Je Suis Charlie. The solidarity slogan sprouted up in the wake of the horrific massacre at the Paris offices of newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people murdered at the hands of jihadists. French for “I Am Charlie,” it morphed into a mantra symbolizing those who stood in support of the slain satirists at Hebdo, and their right to freedom of speech and expression.
The slogan became the latest example of hashtag activism (see: #Kony2012), with #JeSuisCharlie emerging as one of the most popular hashes ever, tallying 3.4 million tweets in a 24-hour period. Hollywood eventually caught on and, during Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony, several A-listers were seen brandishing “Je Suis Charlie” signs on the red carpet, including Oscar-winning actresses Helen Mirren and Kathy Bates, and the motto made cameos in a number of speeches, from presenter Jared Leto to—most notably—George Clooney, the movie industry’s de facto delegate, who gave it a nod during his moving acceptance speech for the Globes’ lifetime achievement award.
“And one last thing: to reiterate what we’ve all been talking about, today was an extraordinary day,” said Clooney. “There were millions of people who marched not just in Paris, but around the world. And they were Christians and Jews and Muslims. They were leaders of countries all over the world. And they didn’t march in protest; they marched in support of the idea that we will not walk in fear. We won’t do it. So, Je Suis Charlie.”
Clooney’s speech drew rapturous applause from the room of movers and shakers. After all, the film industry has been at the forefront of many progressive political movements in America, from 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which wrapped filming star Spencer Tracy’s scenes two weeks before the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, to 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, which according to a study got viewers more concerned about global warming.
But over the years, Hollywood has also been one of the driving forces behind censorship and curtailing freedom of speech and expression.
Look at the recent Sony hack. After a group dubbed Guardians of Peace—which the FBI believes to be the work of North Korea, but security experts think otherwise—breached Sony’s servers and leaked internal company documents online, the stolen emails revealed an exasperating four-month debate between filmmaker Seth Rogen and Sony over censoring the explosive death of The Interview’s fictional Kim Jong Un so as to not offend the sensibilities of North Koreans. And later, when the FBI fingered North Korea as the ones allegedly responsible for the hack, distributor Fox killed Pyongyang, a political thriller set in North Korea that would star Steve Carell.
Or take a look at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the clandestine trade association representing the six major Hollywood studios that’s in charge of the film ratings system. Last year, they controversially gave Love Is Strange and Pride, two joyous films containing nary a hint of sex, violence, or nudity, R-ratings ostensibly because they were gay-themed—thereby prohibiting anyone under the age of 17 from seeing them sans a parent or legal guardian. It was, as The Guardian put it, a “shocking reflection of its homophobia.”
And then there’s its backwards sexual politics. For years, the MPAA has threatened to slap films with the dreaded NC-17 rating—limiting the number of theaters it would play in to a miniscule amount—if it so much as featured a woman receiving oral pleasure by a man (a woman receiving oral by another woman, however, was usually OK).
“There’s plenty of oral sex scenes in a lot of movies where it’s a man receiving it from a woman—and they’re R-rated. Ours is reversed and somehow it’s perceived as pornographic,” Ryan Gosling rightfully complained about Blue Valentine. “Black Swan has an oral scene between two women and that’s an R rating, but ours is between a husband and his wife and that’s NC-17?”
Oh, and forget about showing a shot of a cock. That will almost always get you the stigmatized NC-17—which, in 1990, replaced the “X” rating due to the latter's porn connotations.
Go back even further, however, and the evidence is far more troubling.
The MPAA used to be called the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, which was established in 1922 in response to a public panic over perceived immorality in Hollywood (see: Fatty Arbuckle case). Will H. Hays, a former Republican U.S. Postmaster General and Presbyterian deacon, was tasked with chairing the trade organization, and paid a whopping $35,360 a year ($498,203.42 in 2015 dollars) for his troubles.
In 1930, and with the help of a Jesuit priest named—fittingly—Daniel Lord, Hays formalized the film industry’s Production Code, which later came to be known as the Hays Code, which prohibited certain things from being shown in motion pictures, including: “pointed profanity,” “any licentious or suggestive nudity,” “miscegenation,” “white slavery,” “ridicule of the clergy,” “willful offense to any nation, race, or creed,” and the list goes on. The Production Code began being strictly enforced in 1934, requiring that all films obtain a certificate of approval by the newly established Production Code Administration (PCA) prior to their release.
Over the next thirty years, the Production Code heavily censored any and all films. Take the Howard Hughes-produced 1943 western The Outlaw, which was banned for years because the movie’s advertising emphasized star Jane Russell’s sizeable breasts (a tussle dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator). Or even one of the greatest movies of all-time, Casablanca, which was required by the PCA to strike any references to Rick and Ilsa sleeping together in Paris flashbacks or even committing adultery, leading to the film’s now-memorable “beautiful friendship” ending.
In the mid-1930s, the PCA even objected to the filming of several movies about Nazi concentration camps in Germany on the grounds that such would be in violation of the “willful offense to any nation” clause in the Code.
After years of chipping away by Hungarian-born filmmaker Otto Preminger, the Production Code was finally put to pasture in 1967 in the wake of Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film The Pawnbroker, which was the first Code-certified movie to feature exposed female breasts.
And this is all without even mentioning the industry’s complicity in the Hollywood blacklist, wherein a number of studio heads, actors, and filmmakers—including director Elia Kazan and an actor by the name of Ronald Reagan—fingered a number of artists for their alleged ties to the Communist Party and blackballed them from working in the movie industry.
Back in 2006, while receiving a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a pudgy CIA agent in Syriana, Clooney touched on how progressive Hollywood was—and is.
“We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think,” Clooney said. “It's probably a good thing. We're the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects, we are the ones—this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.”
Pretty convincing stuff—that is, unless you’d actually seen the film McDaniel won the Oscar for, Gone with the Wind.
“To use that as an example of how progressive Hollywood is is ridiculous,” Spike Lee said of Clooney’s speech. “Hattie McDaniel played ‘Mammy’ in Gone With the Wind. That film was basically saying that the wrong side won the Civil War and that black people should still be enslaved. C'mon! I like George a lot. I'm not hating on him. But I don't think he really thought it out.”