Let’s play a game. I give you a series of quotes from a famous politician talking about a controversial movie or TV show and then I give you a list of the politicians as well as a brief explainer of the controversy to which they were responding. You have to match the politician to the quote. You win, you walk away with pride. I win, I’ve helped educate you a little. (We both win?) Also, there may be a tote bag involved in this process somewhere.* With school starting back up right now, it might do us some good to get back into the habit of doing some homework, especially since the politicians in these cases rarely ever do. Trust me, though, this will be fun.**
OK. Let’s begin.
1. “It is like writing history with lightning…And my only regret is that it is all so terrible true.”
2. “[This movie is] deliberately designed to inflame racial hatred and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored people. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”
3. “This is no codgy old attempt of one generation to steal the fun of another. A line has been crossed — not just of taste but of human dignity and decency. It is crossed every time sexual violence is given a catchy tune. When teen suicide is set to an appealing beat. When Hollywood’s dream factories turn out nightmares of depravity. The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to an end, but it will only stop when the leaders of the entertainment industry recognize and shoulder their responsibility.”
4. “[It’s] the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
5. “It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America. I think it’s a terrible thing.”
6. “The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. [Hollywood] create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country”
7. “[They] made a mistake. We cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship in the United States. I wish they’d spoken to me first. I would have told them: do not get into the pattern in which you are intimidated.”
A. President Woodrow Wilson, in 1915, after hosting a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, racist epic/love letter to the KKK. Historians still debate if Wilson – a racist segregationist who would naturally be sympathetic to Griffith’s point of view – actually said these words or if it was invented by a publicist or possibly even by Griffith himself. With or without Wilson’s endorsement, however, Birth of a Nation was a lighting rod, protested by the NAACP, banned in multiple states, and the cause of riots in Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.
Griffith claimed his film advanced no racist messaging and tried to drape himself in a First Amendment defense, arguing, “All new things in the world, including the Christian religion and the printing press, at their beginnings have been considered as instruments of evil and subject to suspicion. The motion picture has had to undergo the same ordeal that seems to be directed at all new things.” His follow-up film, 1916’s Intolerance, ran with that even further by saluting the wrongfully prosecuted, both throughout history and in a fictional scenario in which a young couple just really, really can’t catch a break.
B. Congressman and House of Un-American Activities Committee member Donald L. Jackson (R-California), in 1953, speaking from the floor of the House of Representatives about Salt of the Earth, a pro-union movie bankrolled by blacklisted artists. At the time of Jackson’s speech, the movie was still in production, and two days after his attack from Congress the female lead of the film, Rosaura Revueltas, was arrested for being in the country illegally despite having a passport and work visa. She decided to return to Mexico voluntarily forcing the production to both use a stand-in for some of her scenes and simply travel to Mexico to film her other scenes.
Once finished, Salt of the Earth struggled to find film labs and/or projectionists willing to work with them. This led to a series of lawsuits which dragged on for 8 years, during which time Jackson left Congress and found a new career as a TV/radio commentator. In 1969, he joined the Nixon administration, ironic since Richard Nixon is the man he replaced on the House of Un-American Activities Committee nearly two decades earlier.
Salt of the Earth, meanwhile, played to very few people upon a limited release in 1964 but has since become a cult classic. It’s still amazing how far ahead of its time it was, doubling down on diversity by not only telling the story of hispanics on strike but actually making a housewife the lead character. The story explores her growing demand that her striking husband recognize not just the inequalities in the workplace but also in their own home.
C. First Lady Barbara Bush chastising The Simpsons for advancing nontraditional family values…I guess…but mostly because Bart Simpson said bad words and the cartoon just looked weird. Her husband would later tell the National Religious Broadcasters: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” If you’re a Simpsons fan, you probably already know what happened next: the show eventually wrote the controversy into Springfield by having George and Barbara move in across the street from Homer and Marge for a modified Dennis the Menace scenario.
Before they even got that far, however, the producers reached out to the First Lady family by having Marge “write” a letter to Barbara, seeking a middle ground. Surprisingly, she responded and apologized for her “loose tongue”:
D. Senator Bob Dole, still pursuing the Republication nomination for President in 1995, whipped up his conservative base by lashing out at the immoralities of the entertainment industry. He was specifically targeting two movies he admittedly refused to watch, Natural Born Killers and True Romance. Notably, he declined to single out equally violent movies made by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger or bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch. Quentin Tarantino, who had a story credit on Natural and writing credit on True Romance, called bullshit, “This is the oldest argument there is. Whenever there’s a problem in society, blame the playwrights: ‘it’s their fault, it’s the theater that’s doing it all.’”
Dole did win the nomination but lost the election to Bill Clinton, and while there was a run of copycat killings in which couples claimed to be emulating Natural Born Killers there does not appear to have been too many Elvis-obsessed comic book store employees inspired by True Romance to fall in love with a hooker and sell coke to movie producers.
E. President Donald Trump, in 2018, when reports out of the Venice Film Festival indicated the space race/Neal Armstrong biopic First Man did not include a definitive scene of the astronauts planting the American flag on the moon. Other conservative politicians also joined in the fray – without having ever seen the movie. “This is total lunacy,” tweeted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.” Then the movie came out and you could clearly see the American flag on the moon in the background of one scene; it’s just not emphasized because waving the red, white and blue is not what the movie is about. It’s a story about the personal cost – not the national triumph – of landing on the moon and the pain of Armstrong obsessively using work to supplement grief.
F. President Donald Trump, in 2019, indirectly referring to The Hunt, a “Most Dangerous Game” satire of our red state vs. blue state politics which no one has seen but everyone on Fox News already hates. Less than 24 hours after the controversy erupted, Universal yanked The Hunt from the release calendar. The movie involves liberal elites hunting red staters for fun but eventually find themselves on the receiving end of the punishment. It’s a satire, but as with all kinds of satire throughout history most everyone seems to be taking it literally.
G. President Barack Obama talking about Sony’s decision to delay The Interview in 2014 in response to threats from North Korea
Your answers, please.
Hint: I didn’t jumble the order.
Hint again: 1 = A, 2 = B
Hin…: Surely you get it by now? The quotes and politicians correlate in the exact order they’ve been listed. Woodrow Wilson, for example, is the one who said “It is like writing history with lightning” about Birth of a Nation just as Obama is the one who said Sony dropped the ball by caving to North Korea with The Interview, a decision which was eventually undone, at least partially. The film opened in mostly independent theaters who sought to support it as a first amendment issue; the major chains declined, citing security concerns.
Hunting for Historical Answers…See What I Did There?
The reason I did this little exercise is when Universal pulled The Hunt over the weekend I was genuinely curious as to whether this has ever happened before. In response to the recent mass shooting events, Universal had already pulled its ads for the film but was still planning a theatrical release. Then Fox News rolled The Hunt into the grand distraction machine, Trump parroted what he saw on TV in his typical word salad way while standing in front of a helicopter on his way to a fundraiser, and just like that the movie was dead, either shamed into the ether or banned out of a genuine concern over its potential to incite violence or both. Regardless of whether or not Universal had already planned on putting The Hunt on the shelf before the controversial even erupted, the timing of the decision just gifted Fox News and Trump a victory in the culture wars.
I purposefully limited this to American examples, though. Foreign countries with totalitarian or repressive regimes do this kind about as often as they crack down on democratic uprisings, which is to say all the time. China, for example, has done it multiple times this year already, pulling homegrown, completed films for political reasons. These countries do this through the power of censorship boards.
In American history, however, these controversies more commonly take time to develop and are spearheaded by religious organizations like the Legion of Decency. Of course, it’s not always as simple as that. In the case of Birth of a Nation, the President was actually on the side of the filmmaker, a choice judged harshly by history and rightfully so. With The Interview, a hostile foreign power directly threatened Americans and executed a cyber attack on a film studio. The President, in that case, begged for Sony to stand its ground. With The Hunt, Universal caved. Was it the right or wrong decision? More to the point, was it unprecedented?
Has this happened before?
There have been plenty of banned and/or censored movies and TV shows. Our recent run of school shootings, for example, led to Viacom voluntarily delaying and then heavily editing its TV version of Heathers since the show was originally meant to have a school shooting storyline. In late 1988, several theater chains, under immense pressure from the Religious Right, refused to screen The Last Temptation of Christ. Theater owners in Mississippi were actually charged, found guilty of obscenity, and fined for showing The Exorcist, though the state’s supreme court eventually overturned all of that. Similar efforts in Boston and Washington D.C. never even got that far.
There are also legendary tales of filmmakers fighting censorship boards, be it Wes Craven and other horror icons forever battling the MPAA, the blacklisting of the McCarthy era, or Howard Hughes going multiple rounds with the Production Code Authority over The Outlaw.
However, whenever national politicians grandstand about Hollywood they usually do so in response to trends – like the run of high profile scandals capped by Fatty Arbuckle in 1921, the rise of gangster movies and subsequent copycat crimes in the 30s, the violence of 90s cinema, or, more recently, the run of exposes shining a lot on Hollywood’s inequitable hiring practices. The response from Washington is usually “do something about this or we will,” and the industry has adopted a self-regulation model as a result.
That, in general, is the case here. Before any serious boycott efforts had begun in earnest and at a time when the news cycle on this topic had really only just begun, Universal pre-emptively pulled The Hunt’s advertising and then just pulled the film entirely. Whether or not Trump flirting with making The Hunt the latest target in his ongoing culture war spooked Universal into self-regulation or if they were leaning that direction already, that’s for historians to eventually figure out.
Source: Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned, and Controversial Films by Stephen Tropiano
*Correction: There will be no tote bag giveaway. Just felt like something you have to say, though, in a public radio kind of way.
**I lied. This is not fun. Nothing about government censorship or slouching toward autocracy is fun.
According to IndieWire, Universal had already made the decision to pull The Hunt from the schedule before Fox News and Trump turned it into a cause celebre of the Far Right, but the studio had to set about smoothing over relations with exhibitors and advertising partners before it could make the news official.