White female innocence is predicated upon violence against Black women in which white women are complicit–that is why Sofia Coppola erased a crucial character.
By Sherronda J. Brown
This essay contains spoilers and includes discussion of sexual violence.
Sofia Coppola’s newest film and remake of The Beguiled sets itself apart from both the 1966 novel and the 1971 original film adaptation in terms of style and tenor, but carries the same themes of solitude and fear. Most significantly, it brazenly disrespects its original source material and the history that it drew from by removing an enslaved Black woman, Hallie, from a narrative about women in the Confederate South during the Civil War.
Her reasoning for this erasure is less than convincing, citing a desire to “respect [the] history” and to spare young girls the image of a Black woman in such a degrading position on-screen. However, when looking at the original story, the vision of a resilient and assertive Hallie becomes clear. She has unapologetic disdain for whiteness and refuses a passive victimhood. Sofia Coppola deliberately chose not to show this – not to save us or Hallie from indignity – but to ease her own discomfort around the white subjects of her “girl power” western drama being slave-owning enactors of violent white supremacy. Her version of the tale relies on white female innocence, but white female innocence is predicated upon violence against Black women, in which white women are complicit.
The Keeping Room, a 2014 film directed by Daniel Barber and written by Julia Hart, tells a story that is closely related to that of The Beguiled, but far more engrossing and compelling. While it isn’t perfect, it gives us an enslaved woman whose character is fully visible in a similarly “revisionist western” that is not ahistorical and, frankly, has better writing, better direction, and better performances.
Augusta and Louise are sisters, left alone on their southern farmhouse during the waning days of the Civil War. Their only companion is an enslaved woman named Mad, who has worked for their family for several years. In the midst of their relatively quiet, somewhat beggared life, two rogue Union soldiers attack them. Together, the three women must arise to defend their home and themselves from the violence of these white men.
This film does not shy away from any uncomfortable subjects, least of all anti-Blackness and the experience of the Black woman alongside her white counterparts. In a similar vein of Hallie, the Black woman in this tale has agency and dignity in varying moments. When Augusta, the eldest of the sisters, slaps her out of anger and frustration, Mad slaps her right back with the full force of her frame. It’s remarkable to watch.
Her relationship with these two white women is complicated in this landscape, evidenced by the physical altercation which is not long after followed by the two laughing together over moonshine and ruminating over whether or not the world will end while all the men are gone to war. The theme of longing is present as well, just as it is among the women of The Beguiled. Augusta pines for the touch of a man, wondering aloud about whether she will ever know the sensation. Mad speaks of her absent lover and reminisces about their romance. Someone loves her in a way that Augusta has never experienced.
One of the most gut-wrenching moments in the film comes when Mad tells the sisters about the repeated sexual violence that she experienced on another farm, beginning when she was only ten years old. “That was the first time,” she remembers through tears. “There were many more. Sometimes they cuts the baby out. Other times, they keeps them. Don’t know where they are now.”
Her pain is front and center, in more ways than one, which takes nothing away from the filmmakers’ ability to display the white women’s pain. They exist with each other, wholly and completely, but the violences that they experience manifest differently.
As the climax draws near, it’s the chilling words of Mad that become the catalyst for vengeance. “We ain’t gonna wait for him. We going out there to hunt him, and we ain’t coming back till he ours.”
The Keeping Room is a visceral look at patriarchal violence against women that also showcases violence that white women have inflicted upon Black women, and it is completely honest about how each of these violences are racialized. How this darling, poignant, and powerful little film has not been boisterously propped up as a “feminist masterpiece” is beyond me.
It is a simply stunning requiem; an audacious disavowal and rebuke of patriarchal violences which also allows for a candid look at the gendered and racialized relationships among men and women during the Civil War era. The writing implies sexual violence and other forms of explicit violence without needless sexual objectification. It achieves this while giving space to an enslaved Black woman who is both formidable and tender, both wounded and enigmatic, both daunted and lion-hearted.
They treat Mad’s character with as much care and attention as the white characters, and the reality and weight of her position as an enslaved woman is still included with honesty and respect within the narrative.
Raw and unflinching, The Keeping Room is an absolute wonder to behold, in the best and worst ways. As mortifying and as unsettling as The Beguiled, and with the same subject matter, it readily explores the power dynamics within the relationships amongst these three women, as well as their relationship to men. Their gender and their race colors the ways in which men treat them and how they treat each other. In short, it does what Sofia Coppola failed to do with a story that has just as much potential.
Author Bio: Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies. You can support her work via PayPal and Patreon.
Featured Image: The Beguiled Movie