At the heart of the #BAFTAsSoWhite controversy is the fact that no actors of colour were nominated at all, yet Margot Robbie was nominated twice in the same category: once for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and once for Bombshell.
It’s a sad irony, especially when the fact of Bombshell is itself a metaphor for this kind of prejudice – one at the expense of women of colour, specifically.
The story of Bombshell is based on the true story of the sexual-assault scandal at Fox News, where founder Roger Ailes systematically preyed on his women employees. It all comes to light when a Fox host, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) sues Ailes (Jon Lithgow) alleging sexual harassment.
Following her decision, another famous Fox News face, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) comes forward with her own story, as well as other women. Caught in the onslaught is newcomer Kayla (Margot Robbie), another victim of Ailes’ predatory behaviour.
So where’s the problem? The story, and the characters themselves: in particular, Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly.
In part due to Theron’s incredible acting, Megyn Kelly becomes a foil for the audience, caught between knowing what’s right and uncertainty about what to do. But the real-life Kelly has a long history of racist comments.
The film only vaguely references one of Kelly’s bigoted statements, about how Santa is white. This wasn’t some errant tweet or overheard comment, she said it on Fox News: “And by the way for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.” (Our emphasis.)
“Because everything is racist. Everything,” she tweeted this month in response to US activist and sportsman Colin Kaepernick’s criticism of US drone strikes in Iran.
She also defended the use of blackface. Kelly subsequently apologised for these comments, but later referred to Black Lives Matter protestors as “thugs”.
Speaking up against Ailes was a courageous act, but it doesn’t negate the things Kelly has said. Theron herself addressed her discomfort, telling the New York Times that it “was hard” for her to film the white Santa segment.
She added: “Avoiding all of that stuff to get an emotional arc out of her character, I just didn’t want to be a part of that.” Perhaps Theron read the script more graciously than the movie ended up feeling, but – Santa aside – Kelly’s comments on race, gender and sexuality were almost wholly white-washed (pun intended).
Then there’s Kayla. Based on the experiences of many unnamed women, Kayla is an amalgamation of feminists and extremist Christians. She is both a stand-in for an alt-right talking head Tomi Lahren type and a champion of the #MeToo movement.
In the film, Kayla tells Ailes that she knows she can communicate her good Christian values to people who think like her. Kayla, too, falls victim to Ailes.
As a young woman at the start of her career, it’s easy to see why she was the perfect victim for Ailes. Kayla is poised to struggle with her own beliefs as she navigates the Fox newsroom while also in a lesbian relationship with a co-worker (played by Kate McKinnon).
Her life is lived in the closet, torn between the homophobia of her belief system and her queerness. Though this could have been an exploration of internalised homophobia, it was glossed over as the movie propelled with interminable force towards its tepid conclusion.
Kelly and Kayla, in particular, aren’t just cogs in the machine of Fox News, they’re active participants in a network that degrades and denigrates the non-white, the non-straight, the non-Christian. It’s hard to see them as champions fighting the good fight.
As Vanity Fair wrote at the time of Carlson’s suit: “While the… investigation interviewed more than 20 women, according to two sources familiar with the process, it never officially expanded to examine the broader culture of Fox News.”
The film doesn’t either, nor does it explain the disastrous impact that Fox, a network that describes itself as “fair and balanced” yet is anything but, has had on democracy in the USA.
Instead, the movie, like the investigation, focuses on Ailes as the problem. Removing him was a glossy Band-Aid on a wound that is far from healed, and the movie is just another plaster.
Is it moving to watch women acting in solidarity? Yes. But Bombshell shows paper-thin solidarity, one based entirely on being white. Its focus is so narrow that it avoids even a peripheral glance at the context in which Bombshell sits.
Bombshell is discomforting to watch, not because it exposes white-feminism and challenges us to confront our own views, but because it ignores all of this in favour of a by-the-books ‘based on a true story’ that only scratches the complicated surface.
Bombshell is out in UK cinemas on January 17.
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