In profile: Wesley Morris
“When [the critic] sits down to compose his criticism, his artist ceases to be a friend, and becomes mere raw material for his work of art.”
H.L. Mencken, Footnote on Criticism
For Wesley Morris, a film is never just a film. Whether high, low or middle-brow, each is a message in the great cultural conversation humankind has been having with itself since the first oral storytellers began swapping tales thousands of years ago. Once completed and released into cinemas a film does not suddenly become a static artefact, settled in its interpretation; for Morris it remains something to be actively probed, understood, recontextualised and used as a prompt for further discussion and artistic exploration.
Morris, 42, first became a film critic when he began writing reviews for the The Yale Daily News as an undergraduate student. After graduating with a literature degree, his career took him to San Francisco and then to Boston, where he worked the weekly film beat for 11 years and, in 2012, was recognised with a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism — only the fifth film critic to be so honoured.
After a stint as a staff writer for the ill-fated online sports and pop culture publication Grantland, Morris joined The New York Times as a “critic-at-large”. Panoramic in his cultural expertise, his criticism ties together not just cinema but music, literature, television, news media, sports, technology and politics, with his by-line appearing across a range of subject matter and in a variety of formats, from The New York Times Magazine to the podcast Still Processing, which he co-hosts with reporter Jenna Wortham. He takes an interdisciplinary approach to art: when dissecting a film, it is perhaps not helpful to restrict one’s points of reference only to cinema, and it is by drawing connections between different forms of media that Morris’s most incisive ideas take hold.
His language is precise and uncomplicated, and though he interrogates his subjects with extensive use of reference and comparison, his writing is always accessible. Reading a Wesley Morris film review is in some ways like meeting up with a particularly worldly and articulate friend for a cocktail following a screening — and wondering where on earth they learned to connect references as diverse as His Girl Friday, Alien and the New Testament in their reading of the latest superhero blockbuster.
At its foundation, Morris’s criticism sits atop the idea that in all art, politics are inherent and inescapable. As a writer on film he makes no distinction between the explicitly and the unintentionally political; even a film that at first blush seems innocuous and ignorable, like Ted 2 — which for most viewers was a minor entry in the already minor career of Seth MacFarlane — for Morris conceals a cruel and antiquated attack on black sexuality.
It is on race and sexuality that Morris speaks with the most authority, which is to say he’s had plenty to write about over the past decade. Recalling his experiences growing up the son of an impoverished single mother in Philadelphia, and writing now as a gay black man in a time when certain subcultures have weaponised white, hetereonormative privilege, Morris writes with the clarity of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the directness of Dan Savage to achieve a seemingly impossible task: placing his reader inside the lived experience of someone with whom they might otherwise share nothing, and dissecting culture to reveal meanings that reader might never be able to understand on their own.
Whether writing on a film as serious as 12 Years a Slave or as ludicrous as Let’s Be Cops, Morris uses pop culture as a prism through which to explore the fractured state of identity in America, and the ways in which differences between people are presented and explored — or ignored — on our screens. He understands that every decision made in the making of a film — its subject matter, setting, the diversity of its cast, the costumes of its female characters, the subjects of its jokes — raises questions of responsibility. To make a film in the 21st century with a shaky grasp of identity, or to ignore it altogether, is, to Morris, a crime.
“That's what writing about race and popular culture is for me: it's crime reporting,” he told Longform’s Aaron Lammer in 2014.
“It's not me looking for an agenda when I go to the movies ... but I feel a moral responsibility to report a crime being committed. That's what I'm forced to do over and over again.”
In an era punctuated by the regular and repeated killing of people of colour by government institutions, and with an escalating culture war being fought in the media every day, the role of cultural crime reporter is an increasingly vital one. And it’s a role that no one is more qualified for than Wesley Morris.