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.