A few thoughts about using the word ‘woke’ in movie reviews

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A new batch of films are being criticised for being “woke” – and Simon is wondering if that’s a negative.

Because I am not young, oftentimes I see words pop up on social media, and have to do a bit of digging around to find out what they actually mean. Usually I regret looking them up, but I figure if I’m going to be irked by something, I should actually have an idea what I’m being irked by.

Oftentimes, these are the words used by… well, let’s charitably say prominent and loud media people on said social media platforms, who are incredibly clever at getting reactions from people.

I think most of us are familiar with how the cycle works. That people say something contentious, controversial and/or offensive on social media, knowing that it’ll get angry quote Tweets and such like, music to the ears of the original poster who duly basks in the notoriety.

As words become more used, they inevitably seep into more everyday use, by people without such intentions of notoriety. And over the past month, I’ve been seeing the word ‘woke’ pop up in several movie reviews.

This is no slight on the writers of said reviews, I want to say that upfront. I just want to have a natter about what we’re saying when we use the word ‘woke’.

Rolling Stone, then, describes the Elizabeth Banks directed Charlie’s Angels reboot as featuring “Banks and her crew of woke Angels”.

The Irish Times, earlier this summer, described Guy Ritchie’s reboot of Aladdin as “a weird mess of woke film-making”.

Frozen II is declared by Canoe as “a fairy tale for the ‘woke’ generation”.

The Sun, meanwhile, went fully in on Paul Feig’s Last Christmas, declaring it “a woke, remoaning, overly-politically correct mess of a movie”. (the link to The Sun review is at the bottom)

And, of course, Joker director Todd Phillips made headlines recently when he bemoaned the fact that “woke culture” had made it harder to make comedies, and ultimately led to him trying a comic book movie instead.

‘Woke’, then. This word that’s popping up everywhere, and the use of it suggests it to be a criticism. That to be ‘woke’ is a bad thing.

But is it?

My initial answer to this was: I don’t know. Thus, I went and looked the word up, to be sure what’s actually been said when it’s being used.

The Oxford English dictionary defines the modern meaning of the word woke to be “alert to injustice in society, especially racism”. It’s over the past few years it’s become more politically charged in its use, with its ties to the Black Lives Matter movement cemented with the 2016 documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement that was screened by the BET television network in the States.

At heart, this is a word then whose meaning is about being alert to offence, to injustice, to being a dick. And in that context, I quite like reading the headlines of some of those reviews up above.

Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels are bothered about injustice? Grand, I’m in. Frozen II is a fairytale for a generation of people who feel that standing up against injustice and treating people properly is a good thing? I’ll have a slice of that too. In fact, reading most the ways ‘woke’ is used in reviews, it feels to me like a positive.

People want to be more aware of hurting and upsetting other people? About bloody time is what I say to that.

I’m not naïve, of course. I’m well aware that there’s a subset of the media that’s trying to claim the word for themselves, and as such the word’s meaning will continue to evolve. I’m aware it’s being used to attack in some quarters the idea that people are trying too hard to show that they recognise problems in the world, and are seen to be trying too hard to correct them.

Again, I don’t see the bad in that at heart.

Sure, sometimes it all stands out too much, but I can say that of a host of other facets of movies – product placement still clangs out louder than anything to me – and they don’t seem to incite the same level of backlash. Likewise, I fully hear the argument too that action tends to be more useful than words (although I don’t fully subscribe to that cliché, as I feel words have an awful lot of power).

Also, to be clear: I do think a fault with a movie is a fault with a movie, however good the intentions are.

But I’m increasingly of the view that if you’re criticising a film for being ‘woke’ – and you mean it a punching-down kind of way (which I don’t think all the examples above do) – all you’re doing is selling me a ticket to said film, and ceasing my interest in your work.

With that, I’m just off to prebook my Charlie’s Angels ticket…

Lead image: BigStock
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We have a policy here of linking to every source at Film Stories, and as such, you can find the review of Last Christmas at The Sun here. However, we find The Sun a pretty poisonous outlet: thus, can we please ask that you give your click to someone like The Big Issue instead? Thank you.

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