My thrill in seeing Ramona Diaz’s film Imelda (2004), streaming for free online this month, was dampened by the hype surrounding a new film about the former first lady of the Philippines.
I was puzzled to read about The Kingmaker (2019) by Lauren Greenfield, touted for its “unprecedented access” (Showtime) by a filmmaker “perfect” for the subject (Variety). Frankly shocked at the blatant erasure of Ramona Diaz’s pioneering access to Imelda Marcos, watching Greenfield’s film becomes a reckoning. When white people themselves are sick of watching white movies in this era of #OscarsSoWhite, and the demand for diversity so urgent and universal in the industry, it’s not a matter of whether they should make films about brown people, but how. The Kingmaker is a wish that Ramona Diaz’s film does not exist, effacing a brown woman’s excellence in an industry known for its inequity.
How should white people make movies that represent others, and how does Greenfield fall short? In one of the earliest scenes in The Kingmaker, we see the preserved body of Ferdinand Marcos shot from different angles in his mausoleum. Ramona Diaz was the first one to shoot in this hard-won location. It is the very site where Imelda first says that “here lies love” will be etched into her gravestone. As she leans over her dead husband, saying he is Filipino and she is love, we witness a moment that encapsulates Diaz’s greatness as a filmmaker: her ability to gain access to such previously unseen sites and compel the articulation of a gargantuan vision of self. Diaz had to shoot here hurriedly, but since then, the mausoleum has opened to other filmmakers. Greenfield shoots there with several set-ups, moving lights and camera as if possessing all the time in the world—clearly thanks to the door Diaz opened. The claim, then, to “unprecedented access” is just one erasure of Diaz’s career-launching film; the many repeated moments and motifs in The Kingmaker are another.
Movies, like books, meet a need, a hunger, and a reason for why they should be made when they are. According to my interview with Ramona Diaz in 2017, she got access to Imelda because she desired attention she no longer enjoyed as first lady. The film reveals how she continued to seek power for herself and her family. In The Kingmaker, Imelda reprises herself from 2004, saying she is “missing the clout of being first lady” and wants “to vindicate the family honor.” Greenfield’s film then ends up simply reenacting much of Diaz’s Imelda as if it had not already been made, and to acclaim.
What the repetition actually shows is how the filmmakers achieve different degrees of intimacy with Imelda herself: Diaz reaches closeness to Imelda while Greenfield’s access reveals a kind of distance from her subject. For example, Diaz reveals how Imelda speaks like a broken record to suppress reality. She captures how “beauty,” Imelda’s most oft-repeated word, is part of a strange cosmology in her mind that involves the peace sign and Pac-Man. Greenfield’s film incorporates that repeated use of “beauty” but stays peripheral to the depths of her subject’s delusional worldview.
In another example, The Kingmaker repeats the story of how Imelda brought diamonds and diapers into exile, but presents it as a life-saving decision to generate the millions they would need to pay their lawyers, thereby recasting it as a lucky impulse when they fled. In Diaz’s film, however, we watch Imelda casually disclose how she was able to escape with her 11-carat and 70-carat diamonds. Diaz’s film thus reveals a different perspective: the theft that must have occurred for the first lady of a poor country, whose husband was paid an annual salary of $13,000, to have such valuable rocks in the first place.
The Kingmaker is strongest when it repeats the material from Imelda; otherwise, it struggles to find focus. One new story this film does tell is how the Marcos’s displaced 250 families from an island to make way for African zebras and giraffes to be transported there, though that story alone is not enough to make the film unique. As an artist celebrated for her career focus on wealth, Greenfield could use that status and her platform to confront and account for globalization and colonialism, even implicating Americans in propping up the dictatorship. Pretending that Imelda does not exist in re-enacting it, however, is a travesty that reveals the onus should be on white filmmakers to help open doors for brown filmmakers, rather than further obscure them.
The Kingmaker’s derivativeness defies its status as “unprecedented.” Does that description circulate because it is a white person who made the movie? Is the author “perfect” because she has made similar films about the decadence of delusional rich white people before? Critics—who themselves are predominantly straight, white, able-bodied men—also play an important role in this discourse, in which the perspectives of people of color and women are less privileged, whether in giving credit to filmmakers or considering how images hurt. But it does not have to be this way.
To return to my original question: how can films by white people about brown people, in this age of #OscarsSoWhite, provide an example of ethical filmmaking that does not harm, as the erasure and recolonizing of Diaz’s film and subject does in this case? In other words, how can they avoid what celebrated Filipina American writer Gina Apostol has called Greenfield’s “Columbusing” of Diaz? An ethical filmmaking is appropriately citational; it gives credit and mentions others to amplify those other voices, especially when white filmmakers are telling brown people’s stories. This is what an ethical act of representing others entails: considering unequal access to representation and acknowledging the important, though less visible, work that has paved the way. And critics, too, must historicize films they celebrate so as not to erase brown women’s excellence in the films they’ve already made.
Photo: President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson and President and Mrs. Ferdinand Marcos at the White House via US Library of Congress