Re-Canonize the Hughes Brothers
The New York Times dropped a big piece Thursday morning asking why the Criterion Collection—the boutique Blu-ray/DVD/streaming-service distributor generally accepted by cinephiles as the keepers of an unofficial-yet-powerful cinematic canon—is so lacking in diversity.
“The Criterion edition of To Sleep With Anger—released less than three years after the meeting with [Criterion President Peter] Becker, in 2019—put [black director Charles] Burnett in rarefied company,” Kyle Buchanan and Reggie Ugwu write. “He is one of only two living Black Americans to have a feature-length film in the collection, which comprises more than 1,000 films by more than 450 directors. There are just four African-American directors with feature films in the collection overall, or less than 1 percent.”
Now, singling out the Criterion Collection for condemnation here feels a little bit backwards; after all, it’s not the Criterion Collection that has greenlight power nor is it the Criterion Collection that works for talent agencies and other talent incubators. A boutique Blu-ray company cannot magic into existence an army of black filmmakers churning out high-caliber work worthy of canonization. And, as a right-leaning sort, I’m naturally a little skeptical about discussions that revolve around diversity for diversity’s sake — though, as one of maybe 10 Rotten Tomatoes-certified conservative film critics, I’m also pretty open to the suggestion that representation matters if you want to increase the diversity of any given professional sphere.
That said, as I was reading Buchanan and Ugwu’s report, my first thought was: “Finally! The Hughes Brothers will get the recognition they deserve!” But it turns out they’ve gotten that recognition in the past: Menace II Society, their excellent entry in the genre of late-’80s, early-’90s movies about inner city life, was released by Criterion as a laserdisc. For some reason, it has not made the leap from laserdisc to the next generation of Criterion physical media.
And Albert Hughes sounds none too pleased about it:
For the Hughes brothers, who said that they had been honored to be included in the collection in the 1990s, the damage has already been done. “How dare that be an oversight?” Albert Hughes said. “You should know better.”
It’s hard to blame Albert for being a little bit salty, as he and his brother have never really gotten their proper critical due. And it’s totally understandable if they don’t want to have anything to do with the Criterion Collection going forward.
But as a big fan of the Hughes Brothers’ cinematic output, part of me hopes they use this as a way to get the Criterion stamp for some of their underappreciated gems. Menace II Society is an obvious choice for (re-)canonization, given that it was already part of the collection once upon a time. Given the hard feelings, however, perhaps they could force Peter Becker and the decision-makers at Criterion to include a couple of other classic Hughes flicks as the price of readmission.
The Book of Eli is not the sort of picture one thinks of when one thinks of the Criterion Collection; it’s more “basic cable classic” at this point. But that totally undersells what the Hughes Brothers managed with this stylish action-thriller starring Denzel Washington as a man trying to safely get the last Bible in existence across the country and Gary Oldman as a deranged leader trying to get his mitts on a copy of the good book. Shot with a moody post-apocalyptic color filter masking everything in a grayish haze, Albert and Allen Hughes built a whole world out of an idea: the power and promise—and danger, in the wrong hands—of faith. Despite being an agnostic myself, I found it all quite moving in addition to being a rousing piece of action cinema.
A more likely film for inclusion is the tremendously underrated Alpha, Albert Hughes’s 2018 action-adventure movie about the moment man and dog became inseparable allies in the war to tame nature. Hughes shot the film in a starkly stylized sort of way, his use of slo-mo and hero shots calling to mind epic tableaus and grand vistas. And by using an invented ancient language, Hughes forces you to follow the story with your eye rather than your ears: It is pure cinema, visual storytelling that transcends the ages. Alpha is modern mythmaking of the highest order, a sort of origin story for that good pup who sleeps at your feet every night.
And it’s the sort of movie that deserves a full-on Criterion treatment, with massive extra features and commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes looks at how Hughes managed to pull off some of the amazing shots in this picture. I’d totally watch a full 20 minute featurette about the fictional language invented for the movie.
So if the Criterion Collection is truly serious about diversifying their lineup of canonized directors, they know where to start: with the first domesticated dog and its epic cinematic story.