Please, no more movies about white male geniuses


Clem Bastow

It's a trifecta because, yep, Eddie Redmayne plays white male genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything.

It's a trifecta because, yep, Eddie Redmayne plays white male genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything.

At the height of my sluglike summer viewing regime last week, I sat down to watch Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, as a) it was on TV and b) I had managed to miss it both in cinemas and on its home entertainment release.

Within about fifteen minutes' worth of screen time, give or take a few ear-searing ads for car insurance, I was bored witless. Not because I don't like Russell Crowe or Paul Bettany (they were fine) or Ron Howard (Parenthood!), but because I have already seen this movie, about a million times.

By "this movie", I mean the tale of the complex white male genius, and boy hasn't it been a banner year for them.

Similarly J.K. Simmons is also a white male genius in Whiplash.

Similarly J.K. Simmons is also a white male genius in Whiplash.

At the announcement last week of this year's Oscar nominations, it became clear very quickly that Academy voters care a lot about seeing white men triumph over, uh, I'll get back to you on that one, but in any case, there were big showings for The Theory Of Everything, The Imitation Game, Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel.


The first two films are among the dullest of the year's offerings: Theory is a sub-midday-movie sentiment parade that somehow manages, despite Eddie Redmayne's best efforts, to make the remarkable life of Professor Stephen Hawking seem boring. The Imitation Game doesn't fare much better, particularly as it buries Alan Turing's homosexuality under layers of euphemism, leaving it as cause for little more than brief discussion of buggery before a few scenes of Big Time Emotion between stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. (I liked Whiplash a lot, but am also perplexed by a jazz movie populated almost exclusively by white faces.)

And yet, as Imitation Game and Theory are the latest instalments in the eternal pantheon of Complex White Male Genius Movies, they have naturally been elevated to float amongst the rarefied air of Hollywood's highest honour.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a white male geniuses in The Imitation Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a white male geniuses in The Imitation Game.

So, when the snow-blindness-inducing white-out of the Oscar nominations (the whitest since the mid-'90s!) collided with the residual boredom I felt after my brief dance with John Nash, I made a decision: no more movies about white male geniuses.

To clarify, since you can be sure after this round of Oscars that everyone will rush to make their own, I henceforth refuse to consume them. (I wouldn't write one, even if I were paid Shane Black dollars.) I'm sick of them. They are boring. There is nowhere new to take the form. You could probably make a giant mashup of twenty of them and it would remain watchable.

As Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri's excoriating piece of satire, How to write an Oscar-nominated movie, 2015 edition demonstrated, her faux script would likely only need a few edits to make it to the screen and, as she notes, win an Oscar in 2016.

Petri writes:

Dick does a crossword puzzle rapidly in pen to show that he is a genius. Then he writes an equation on his window. Music from "The Social Network" plays.

So far, so fun - but here's an excerpt from Anthony McCarten's Theory Of Everything screenplay (available online thanks to awards season madness) :

Pouring milk into a cup of TEA, while listening to a TAPED RECORDING of "THE RING CYCLE" by Wagner, and still in his pyjamas, the dishevelled STEPHEN digs out the QUESTIONS from a pile of TRASH on his desk. [...] He sighs and looks out his window at teeming university life, as he ponders. He then starts to WRITE on a PAD, rapidly, effortlessly, the CALCULATIONS pouring out of him, his writing hand adroit and swift.

And a snippet from Graham Moore's The Imitation Game:

Alan obsessively works on something in Hut 8, filling sheet after sheet of paper with his designs. He's drawing SCHEMATICS... As it fills out, we see what it is: It's a HUGE MACHINE.

You could find a similar excerpt from almost any film about a white male genius; the tropes of this particular genre are well worn (don't believe me? Check out TV Tropes' considerable list of Insufferable Geniuses).

Meanwhile, films about anyone who isn't a white male genius languish in the background (or, worse, in development hell). They are subjected to a far harsher brand of criticism, as Martin Luther King biopic Selma has been, with director Ava DuVernay at the receiving end of a widespread awards season smear campaign thanks to the film's fictionalisation of certain story elements (specifically, the representation of President Lyndon Johnson), or what New York Times writer Maureen Dowd decried as "artful falsehood". 

It's different for men and their films about men. Forbes' film writer Scott Mendelson wrote, of Selma's Oscar shut-out and its likely career implications for DuVernay, "Mortem Tydlum will face no penalty for the borderline libelous (but unquestionably entertaining and engaging) The Imitation Game when it comes time for him to pick his next project. [...] Bennett Miller will face no qualms getting a directing job despite the various 'we're pretending our protagonists are secretly gay for drama' fabrications in Sony's Foxcatcher. James Marsh will face no career hurdles on account of the not-100% accurate The Theory of Everything."

These men's stories are compelling, there's no doubt (even when adaptation turns their lives into dreary drama), which explains the continued glut of white male genius biopics. But to suggest there are no decent alternatives for awards-worthy biopics is to betray a very limited view of history, not to mention an incredibly myopic approach to screenwriting and filmmaking.

Where is the sweeping historical epic about botanist George Washington Carver? The musical drama about jazz legend Mary Lou Williams that gives Ray a run for its money? The glamorous thriller about Hedy Lamarr's work on spread spectrum and frequency hopping communications? The Hudsucker Proxy-esque caper about Lonnie George Johnson and his Super-Soaker? Or what about a Social Network-meets-Wreck It Ralph thrillride about the career of Shigeru Miyamoto, designer of just about every single Nintendo game you played as a child?

The major studios and Harvey Weinstein types want you to think that movies about white male geniuses are Important and Unmissable, to the extent that blanket marketing can convince you there are no other movies. But in an era of VOD, iTunes, Netflix and arthouse cinemas, to say "Oh well, they were the only movies on" is a bit like talking about "merit" in politics or business; it may take a smidgen more effort (like, literally, a couple of mouse clicks) to seek out films about women and people of colour, but it's numbers that eventually dazzle the people who greenlight films.

And since I'm quite certain Hollywood will continue to pump out these tales of white male achievement at a rate of knots, it's time for us to treat them the way these films treat anyone who isn't their beloved complex white man: with a conspicuous lack of attention.