Contrarian critic

Armond White's expulsion from the New York Film Critics Circle is unfortunate, but not unexpected

On Tuesday, the New York Film Critics Circle voted to expel Armond White from its ranks, the first such decision in its 79-year history. White was a three-time former chairman of the Circle and had been a member since 1987. He has also spent his career cultivating a critical voice so caustic and contentious that even Roger Ebert felt compelled to label him a “troll.” But his expulsion has less to do with his contrarian views and more with his lack of decorum.

At the Circle’s annual awards dinner last Monday, Harry Belafonte made a moving speech about the portrayal of black people in cinema, and then presented the award for Best Director to 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen. As McQueen accepted his prize, White allegedly yelled from the back of the room: “You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. Fuck you. Kiss my ass.” White had been vocal about his dislike for the critically acclaimed film, decrying it as “torture porn” on a par with Hostel and the Saw franchise, but his alleged jeering outraged fellow critics. The NYFCC apologized to Fox Searchlight Pictures, which released 12 Years a Slave, while The New Yorker’s David Denby accused White of abusing the remarkable latitude of speech and comment that critics are allowed, and stooping to invective.

White himself denied making the remarks, claiming to The Hollywood Reporter that his detractors were trying “to squelch the strongest voice that exists in contemporary criticism”. But other guests insist they saw and heard him heckling. (White, who contributed an essay on Pauline Kael to CJR in 2012, did not respond to a request for comment.)

White has never been shy about standing outside the critical herd. He has launched scathing attacks on respected directors like Noah Baumbach and Spike Lee, and declared Taken 2 a better film than Oscar-winner Zero Dark Thirty. But White’s often exasperating stance—what Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman calls White writing as if he were “the last honest man in America”—slowly devolved into something less appealing and defensible: He became unruly not just on the page, but also off it.

In fact, White has a history of disrupting the NYFCC awards. Last year, he heckled documentarian Michael Moore, and while serving as the Circle’s chairman in 2011, he insulted multiple winners from the podium and asked Tony Kushner to explain why The Social Network had won Best Picture.

Although critic Walter Biggins argued that White’s expulsion exposes an “unwillingness to tolerate dissenting opinion under the guise of promoting “respect” and decorum,” Circle chairman Stephen Whitty insists that the issue was not free speech, but behavior:

Every member of the New York Film Critics Circle votes for whoever they want at the December awards meeting. If some film they loathe beats out their favorite, they can then take to their laptops to decry the group’s poor choice, question their colleagues’ taste and/or sanity, sneer at the very idea of a dinner or boycott it entirely. That is their right and their privilege and one that many have exercised in the past.

What they’re not expected to do, though, is disrupt a public event, and sabotage a ceremony whose only purpose is to honor artists. What they’re not allowed to do is sit at a table with their friends and smile as crude insults are hurled at guests from the safety of the shadows. Those aren’t the acts of critics and contrarians. They are the cowardly acts of bullies, and we won’t tolerate them. Not any longer.

There is a line between provocative criticism and simple provocation, and Armond White crossed it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , ,