Under Her Eye: meet the women who will change the way you think about film

Posted by Stylist Team for Life

After a three-month search, Stylist is thrilled to reveal the winners of our Under Her Eye female film critic initiative

Three months ago when we launched Under Her Eye, our initiative to discover and nurture a new breed of diverse female talent in the world of film criticism, Stylist asked you to think of a film critic. Back then, Peter Bradshaw, Jonathan Ross and Mark Kermode probably came to mind. But from now on, you can replace those names with Mayran Yusuf, Kemi Williams and Emily Gargan, aka Stylist’s newly-crowned film critics.

The competition’s genesis came from a rant (as all the best things do) by Stylist’s entertainment director Helen Bownass after she’d read a slew of male critics’ take on the female experience. Movie industry statistics make for grim reading: research by the University of Southern California, Annenberg, in LA showed only a fifth of film reviews are written by women, and of those only 4.1% by women of colour. And this when 51% of cinemagoers are female.

So we decided to do something about it. Together Helen and Kayleigh Dray, stylist.co.uk’s editor, dedicated film buff and self-professed expert on all things The Handmaid’s Tale (which explains that catchy Margaret Atwood-inspired name), created the Under Her Eye competition to give women a start in the industry.

Emily at the judging day

We were overwhelmed by the wealth of talent and passion in the hundreds of entries we received, each accompanied by a 450-word review of a movie of their choice (ranging from Jaws and Paris Is Burning to Sense And Sensibility). Whittling the entries down to a shortlist of 20 was quite the endeavour. Then, after Stylist readers voted for their favourite anonymous reviews online, the 20 became 10. 

In October, the final 10 met a judging panel: Helen, Kayleigh, president of the Critics Circle Anna Smith and screenwriter and critic Kate Muir. The panel then decided on the final three after an interview and screen test.

Mayran Yusuf

Our aim was to find a trio who not only lived and breathed film, but who had something different to say. We were also keen to offer a seat at the table to those who had faced barriers to entering the industry. We met some brilliantly passionate and articulate women who had lots to say about film – and life in general. But the final three really stood out. We’re so excited to introduce you to Emily Gargan, Mayran Yusuf and Kemi Williams, whose film reviews you’ll be reading every month in Stylist magazine from January 2019 and every week on stylist.co.uk.

“I hope to highlight stories from women and LGBTQIA+ filmmakers,” says Emily. “Let’s bring diverse and intersectional voices to the forefront of conversations, shows and panels, until it’s normal, rather than exceptional.”

Mayran agrees: “I hope to be a voice that others can relate to. I’m so glad that Stylist has done something to change the depressing ratio of male to female critics.”

Well said. Now, though, it’s time to get to know your new favourite film critics a little better…

Mayran Yusuf, 23, retail worker

What inspired you to enter Under Her Eye?

I’ve always been obsessed with film and pop culture. I desperately wanted to find my way in but I didn’t know how. And frankly I didn’t think there was a place for me. Then my aunt sent the competition link to our family group chat and I thought to myself, “Girl, if you don’t get it together and take a chance…” and here I am!

What film did you review?

Bridget Jones’s Diary, one of the best rom-coms there ever was. There are so many things I love about it. Our heroine’s messy work/personal life, her witty inner musings (Mr Titspervert indeed) and her endearing verbal diarrhoea that is so relatable when all you want is someone to think how interesting and smart you are. Let’s not forget Mr Darcy, the stoic, stiff upper-lipped barrister who, for all his shortcomings, loves our Bridget. I just love, love.

Why do we need more representation in the film critic community?

Representation is a word bandied about, but I cannot stress how important it is. The audience of a film is diverse, so why aren’t the critics? Before I watch a film, I look online at reviews and it’s always the same voices: middle class, older and white male. That voice isn’t representative of mine or many others. As a young black Muslim girl, I thought it wasn’t possible for me, in large part because of not seeing myself out there. So, if the narrative of what films are worth seeing is in the control of the powerful few (men), ones that are not relatable to them can go unnoticed, especially projects headed by women. Obviously, this has an impact on whether a film is a success at the box office because that’s what it boils down to nowadays. Which can lead to less coverage of and funding for diverse films. This cannot continue.

Which women in the film industry should we be excited about?

There are so many from Letitia Wright’s star turn in Black Panther showing us her comedic timing, to Florence Pugh whose new film Outlaw King is sitting pretty on my Netflix list. Not to mention Cynthia Erivo from Widows who has been cast in the Harriet Tubman biopic. I’m excited to review them.

Kemi Williams, 39, teacher

Under Her Eye - Kemi Williams

What inspired you to enter Under Her Eye?

When I was younger, I never had the confidence to pursue my love for writing and was pressured into a more ‘stable’ career in law. I escaped this, retrained as an English teacher and focused on developing my students’ writing and analytical skills instead of my own. And now, as I’m about to turn 40, my writing dream is finally coming true.

What film did you review?

I chose one I loved growing up: Coming To America. On the surface, it’s a simple, hilarious rom-com, but I wanted to express that its cultural significance runs so much deeper. People rightly rave about Black Panther having a predominately black cast, but Coming To America achieved this decades ago.

Why do we need more representation in the film critic community?

We need films watched and critiqued through the eyes of multiple perspectives. We need a sea change to permeate the entire industry, from more diverse protagonists in films, to more female directors, to diversity among the power players heading up studios.

Which women in the film industry should we be excited about?

Michaela Coel, who was fantastic in BBC’s Black Earth Rising. She’s from a similar background to me (she’s a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants and I’m a daughter of Nigerian ones) and worked hard to put her talent out there. I’m also fascinated by Euzhan Palcy. She’s produced remarkable work for more than 30 years and was also the first black female director of a film at a major Hollywood studio with A Dry White Season in 1989.

Emily Gargan, 32, receptionist

Emily Gargan - Stylist's Under Her Eye

What inspired you to enter Under Her Eye?

Film critic is my fantasy job, but I didn’t think anyone would be interested in what I had to say. I’d worked in film for years in casting, admin and script reading but it was only last year when I left my job that I started to regain confidence through writing. When Under Her Eye came along it felt like the right place to try to find my voice.

What film did you review?

I’d just seen American Animals and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Elements of it felt so original, while existing firmly in the well-trodden genre of a heist movie. It’s also very male so I thought it would be interesting to write about from a female perspective.

Why do we need more representation in the film critic community?

If all the people responsible for deciding what’s “good” are from one demographic, they may underrate films which speak to others. Movies like Baby Driver – fun, but its women are essentially flat-pack – will be elevated, while A Wrinkle In Time, Ocean’s 8 and the Ghostbusters remake will be shredded by reviewers who miss the point they are trying to make.

Which women in the film industry should we be excited about?

Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who co-wrote the screenplays for Ida, Disobedience and Colette, and has now written Kristin Scott Thomas’s upcoming directorial debut, The Sea Change. Also actor Rebecca Hall who is making her directorial debut with Passing, which she also wrote the screenplay for. 

With special thanks to Picturehouse Cinemas, who provided each of our new reviewers with a Membership Plus card.

Photography: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

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