The rise of political correctness can be seen across movie screens this weekend.
“The Hustle,” a gender-swap remake of 1988’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” rails against the patriarchy between sight gags. “Avengers: Endgame” shoehorns a minor gay character into the story as a super-virtue-signal. “Long Shot” shows Seth Rogen apologizing for the United States bombing Japan to help end World War II.
Even older films, and the stars who made them great, are now seen through the PC prism. Just ask the estate of John Wayne. The legendary star got pummeled a few months ago, decades after his passing, for a racially insensitive Playboy interview in 1971. Some critics demanded that his name be stripped from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif.
Singer Kate Smith’s film career is dwarfed by her radio, TV and stage accomplishments. Yet Smith’s recording of two 1930s songs deemed racist convinced two professional sports teams — the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers — to strip her iconic rendition of “God Bless America” from their programming.
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It’s easy to imagine the culture attempting to do something similar to films that don’t mirror today’s cultural mores. Molly Ringwald, who brought some of John Hughes’s best films to life, turned on her collaborator last year, saying that his films weren’t “woke” enough in our “Me Too” era.
Those films primarily hit theaters in the 1980s. So what about older films? Would any modern studio greenlight 1974’s “Blazing Saddles,” the Mel Brooks farce teeming with racial and sexual humor?
What about James Bond’s early adventures, in which 007 treated female characters in a sexist fashion? Even a comedy classic such as 1959’s “Some Like It Hot,” featuring two men dressed in drag, could be insensitive given modern mores.
Could problematic films eventually be pulled from home video and streaming services?
Sound hysterical? It’s currently in vogue to tear down statues that don’t align with current groupthink. So why would pop culture artifacts be spared?
In fact, it’s already been done.
Two years ago, a Memphis theater nixed a screening of the 1939 classic “Gone with the Wind” because of its “insensitive” content.
Disney’s Oscar-winning “Song of the South” won’t be seen on the company’s forthcoming streaming platform. The 1946 film’s antiquated, and some say racist, portrayal of black life turned the movie into cultural poison. It’s never made it to home video, and that’s unlikely to change in the near future.
The effort to wipe clean questionable content is happening elsewhere, too. The work itself doesn’t have to be “problematic” if the performer in front of the camera is. Bounce TV yanked reruns of “The Cosby Show” following star Bill Cosby’s conviction on rape charges.
When comedian Louis C.K. admitted to pleasuring himself in front of a series of women without their consent, he lost more than his FX series “Louie.” HBO announced it had expunged all C.K.-related programming from its service, including stand-up specials and his series “Lucky Louie.”
His 2017 film “I Love You, Daddy” never hit theaters as intended following his revelation. More than a year later, the film can’t be found on home video or streaming outlets, despite rave reviews from its festival run. The film’s star, Chloe Grace Moretz, even argued against the film’s release. “I think it should just kind of go away, honestly,” the millennial actress told the press.
Her age matters because her peers represent a potent part of the PC movement. Just ask any conservative speaker chased off campus by students frightened by unfamiliar viewpoints.
Woody Allen’s historic film career may be over, and not because of his age or any health woes. Allegations of child abuse against his daughter Dylan Farrow, while never proven, finally caught up with the “Annie Hall” superstar. Amazon refused to release Allen’s latest work, “A Rainy Day in New York,” citing Allen’s Me Too statement in court.
One highly controversial film, and its collective shunning, predates the current PC mania. The 1915 drama “Birth of a Nation” glorified the KKK and dehumanized black slaves, among other revolting elements. Cultural critics marvel at some of its artistic achievements, given the technical constraints of the era, but its content makes any public display cultural dynamite.
Is that the best way to deal with art? Wouldn’t a screening of the film, followed by an informed dialogue on its place in culture and how the real KKK used it as a recruiting tool, be more illuminating?
Audiences could process the material on their own terms along with the vital context.
That’s the key word missing from PC-themed conversations — “context.” Without it, PC scolds too often win the day.
Hughes couldn’t have imagined his plucky teen comedy would one day be shamed by its star. And there’s a chance movies like “Long Shot,” “The Hustle” and “Avengers: Endgame” may one day be seen as “problematic,” too, in ways we can’t imagine now. Who knows how we’ll handle art that doesn’t fit the current zeitgeist by then?