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Hardly a week goes by when I don't hear some comic or other entertainer squawking about "censorship." Of course, the alleged censorship rarely if ever actually qualifies as censorship. The squawking is usually an overreaction. Censorship is ugly, it's un-American and it usually occurs in places like Iran or Azerbaijan. I wrote a column in November of 1999 about Lenny Bruce (read the entire column here.) in which I described the reaction (or overreaction) by a British comic to a club owner who requested that the comic not make any allusions to Princess Di in his performance shortly after Di's death. Calling this censorship cheapens the word, murkifies the concept and makes the comic look like a monkey. Such dithering and discomposure makes it hard to identify the real danger when it appears.
Which must be why we're all letting Jesse Jackson off the hook. The legendary shakedown artist is engaging in a bold attempt to censor a movie. And he's doing it (ostensibly) for the worst of reasons-- that members of the King and Parks families might be offended and that the NAACP doesn't like it. I don't think he'll succeed. I don't think even he believes that he'll succeed. Judging from his track record, he's probably only engaging in this whole exercise for the purposes of extracting cash and concessions from the producers, the studio and the distributor. But it's disconcerting. It gives people bad ideas.
If you've been asleep for the last coupla weeks, it goes like this: A character in the blockbuster movie ($40 million in the first two weeks of release) "Barbershop" makes a few cracks about Martin Luther King being a womanizer and that Rosa Parks, far from being a courageous civil rights soldier, merely took a seat in the front of the bus because her feet were sore. The remarks are meant to be outrageous. And, as the producers and writers of the movie have gone to unnecessary lengths to point out, the other characters in the film are aghast at the statements. This doesn't matter to Jackson, of course. He wants the remarks excised from the version being shown in theaters and he wants subsequent versions of the film (on DVD and VHS) to be edited! Is he insane?
Not even the folks who protested "The Last Temptation of Christ" seriously thought that Universal would actually crumble under the pressure. They gave it a good shot-- phone calls, protests, petitions-- but in the end, they didn't really hope the film would be shelved. Films don't get shelved any more. But that didn't stop them from putting up a giant fuss. Hell at one point, an evangelist by the name of Bill Bright even offered to buy and destroy all prints of the movie! Talk about chutzpah! But again, nobody expected Universal to give in. Sure, the studio made some concessions. They met with Christian groups, held special screenings, etc. When you piss off an entire religion, the P.R. department comes up with creative ways of defusing the situation. But at no time did they ever consider ditching the pic or apologizing to anyone. (Interestingly, Blockbuster refused to carry the film in their chain of film rental stores. A quick call to my local Blockbuster this morning reveals that they carry it now. Had they stayed true to the ban, however, it wouldn't be a case of censorship as much as a case of corporate tact-- or corporate cowardice-- depending on how overheated you like your rhetoric.) And not only did Universal release the movie, the AFI gave Scorsese a Life Achievement Award and the Academy nominated Scorsese for Best Director (Which must be considered a giant "Fuck you" to the Christians, considering how badly the movie stank!)
But the entire time the controversy raged, no apologies were ever considered. In fact, defiance was the order of the day. Indeed, Universal responded with an open letter in newspapers across the country, saying that acquiescence to these forces would infringe on the First Amendment rights of all Americans. Which it would have. So where is this kind of forthright response in the face of the ridiculous demands by Jackson? Where is the defiance? Where's the outrage?
Make no mistake, if Jackson were to succeed, it could rightfully be filed under "censorship." He's attempting to insinuate himself between the artist and the audience and actually tinker with content. And all because of some potentially ruffled feathers. He doesn't even have the seriousness of blasphemy to wave around. Where is the outrage? Where is the candlelight vigil to show support for the people who created this movie? Where are the full page ads from MGM? The producers of "Barbershop" have apologized for the hit movie's barbs about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and others. But that's not enough, says Jackson. "The apology is a step in the right direction," he said. Say what?!
This is worrisome. We don't have royalty in this country. No one is off limits. The Rev. King is not some sort of secular saint. Parks is to be admired and venerated, but not to the point where a rhetorical point can't be made in a movie which, by all accounts, has a positive message, is uplifting and honest. Even if, within the context of the film, the character was a credible one and his statements were meant to be considered seriously, the writers and producers would still not be obliged to placate Jackson or Kweisi Mfume or Rosa Parks.
And here's the big point (and the reason that the editor of a magazine about standup comedy is even bothering to address the situation): It's a JOKE! This is a defense that is worth considering for at least two reasons.
Number one: It's a joke. Literally. In other words, it's not meant seriously. It's in there to set up a gag, to flesh out a character. Cedric the Entertainer is the actor who portrays the character, named Eddie. Eddie's a blowhard, a contrarian who, as near as I can discern without having seen the picture, is the object of much eye-rolling. His credibility within the context of the script is near zero. He is the subject of much levity. He, and his spiel, are a joke.
Number two: It's a joke. (That's not a typo.) What we have here, if we step back, is a screenwriter perpetrating a joke. And, as a comic and a writer, the attempt to suppress this expression is chilling. When I see a writer being assailed for a joke, I immediately feel a draft because Mr. Jackson (or someone wishing to emulate him) could just as easily turn his attention to any one of a number of jokes contained within the works of any one of a number of standup comics. What must Jackson think of Chris Rock's act? Rock prides himself on uttering the unthinkable. He writes in his autobiography that he is intent on saying things that black people are fearful of saying out loud. Might Jackson soon demand that Rock soften his barbs or stay away from certain subjects or figures? The statements made by Cedric's Eddie, as they've been described in the press, remind me of something that Lenny Bruce may have uttered-- to shock, to provoke nervous laughter and to make people think. Bruce's routine about Jackie Onassis collecting pieces of JFK's brain from the trunklid of the presidential limo on Dealey Plaza might have caused Jackson to have a stroke. Imagine what Bruce might say about Jackson's hypocrisy were he alive today!
The silence from my fellow entertainers is deafening and disheartening. Where's the earnest statement from Bill Cosby defending producers Bob Teitel and George Tillman? Where's the press conference in which Sydney Poitier, his rage simmering just below the surface, denounces Jackson as a fascist? Where's Ed Asner talking about slippery slopes? Why is there no smirking, self-satisfied Susan Sarandon cracking wise about a modern days Hays Office? Jackson's actions are reminiscent of Soviet-era censors. His demands to have ideas excised from a movie, and to have them "disappear" from subsequent versions would, under any other circumstances, unleash a torrent of references to jackboots and HUAC and Hitler from the self-appointed Hollywood guardians of our artistic freedoms. And it would flow immediately. So far, we've been treated to the embarassing spectacle of the producers apologizing. And I don't like how this is shaping up for Cedric. I fear that Jackson and his cronies are going to put the screws to him and Fox. It matters not that he merely uttered the "offensive" ideas in the capacity of an actor. He and his network have much at stake with the launch of his new show and they have deep pockets. This makes them particularly vulnerable to Jackson's manipulation. They are therefore likely to capitulate.
"I completely did not mean to offend anyone," Tillman is
quoted as saying, in a game attempt at mollifying Jackson.
"The apology is an admission and a recognition that they
knew they were wrong," scolded Jackson. Director Malcolm Lee,
who felt the need to defend the movie's director Tim Story, said,
"I think if they want to protest movies,
there are a lot of other movies to protest that do a lot more
damage to the black community." This would be fine, if
it were anywhere near accurate that "Barbershop" caused any kind of
"damage to the black community." And Lee also
misses the very important point that Jackson isn't merely
protesting his work-- he wants to fundamentally alter it.
Like I said, where is the outrage?
ADDENDUM: From the Friday, Sept. 27, Philadelphia Daily News, in an article on the controversy by Al Hunter, Jr.:
"Yesterday, Bill Cosby, speaking at his alma mater, FitzSimons Middle School in North Philadelphia, told the students Parks made it possible for them to drink from any water fountain or use any restroom. He said any author should have refused to say the line about how Rosa Parks 'sat her black ass down.'
"'That's not funny,' the comedian said. "This is not good. Do you all hear me? Know your history!'"
Like I said, I don't like how this is shaping up for Cedric.
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