Milwaukee Film Festival Review: “Coded Bias”

This thought-provoking doc is available to stream through the Milwaukee Film Festival. 


The film opens with a shot of Joy Buolamwin standing in front of a mirror in a starkly lit room. The MIT-based computer scientist wanted to create an app that would allow users to project inspirational imagery (think superhero capes, wings, crowns, etc.) onto themselves when they looked into a mirror. But Buolamwin, a black woman, found that the facial recognition software she was relying on to build the app didn’t work on her. 

So she did some digging, and she learned that the biometric technology currently in use around the world is flawed. It works far better on white people than people of color. And it works far better on men than on women. Buolamwin wanted to know why.



This documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, answers that question. It also suggests that we have coded some very human biases into the machines that we use.

Because of those biases, police officers in the United Kingdom – who had been using facial recognition technology to catch criminals – found themselves falsely accusing people of color of committing crimes at a disturbingly high rate. Because of those biases, companies using algorithms to scan the resumes of potential workers end up overlooking qualified female candidates far too often. Because of those biases, marginalized groups of people are less likely to qualify for home loans. 

The problems highlighted in the documentary are chilling, but they’re also fixable. Buolamwin, and many other activists around the world, are working to address them.

We can help address them too, by learning a bit about how to pass legislation to help regulate biometric technology. And watching this documentary is a great way to begin to go about doing that. 



Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.