(Photo by Touchstone Pictures, Fox, and Marvel Studios)
“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.
In just the few years since she founded her multimedia platform Pay or Wait, Sharronda Williams has become a go-to source for her audiences. She’s interviewed major creatives from directors like Spike Lee to actors such as Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer. Her expertise and sharp wit shine brightest in her video reviews on YouTube, in which Williams always offers both nuance and a sense of humor.
“For me, it’s very intentional that people see me, that I’m funny at times,” Williams said in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes. “I try to make people feel like they’re talking to themselves, I never want to make people feel as though, ‘I’m not smart enough to be a film critic,’ right?”
Williams’ decision to appear on-camera is a reflection of her desire to offer visibility for Black women like herself, and to transparently represent her experience. No matter what she’s reviewing, she is aware of the many subjectivities at play: her own, the creatives’, and the audiences’.
“Sometimes it is hard to let go of your experience as a Black person in this country, because you see the film in a totally different viewpoint,” Williams said.
“When we’re talking about issues, especially that are still a sore subject in America’s history – when it’s confronting slavery, and confronting racism and how it still plagues this nation to this day – it’s very hard to make sure that you’re doing your job as a critic,” Williams said. “These are experiences that are lived that are witnessed day in and day out.”
As Williams grows her audience, she has become – and hopes to remain – a voice for movie fans and up-and-coming critics alike.
What’s your favorite seat in a movie theater?
I like to sit in the back, middle. I love being in the middle of the screen. I feel like I have all of the viewpoints I need to see. I also hate when people kick my seat, I hate to hear people chew in my ear. The only downfall to that being my favorite seat is, I can see everyone and their cellphones.
You get to see people’s reactions, too. I love people-watching and seeing how the movie makes them feel. That’s why – even for press screenings, when they put you in the front – I really like sitting in the back, because I love watching the audience’s reaction as well.
Does that ever play into how you review a film or how you discuss it?
I love going to screenings for kids’ movies because I really love to be able to tell how it’s going to hold a child’s attention. I bring my god-children with me – they’re still getting into going to the movies.
That and comic book movies, I love – I have to see it with an audience.
I totally agree – comic book movie experiences are made by the audience.
I literally still remember the audience’s reaction to the end of Endgame, when you hear Steve say, “Avengers, assemble!” And then when you hear Sam say, “On your left.” It’s just brings me back to that emotion of what was happening in the theater at that time. You can’t beat a theater experience, you really can’t.
(Photo by Liam Daniel/Netflix)
What has been your favorite thing to watch in quarantine this past year?
The obvious is Bridgerton, because it gave me romance, it gave me entanglements, it gave me messy drama. It’s what I live for. It made me feel like I was in a whole relationship, I was totally invested.
Did you binge the show, or do you avoid binge-watching?
I actually watched Bridgerton a couple of months before it released and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this show is so good.” I was literally calling my colleagues like, “You need to go, you need to request Bridgerton. Do it right now. It’s going to be a hit, just thank me later.” So yeah, I binged the whole thing.
I had to pause halfway through – I think it was the fourth episode – when the Duke… the whole scene in the garden. When he said he still wasn’t going to marry her, I lost it. I had to take a couple of hours of a break because I was so upset at him that I couldn’t even deal. I had to come back to it the next day.
That scene infuriated me. I cannot stand when people know they could be happy and will not choose happiness.
Yes, because it was his pride! I was like, “What are you doing?”
When you are reviewing, do you go in cold?
I do reviews on YouTube and trailer reactions are this huge thing. Every time a trailer comes out, they’re like, “Hey, can you do a trailer reaction?” And then I have to disappoint everyone and tell them that I don’t watch trailers. I like to go in completely blind.
So, I get into the movie and we’re watching it, and then Rachel McAdams‘ character dies. I literally was the only one who gasped in the middle of the movie theater. My friend turned to me, she was like, “What is wrong with you?”
I was like, “She just died!” And she was just like, “Girl, that was in the trailer!” And I was like, “See! I will never watch another trailer again after this, never.”
What makes a “good” movie?
It makes me feel something. I mean, that’s why we watch movies! We want to be excited. Sometimes we want to be sad or we want to be happy, we want to laugh.
Movies that cause thoughts or discussion. Movies that promote change or a change within, that make you want to be a better person, make you analyze yourself as a person. Those movies that truly stick with you afterwards, and you’re still thinking about the next day, that you’re still having conversations with your friends about. I think those are such good movies, because it just truly shows the impact of a creative work.
Was there a movie or a television series that you watched that made you want to become a critic?
I can tell you one that made me understand the importance of being a Black critic. That was Detroit.
When Detroit came out, it was really interesting because I would read reviews but I also watch YouTube videos. That’s what helped me solidify why I do what I do – and really, just seeing a lot of the people miss a lot of the historical things that someone growing up in the Black experience, that this is my life.
When they show The Great Migration portrait – the famous illustration in Black culture. Growing up, everyone had this picture in their house. We’ve seen this on Black TV shows. I saw that a lot of non-Black critics, they didn’t understand what that illustration meant. Or, they didn’t understand the importance of how certain characters are portrayed, especially when we’re dealing with real events that have happened, that have shaped our country as a whole.
I think it really helped me understand the importance of my voice, the importance of why we ask for diversity in film criticism. The beautiful journey of watching from different viewpoints, different experiences – how they’re really shaped, how you view films, how you criticize films. That was a movie that helped me to keep going, even in times when I felt like giving up – my perspective as a Black woman, why it’s so necessary and essential to film criticism.
(Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)
What are you most proud of in your career thus far?
I remember the first time I got an email from Rotten Tomatoes. When I first started, I remember going to the website and looking at the qualifications and I’m like, “Child, I’m never going to get this. We’re going to put this on the back burner forever.” Being a part of Rotten Tomatoes, being able to say that when you see the Tomatometer on commercials or whatnot that, “Hey, my review counts towards that.”
Most recently, I got my first pull quote for Judas and the Black Messiah. I remember I was asleep and I woke up and everyone was like, “Oh my goodness, I just saw your name on TV during SNL!” Having my brother call me as I try and drift off, “I just saw your name. I was watching Judas and the Black Messiah and then I watched this trailer afterwards where your name popped up.” I think that is when I was like, “Whoa, this is serious, this is real.” You know?
Do you remember a time when you were watching something, a movie or a television series, where you saw a character that reflected your experience?
Living Single was one of my first experiences. Before I got into film criticism, I used to want to be a lawyer in college. I remember growing up and watching Maxine Shaw on Living Single and I was like, “Oh my goodness, it’s a Black woman as a lawyer. And she lives by herself, and she has these friends, and she’s lives this great life.”
What is the hardest review you’ve ever produced?
The most recent one was Antebellum. It was really hard.
I always want to make sure that I respect the role of creatives – that they took the time and the energy to put their art into the world for a lot of people to consume it and form their own opinions.
It’s challenging as a Black critic – and I think a lot of people will agree whether they will publicly admit it or not – because we don’t get a lot of films or TV shows that center around the Black experience that star Black women. Because we don’t get so many, it becomes very hard because you understand the importance of seeing someone like Janelle Monáe on screen, a woman leading this film. That was a really hard review, critiquing a work that features a Black woman, that features an issue that is very close to me as someone who lives the Black experience each day – especially when you don’t necessarily connect with it.
It’s hard, because personally you want to see more of this on screen and you don’t want to knock down someone’s ability to create. Especially because it’s so hard for Black people to be able to create in this industry, and to actually have their projects seen by the masses. But you also want to make sure that the stories that are being told, the stories that are portrayed, and these characters – who are my aunts, my uncles, my mother, my sister, my brother – you want to make sure that it is being done in a great light.
Because in this world, what you see on TV, people take it as gospel… Unfortunately, that’s just the society we live in. What we see on TV, we basically say, “This is what Black people do, this is how they act.” If you see Black caricatures, that is how people see us. The situation makes it hard as a critic, especially a Black critic.
(Photo by Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
What is your favorite movie from your childhood?
I watched A League of Their Own so many times that if my mother came into the room she was like, “I can’t believe that you’re watching this movie again.” It was just – I loved it, I was fascinated, I didn’t know that there were female baseball players.
Especially that scene where the Black woman catches the ball and throws it, and she has this mean arm. I loved that moment in the movie.
Is there an actor or a director or a screenwriter whose work you always love? Someone who regardless what they make, you’re excited to watch it?
The most conflicted I’ve ever felt in a movie was Training Day. I’ve never necessarily hated Denzel so much in a movie, and I felt morally conflicted because I wanted this character to die so bad. But it’s Denzel playing him, so I can’t … I just remember watching that with my parents and I was like, “This is really causing me stress, like internal stress right now, that I really don’t like him in this movie.” But I mean, I think that speaks to his performance.
Do you ever feel like actors get cast in roles that are completely awful and unlikable people, so people will empathize with them?
Yes, that’s how I feel about him in Training Day. I mean, it’s such an iconic role! You know? “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me!” I mean it was just like, “Oh my goodness, why is he so good at a bad person? Why?! Why are you that good?”
That’s my dream interview one day, to interview Denzel. I will pass out though, if they actually said, “Hey Sharronda, it’s time to interview him,” I’d probably pass out.
(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
What is your favorite Rotten film or television series?
Sister Act and Sister Act 2. It’s disgusting! It is troubling. Sometimes I cannot sleep at night, to think that Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, one of my favorite films growing up, is at a 19%! It is an injustice, it truly is.
Yes! I feel that way about But I’m a Cheerleader. Like, “Did y’all miss the point? Did it sail over your heads? What?”
Even Robin Hood: Men in Tights! That’s disrespectful, too. I could go on about this for days. But Sister Act 2, we’ve got to do something about that.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about critics?
I think part of it is that film critics hate every single thing. It’s weird because, in our industry, the negativity is what gets amplified outside of those who actually connect and love the art that comes out.
For YouTubers, they don’t see us as critics because we don’t write. I think that’s really important. I’m an English major, I’ve written poetry that’s been published in books. I can write if I choose to write, you know? I think just understanding that what we do is just as important, it’s just another way that people consume criticism. And I think really just opening themselves up to the fact that the world is changing and how people consume things are changing.
For me as a Black woman, it’s not easy for me to go get a staff job. To write for someone, it’s just an anomaly, honestly. It doesn’t happen very often and it’s too few and far between in the industry right now.
For me, it’s important that we have avenues to build our own platforms that we can support ourselves off of, and to have that visibility. Because the visibility of a YouTuber is really important, especially in the Black community.
You’ve mentioned before that your decision to appear on-camera for reviews was very intentional. Can you talk about that?
My parents always took me to the movies since I was a little kid. I would have my mom drop me off in the theater by myself to spend the whole day there. I love watching films. But I never saw anyone who was like me, who was popular and made me feel like that was something that I could be – a film critic. I thought I could just be someone who always went to the theaters every weekend. It’s very important that you see people who look like you, that you see Black women who are doing this.
There’s so many people that reach out like, “Oh my goodness, I want to be a film critic and never thought I could do it, then I saw your channel and I started my own.” I help people – people who message me or DM me, I help them – give them tips on how they can do it because I don’t want to be the only Black woman who does this. I don’t want to be the only Black face that you see on YouTube.
So, it’s really important that we have these images of people who look like us, because they inspire the next generation. They inspire those who have been trying to do this for so long and just never had the courage to actually do it. And that’s why for me YouTube is such an intentional thing that I do, especially when you see the discussions all the time about how – as we look at staff writers for major publications – there’s not a lot of Black people, and especially on top of that, not a lot of Black women.
Everyone’s perspective, as long as it’s done respectfully, is needed in criticism.
(Photo by Universal International Pictures)
What is your favorite classic film? And, you can define classic however you like – inside or outside the canon.
There’s this movie my mother – my mother is such a character – if she felt like I wasn’t appreciating her as a mother, she would make me watch Imitation of Life. I think it was the 1959 version.
I watched it so many times. She was like, “You see how she treated her mother?” She turned into a whole African queen. And I was like, “How many times do I have to watch this movie?”
But that film is now ingrained into my DNA. That is a movie I will never forget, and mainly just my mother forcing me to watch it every time she felt like I was being a disrespectful child.
Is there an under-the-radar director or screenwriter that you think more people should know about?
Mike Gauyo (@blackboywrites). He was like an assistant on Claws, this show that I love, and also too, on this upcoming season of Insecure. He was actually on a writers staff for Ginny and Georgia. Some of his work is in TV, but I would love to see him be able to break through more doors.
Who are three people that you think everyone should follow on Twitter?
@Ryan_Ken_Acts on Twitter. He’s hilarious. He’s an actor, but he does parodies of movie stuff. He literally brightens up my day, because whatever I was thinking about a film he’s like spot on in his parody of it.
I love Robert [Daniels] (@812filmreviews). Robert’s my fave. I love his spicy tweets. He’s also a great writer and it’s inspiring to watch Black critics excel the way that Robert has. I love that he uses his platform to uplift other voices and to also use his platform to fight for change, which really affects those spicy tweets.
You know who I love? Joi Childs (@jumpedforjoi). I love watching her progression – we both worked corporate jobs and we’re film critics. To see her transition and see her working for Amazon – and seeing how she makes it a priority to uplift diverse voices, that she’s in a position of power and still continues to fight for that in a different arena – I think is really inspirational. … Joi’s one of those people that I just can’t wait to see what she’s doing 10 years from now, because I know she’s going to be a badass in whatever she’s doing.
Just, I want us to get to a point where we uplift everyone. My goal in life is to have a platform so I can uplift those under-represented voices to provide more shine or light to people who are up and coming in the industry – whether it be actors, film makers, and writers. I think that is why we build our platform, that’s why we have an audience, to help usher in a new generation of people.
Do you have any advice for critics who are still finding their voice?
Just keep providing criticism. Your voice is going to change, how I view movies, how I reviewed movies is totally different from when I first started, to where I am now. And I think that as you get more access, and you’ll start to see that you have a bigger responsibility. … It’s such a huge thing to put your art out there, and there’s a respect that has to be had.
I would just tell people to keep fighting, keep pushing. If there aren’t any lanes for you to succeed in, then create your own lane. And just always be true to yourself. Don’t change who you are, don’t try to sound like someone else. I always tell people, especially when they ask me how to become successful on YouTube, even though I don’t feel like I’ve found success yet myself: What viewpoint or what perspective are you giving that you’re currently not seeing?
I started my channel because on YouTube I didn’t see Black people, especially Black women, who looked like me giving their thoughts on films and TV shows.
That’s the important thing that everyone misses. I think everyone looks at who’s successful and, “I need to be just like them. I need to write like them. Why can’t I write like them? Why can’t I come up with these think pieces like everyone else?” I think that if you’re chasing someone else’s dream, you’re never going to realize your own, or even be able to live it.
You have to always be true to yourself at all times. Just be you. There are going to be people who don’t like you. There are people who don’t like me – they don’t like my long nails, they don’t like how I talk – but I have to always be me. And there’s going to be people out there who enjoy you for who you are and the work and the viewpoint that you bring to the criticism.