Armond White: Asshole, or Activist?

Armond White allegedly heckled Steve McQueen at the recent NYFCC Awards ceremony... and people are surprised by this?

"You're an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. Fuck you. Kiss my ass."

That was how famed critic and contrarian Armond White chose to respond to Steve McQueen's acceptance of the New York Film Critic Circle Award for Best Director on 6 January. While the rest of the country was embroiled in the ongoing BCS/ACC/SEC soap opera playing out in Pasadena, Manhattan saw the man most famous for hating every movie you (and his peers) love take out his own personal agenda on the British artist behind one of 2013's most astonishing movies -- not that Mr. White would agree with such an assessment. When 12 Years a Slave was released back in October, he had this to say about it:

"Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend 'a conversation about race.' The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort."

As the review continues on (for over 1,300 words), White tosses the entirety of the anti-African American Experience in our nation at the effort, inferring that the election of President Barack Obama somehow has influenced Hollywood into acting as enabler for "black victimization". It would appear that White's main point it that 12 Years a Slave is an apologist's delight. It allows white audience members to sit back in "shock and horror" over what they should have been angst-ridden over since segregated services were socially accepted institutions and minstrel shows were mainstream entertainment. He name checks Roots and Mandingo (Mandingo? Seriously Armond?) and Beloved, discussing those films' "spiritual sustenance" and sense of "survival". He also argues that viewers will mistaken McQueen's movie as "the truth" about slavery, when, in his opinion, it is merely a highly flawed fiction.

With his stature among his peers (some like him, most dismiss him) and his obvious personal perspective (White is, indeed, African American), his outburst at the NYFCC Awards is, while rude and inelegant, wholly understandable. Short of calling him an "Uncle Tom", the editor of CityArts truly believes that 12 Years a Slave exploits slavery and black "martyrdom" as a means of avoiding the actual conversation that racism in America that is should inspire (he has since 'denied' that he was "heckling" McQueen, claims the entire incident was blown out of proportion and taken out of context, and that he was just "amusing" his table of companions for his and their personal amusement).

Granted, we are a short sighted people. I personally grew up in a time when blacks couldn't drink from the same water fountains as whites, where schools were mostly segregated, where the violence surrounding busing was horrific and frightening and Civil Rights became something to stand up and die for, not a fond memory from a less progressive past. White even bristles at the complicated comparison some are making to the Holocaust, citing Chuck D and Public Enemy with the telling lyric (from "Can't Truss It"), "The Holocaust /I’m talkin’ ‘bout the one still goin’ on!" Damn right.

So, when White is asked to attend a function as part of his membership in a specific group, he chose to express his displeasure with the selection (either in private or public, whatever story you believe). No surprise there, since in previous years, he hosted the event and let his prickly opposing views seep into his MC duties, avoiding the actual films being nominated to instead mention work he did like by those receiving awards. Perhaps the best example of this was when The Social Network won Best Picture in 2011 and White introduced presenter Tony Kushner in the following manner: "Surely, Kushner, whose great play, Angels in America, showed how spiritual and social connections transformed lust and envy to family, friends, and country, has a moral responsibility to explain why The Social Network is good."

For some, this is all silly self-promotion. In a never-ebbing sea of so-called film critics, White is a well known name. Perhaps not household quality, but fellow critic water cooler fodder nonetheless. He's also a reasonable individual who may be analyzing film from a completely alien angle, but his reviews are often well-written, analytical, and to the point. Even when he's tearing apart the latest from Pixar or promoting some dreck that others have long since dismissed, he references the past, parallels with examples, and never once does what so many in our profession do -- stand on his soap box and shout "BECAUSE I SAY SO. " White may be way off base when it comes to his final conclusions, but he doesn't come by them haphazardly. Many in this profession would benefit from being as thorough and thoughtful as he is.

Again, this doesn't excuse ruining a memorable moment for a fellow professional (allegedly), but it does explain it. White doesn't kowtow to convention or pander to the people. He speaks his mind, and as those who defend that dork from Duck Dynasty have learned, such expression can come with a price. Currently, the head of the NYFCC is, according to Variety, in damage control mode. Between the incident with White, a disagreement with NY Post scribe Lou Lumenick over his posting of the voting results for this year's awards, and other internal struggles, his organization is more of an embarrassment than a shining example of journalistic integrity. In White's defense, however, his situation is one of social graces, not professional protocol. While it might not be "nice" to call out a filmmaker while he's taking the stage, or mock him behind his back, it's in line with his review and his opinion of the man who made it.

Could he have phrased his displeasure in less coarse, controversial words? Certainly. Would doing so deny him his right to protest? Probably not. Would it be in keeping with who Armond White is and what he believes his present position is? Absolutely. Love him or hate him, but he's a man of his convictions. In an era filled with basement dwelling "experts" on cinema and industry-supported quote whores, he's refreshing. And repugnant.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.