At LSU, we teach that American political satire has popped super-sized egos and made the country better for 250 years.
After this week, we need to change our curriculum.
That’s because a repressive government 7,000 miles away decided that Americans should see James Bond or Elvis Presley movies this Christmas rather than “The Interview,” a comedy about two journalists enlisted by the CIA to kill North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. (His family reportedly owns 20,000 videotapes and DVDs, strongly preferring Bond and Elvis.)
Theater owners, including the corporate operators of cineplexes at Perkins Rowe and the Mall of Louisiana, and Sony Pictures caved in to anonymous threats, apparently from North Korea, to attack venues that show “The Interview.” Sony’s corporate colleagues didn’t say a word.
I wonder how they would have behaved in 1940, when Charlie Chaplin made “The Great Dictator,” an attempt to slow Hitler’s rise. In the movie, a Jewish barber is mistaken for Hitler, with hilarious consequences. The late critic Roger Ebert wrote that Spain, Italy and Ireland banned the film.
But America did not, even though in 1940 “this would have played as very highly charged because Chaplin was launching his comic persona against Hitler in an attempt, largely successful, to ridicule him as a clown,” Ebert wrote.
Of course, media other than movies have used satire to point out our country’s shortcomings as long as America has existed — and, until this week, those works largely have not been censored. In 1784, Ben Franklin wrote in an essay, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America”: “Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility, they think the same of theirs.”
Cartoons, too, have long served as a form of satire. Hanging in the conference room next to my office are reproductions of editorial cartoons from the 1800s that picture judges, politicians and others as bloviating, overstuffed boobs.
A PBS history of satire reminded me that Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, the Capitol Steps performers in Washington, Jon Stewart, The Onion and others all take “a humorous look at serious issues” on every media platform.
Even President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney seem to agree on this one. Before Sony shelved “The Interview,” Obama said, “for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies.”
Romney tweeted, “@SonyPictures don’t cave, fight: release @TheInterview free online globally. Ask viewers for voluntary $5 contribution to fight #Ebola.”
Frances Townsend, who advised President George W. Bush on terrorism, was quoted as saying, “The notion that Sony and the theaters are going to react by caving on this film — a comedy — is ridiculous. This is a horrible precedent.”
You may be squeamish about the idea of a comedy — a “crude comedy,” The New York Times says — showing the death of a foreign ruler. But bear in mind that North Korea has a strong stomach. One of its websites shows an imagined, and amateurish, North Korean missile attack on an exploding U.S. Capitol dome. (Note to North Korea: Get advice from Louisiana’s film pros about special effects — or simply watch “The Interview,” if you can find it.)
How did we move from bold satires defending Indians or attacking Hitler to a mealy-mouthed statement from Sony, whose computers apparently were hacked by the North Koreans, that it is “deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie”? (No offense, but it’s Sony that suppressed the movie.)
Louis Day, my Manship School colleague, asks whether we really have free speech “if hackers can kill a film.” Day sees “corporate censorship” as a more serious problem than government censorship, which largely has been ruled illegal.
Another colleague, Lance Porter, a movie industry veteran, says Sony’s reasoning is clear: “It’s business. The film was probably not testing well (with potential viewers), and this was the last straw.”
A satirical movie killed because theaters and film studios are scared of losing money thanks to the rulers of North Korea? Now, that strikes me as the story line of a crude comedy.
Jerry Ceppos is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication and a former newspaper editor. He can be reached at JCeppos@LSU.edu.