Focus

Lost In Translation Is An Insufferable, Racist Mess — Why Would We Expect The Beguiled To Be Any Different?

The last time Sofia Coppola focused on racial differences, it was a disaster

Sofia Coppola’s latest movie, The Beguiled, is already drawing controversy for writing a slave woman, the source material’s only black character, out of its Civil War–set tale. Opening Friday, the drama departs from both author Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel and director Don Siegel’s 1971 film by almost entirely removing the reality of slavery from a story that revolves around it. In a tone-deaf interview, Coppola explained that she was drawn to The Beguiled’s narrative because she’s "always loved the women in the South" — as if black Southern women aren’t also “women in the South.” (White privilege is a trip.) Elsewhere, Coppola has characterized slavery as a topic too big to nail: “In the book there was a slave character ... and it was treated in a very stereotypical way,” she said. “It didn’t seem respectful. I thought it was too big of a subject to brush over lightly, so I decided not to have that character at all.” Never mind that the earlier adaptation manages just fine.

You could parse Coppola’s erasure of blackness as a writer and director any number of ways. The Beguiled certainly whitewashes the novel, denies a possible role to an actress of color, contributes to the racial absolution of white women’s role in upholding slavery, and glamorizes what Coppola calls the “super-feminine, lacy worlds” of antebellum femininity. (It doesn’t help that The Beguiled’s set happens to be the same site where part of Beyoncé’s Lemonade was shot.) This is not the first time the director has simplified a story by excising its racial implications. In developing The Bling Ring, Coppola cut the story of Diana Tamayo, an undocumented Latina teen who relied on the thefts for the entirety of her wardrobe, and who risked deportation for her crimes — a situation that complicates the film’s theme of thoughtless, grasping greed. Nor is the Asian-American protagonist, played by Katie Chang, given any sort of interiority by Coppola’s script. (None of the Bling Ringers are, but you’d think the main character would be afforded a bit more than others.) Despite it all, it’s kind of a relief that, in the words of my former colleague Ira Madison III, Coppola stayed in her lane when it comes to race. The last time she focused on racial differences, it was a disaster.

Lost in Translation, the filmmaker’s second outing, launched her career into the stratosphere. Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as a pair of Americans who find a fleeting connection with one another in Tokyo, the semiautobiographical feature was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Coppola thus became only the third woman ever to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, and she went home with a trophy for her screenplay. At the time, an Asian-American group called for a boycott of the movie, arguing that it “dehumanizes the Japanese people by portraying them as a collection of shallow stereotypes who are treated with disregard and disdain.” The protest went nowhere, partly because Translation’s xenophobia aids the quasi-romance between Murray’s aging movie star Bob and Johansson’s unemployed floater Charlotte, and partly because anti-Asian bias was rarely discussed by the mainstream media in the early 2000s.

Racism is often tragically, farcically unoriginal. That’s the main takeaway from my viewing of Lost in Translation in 2017. I counted at least five jokes about mixing up L with R, e.g., “Lat Pack,” “Loger Moore,” and, most infamously, an insistent “Lip my stockings” from a faux-helpless prostitute who flails on the floor screaming for “Hep! Preas!” According to the movie, Japanese sexuality is “weird.” Japanese TV is "weird." Japanese food is good, but Japanese tastes are “weird.” (Riffing on Charlotte’s injured toe, Bob riffs, “This country, somebody’s gotta prefer a black toe [as a sushi delicacy].” He then apes the people around him: “Brack toe.”) Not a single Japanese person is relatable as a fellow human being. Coppola’s camera also runs through the most banal images possible of “Japaneseness”: geishas, kimonos, Buddhist temples, neon-dominated cityscapes, pachinko parlors, Mount Fuji, flower arrangements. It’s a small wonder that Fodor’s didn’t sue the film for identity theft.

More insulting is the dismissal of contemporary Japanese culture as imitative and clueless — as parroting American culture without realizing what the words mean or why they’re impactful. A Japanese man goes by “Charlie Brown,” but he himself doesn’t know why. Charlotte’s celebrity-photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) complains of a rock band’s makeover, "Let them be who they are! They're trying to make them Keith Richards when they're just skinny and nerdy." (Of course there’s a Japanese character who says “lock and loll.” Of course.) Modern Japan, according to Coppola, is the land of inauthenticity. It even infects Bob: He should be doing a play, but he sells out for a whiskey commercial. Writer and filmmaker E. Koohan Paik observed back in 2003, “The Japanese are presented not as people, but as clowns. … The hilarity is rooted entirely in the ‘otherness’ of the Japanese people. We laugh at them, not with them.”

Let’s take a brief detour to note that Lost in Translation is pretty insufferable beyond its racial problems by dint of its central pair. With her full lips and delicate jaw, Charlotte is obviously a stand-in for Coppola, and when the 22-year-old character complains that she’s not sure what to do with her life because she tried being a writer and a photographer and failed at both, I wanted to hurl my laptop at the wall. Only in Coppola’s rarified world would it make sense for an aimless college grad to run into and fleetingly touch souls with a fucking movie star. And the film too often confuses Bob and Charlotte’s “authenticity” with straight-up rudeness. I cringed when Charlotte removes her shoe to show Bob her blackened toe at a sushi counter in front of two chefs waiting patiently to take the tourists’ orders.

If it were released today, Lost in Translation would face much more scrutiny — though I’m not sure it’d be any less of a hit. Whitewashing controversy didn’t hurt Doctor Strange, which costarred Tilda Swinton as a white Tibetan monk (LOL). Navigating (poorly) that PR quagmire, Swinton kept pointing to her femaleness as an overall win for equality, given the scarcity of roles for women, especially older women, in blockbusters. Johansson used the same playbook while promoting her live-action Ghost in the Shell adaptation, and now we see Coppola doing the same by talking up the mantle of the female perspective. It’s a mighty cynical move to carry the banner of feminism in order to conceal your racial erasures. And, as growing criticisms of white feminism indicate, it’s not working.