Sooner or later, Hollywood offends us all

Monday, November 9, 1998

New Yorkers for...
New Yorkers for a Just Middle East Peace protest against the movie ‘The Siege’ outside the United Artists Criterion theater in New York’s Times Square.

“The Siege” opened this weekend under siege from Arab-Americans offended by
the movie’s characterization of their religion and culture. Groups planned
to picket and distribute leaflets at a number of theaters.


Ed Zwick, director of “The Siege,” was distraught. “What is ironic, of
course, is that the film is about stereotyping, and the inherent dangers in
categorizing a culture as diverse as that of the Arabs,” he said.


Yet it wasn’t the surface message but the subliminal message that caused the
protests, countered Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination
Committee. “The characters say one thing but the cinematic language conveys
an entirely different message in its imagery, its music, the camera angles.
And in the movie theater the language of the cinema trumps everything
else.”


Outside the movie theater or network studio, however, the language of
protest trumps a lot, too.


Last week, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights extracted a
promise from Fox executives that they would take greater care to avoid what
the league said was a “clear and intentional pattern of Catholic bashing” on
the popular “Ally McBeal” television series.


Also last week, the Magic Johnson theater chain refused to book the new
movie, “Belly,” an urban drama about two violent criminals (played by
rappers Nas and DMX). “The content and marketing of ‘Belly’ has raised
concerns about the film’s overwhelmingly negative and violent depictions of
African-Americans, as well as its potential to create disruptive situations
for our theaters’ patrons and employees,” theater officials said in a
statement.


Last month, United Paramount Network pulled the pilot episode of “The Secret
Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” after African-American groups protested that
setting a comedy in the slavery era was insensitive. Despite that
concession, the Brotherhood Crusade and the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter
of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People continued
to call for the whole show to be pulled. The series was canceled after only
a few shows.


Even TV news executives are being told to think twice. Two weeks ago, the
Anti-Defamation League placed ads in both The New York Times and
The Washington Post criticizing NBC’s “Meet the Press” for Tim
Russert’s third interview with Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of
Islam. “Is there no moral responsibility at NBC News any more?” asked ADL
official Abraham Foxman in the ad.


That’s just a sampling. The list is long of movies, television shows and
theater productions that have come in for harsh criticism from an equally
long list of groups organized to look out for the interests of specific
communities.


As for the creators and producers of entertainment, it’s difficult to know
what may draw praise or protest. What is an outrage to a group one day may
be a “teachable moment” the next.


It’s also difficult to say what, if any, impact these attacks have on
entertainment.


Movie, network and cable executives take careful note of such things in
programming decisions, obviously. Three years ago, a Fox TV show, “Party of
Five,” produced a script that called for Julia (played by Neve Campbell) to
have an abortion after her first sexual encounter resulted in pregnancy.
Fearing attacks from anti-abortion groups, Fox executives ordered the script
changed so that Julia had a miscarriage instead.


Fear of pressure groups delayed the release and distribution in the United
States of Adrian Lyne’s movie version of “Lolita,” based on Vladimir
Nabokov’s novel, even though it was in many ways less explicit or suggestive
than the first movie based on the book.


It may well be that the constant barrage of protests from so many different
sectors of society is leading Hollywood to homogenize or temporize in order
to avoid giving offense, providing programming that is often anemic and
ineffectual instead.


There is a real danger that those producing our entertainment will decide
there is a bottom-line advantage to offending as few sensibilities as
possible. Then everyone loses, even those who might be offended, because the
art which is supposed to mirror life may become life itself. Who would want
to escape to that?


In his new book, Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality,
Neal Gabler writes that entertainment “is arguably the most pervasive,
powerful and ineluctable force of our time — a force so overwhelming
that it has metastasized into life.” Gabler characterizes the 20th
Century’s most significant cultural transformation thus: “that life itself
was gradually becoming a medium all its own, like television, radio, print
and film, and that all of us were becoming at once performance artists in an
audience for a grand, ongoing show. … In short, life was becoming a
movie.”


And we’re all being typecast. Because each opening night comes with a
scripted protest with all of us playing our roles as part of the play
outside the play.


Certainly, pressure groups have every right under the First Amendment and a
duty to their constituents to make their views known. But there are some
things they should keep in mind:


Too much pressure too frequently can lead producers of movie and television
entertainment to produce nothing but pablum or to make their shows even more
lurid to get the publicity that gets the ratings.


The First Amendment that protects the right to speak up is the same one that
protects the right to offend someone sometime.


We all have an investment in art and entertainment that presents a different
view of our reality, that challenges old notions and affirms others, and
that, yes, presents an opportunity to make a point for those offended.


Finally, don’t be too quick to buy into the idea that we are all spineless
and mindless lumps of nothing waiting to be molded by whatever images and
ideas wink at us from a luminous screen — that we sit huddled in
darkened theaters and living rooms helpless to resist whatever stereotype we
see.


That is the worst stereotyping of all.


Paul McMasters may be e-mailed at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org