black women from their very idea of womanhood.
“I was clear about my decision — because I want to be respectful to that history.”
Telling history accurately is how you respect it. The truth is that the history is ugly and violent in a way many white people do not want to contend with, especially white feminists. They do not want to attend to the ways in which white women were and are complicit in anti-Black violences and how white womanhood, especially the image of the Southern Belle that Coppola uses as a vehicle for her “girl power” narrative, in fact requires this violence.
The truth is that she was uncomfortable with the presence of Hallie and her story. The original material does not separate it from the white characters’ storylines, because it understands that they are inherently intertwined. It is in this connection where she finds her discomfort, because it is an unforgiving look at white women’s own inhumane violences in a story that she so desperately wants to frame as a “feminist” tale about a group of (white) women rising up against the violence of a (white) man.
Sofia Coppola needs her white women to be the victims in this narrative, not the abusers. Having slavery present and visible for the audience would bring their white female victimhood too far into question.
Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies. You can support her work at https://www.paypal.me/SherrondaJBrown