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Satire or Propaganda: ‘The Interview’ or Don’t Yell Fire in a Crowded Political Theater

Satire or Propaganda: 'The Interview' or Don’t Yell Fire in a Crowded Political Theater

Cancelling the release of THE INTERVIEW is not censorship; it is an act moral responsibility in world of volatile political allegiances and conflicts.

As the discussion of this unprecedented turn of events surrounding the hacking of Sony Pictures allegedly by North Korea in retaliation for the production of the film THE INTERVIEW veers towards arguments of Freedom of Speech, a corporation bowing to terrorist threats, Sony’s CEO being disappointed in Obama’s comments, racially disparaging emails, and Sony Executive Amy Pascal reaching out to Civil Rights advocate Al Sharpton- what is being lost in all of this constantly evolving rhetoric is this most important point:  It was politically and morally irresponsible of Sony Pictures to finance, produce and intend to globally distribute a film that directly insults the living sovereign leader of a country which has tumultuous relations with the United States and its allies that neighbor the borders of that country.

Regardless of whether or not our country is in agreement with the human rights policies/violations or political ideology of that country, to make a film whose plot explicitly concerns the C.I.A hiring operatives (journalists) to go to North Korea and kill an actor playing Kim Jong-Un is not a comedy, nor is it satire, it is political propaganda of the lowest denomination.  The intended global release of such a virulent form of political propaganda ever so thinly disguised as an action/comedy could easily have placed the innocent lives of citizens of South Korea and Japan in jeopardy if North Korea interpreted this film as a provocation sponsored and/or sanctioned by the U.S. government.  Even if we accept the prevailing judgment of Kim Jong-Un as a young and unstable dictator of a poor and isolated country why should we risk provoking such a dictator with a film that represents his own political assassination as a U.S. government sponsored operation?  

How was this supposed to be funny?  

Who was supposed to laugh?  

Apparently, the entire world was supposed to think this movie was funny except North Korea.  

Recently the response concerning Sony’s cancelling of the Christmas release of THE INTERVIEW has centered on the notion of Freedom of Speech.  Even President Obama has declared Sony’s decision to be a “mistake” noting that,” “We cannot have a society in which some dictators someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States because if somebody is able to intimidate us out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing once they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like,” Obama said. “That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.” (1)   But obscured in President Obama’s assessment is the value judgment of THE INTERVIEW as a true satire and not political propaganda.  Even the most general definition of satire defines it as a work of art,” …in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit (2),” but the definition does not explain that an unwritten rule of all satire is that it is at its most humorous when the real object of ridicule is disguised by some form of fictional distance.

For example, Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) satirized Adolf Hitler and others because the main character was not actually named Adolf Hitler, but instead Adenoid Hynkel.  Even the Nazi adopted symbol of the swastika is changed in THE GREAT DICTATOR to two perpendicular X’s and these and other small changes are what allows Satire to have its most humorous effect because only those who can recognize the changes can fully appreciate the jokes.  

It is precisely because we cannot be sure if the fictional German Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) is a caricature of the real German scientist Wernher Von Braun who came to the U.S. after the fall if the Nazi regime that one can laugh harder at Stanley Kubrick’s DR.STRANGELOVE (1964).  Not to mention the pun of naming the insane general who starts WWIII, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) which proves Sigmund Freud’s observation that for any joke to be effective it must be “economical” in the expenditure of mental energy to actually get the joke. (3)  By contrast, the writers of THE INTERVIEW broke a cardinal rule of satire by actually using the real name of the object of their ridicule and thus turned a joke into an insult because one does not have to expend any thought to understand who is actually being mocked.  By breaking this cardinal rule of satire the film THE INTERVIEW moved from the artistically determined genre of satire and into the genre of politically determined propaganda.

It might be prudent at this point to define cinematic propaganda as any film where the content directly or indirectly reflects the expressed ideological policies, conflicts and/or concerns of a government, a monarchy or governing authority which is directed against a race, ethnic group, gender, religion or another government, country, monarchy or political group.  This broad definition can be read as a warning that informs us that any film which one disagrees with on moral, religious or political grounds can be seen as propaganda in the eyes of the beholder.  And yet it is Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for the German National Socialist Party who precisely articulates the most important criteria for successful propaganda when he spoke at a Chamber of Film conference in 1937.

Goebbels said,” At the moment propaganda is recognized as such, it becomes ineffective. However, the moment that propaganda, message, bent or attitude as such stays in the background and appears to people only as storyline, action or side effect then they will become effective in every respect…  I don’t want art for the sake of a message, but to insert the message into the greater overall design.” (4)

So we can see why it is so important for actor George Clooney, President Obama, Sony CEO Michael Lynton, Sony executive Amy Pascal, Seth Rogen and other parties involved to see THE INTERVIEW as alternately just an action/comedy or just a satire.  Because this film so resolutely reflects the ideological conflicting positions between the U.S. and North Korea, the only country where the film might appear as bellicose propaganda is the very target of attack within the film itself: North Korea and its leader Kim-Jong-Un.

There are those defenders who ask, “How can people condemn a film that they haven’t seen?”

But knowing that the film depicts the murder of the leader of North Korea (via the film’s synopsis, trailers, and the leaked murder scene circulating on the Web) actually seeing the film and by chance laughing at any joke within it would make the viewer involuntarily complicit in supporting the political message within the greater overall design of the film at the cost of a ticket, on demand account, or streaming service monthly fee.      

We might try to describe the conclusion that the cancelling of the release of THE INTERVIEW is not the censorship of freedom of speech by analogy.  For example, if you scream,” Fire!” (and there really isn’t one) in a crowded movie theater and people are trampled to death and/or severely injured in the chaos to exit the theater- you’re Freedom of Speech rights are not going to protect you from criminal and civil punishments for screaming “Fire!” and there wasn’t one.  Freedom of Speech extends only so far as one does not harm or impinge upon the rights of others in the exercising of it. Well, the same can be said about THE INTERVIEW as a propaganda film whose plot explicitly involves the murder of a living national leader (regardless of whether or not the U.S. is friendly or unfriendly with that national leader) and that country (or its allies) threaten to attack moviegoers because of this film’s blatant underlying message of “death to its national leader”. The movie studio has a moral and civil responsibility not to release the film to protect moviegoers that trumps Freedom of Speech.

Indeed, it was irresponsible to green light such a direct insult to another country and not expect there to be repercussions. In this analogy, it was Sony studios that was going to yell “Fire!” in a crowded political theater and many people (economically and reputation-wise) were and are being injured. Thinking of the film as a comedy Sony, Rogen, Franco and company thought they could get away with yelling “Fire”, but having actually used the real name of the target of their ridicule any kind of artistic license is revoked and the subsequent material can easily be interpreted as U.S. government sanctioned propaganda against North Korea barely disguised as an action/comedy.

Other astute observers have cited the 2006 film DEATH OF A PRESIDENT a British produced mockmentary/political thriller that fictionalized a 2007 assassination of then U.S. president George W. Bush in Chicago, Illinois as a point of comparison with THE INTERVIEW, but I believe such comparisons obscure the obvious differences between the two films.(5)  DEATH OF A PRESIDENT is a mockumentary, that is to say the form of the film is that of a television news journal enhancing the realism of the fictional event by mimicking the form of a common genre of the television medium. At the time of the film’s release in 2006 the content within the film was set in the future of 2007 enhancing the hypothetical nature of content and leaving some room for doubt about the veracity of what was being seen. The film does not fictionally represent a government’s covert operation to kill the head of another country, as is the case with THE INTERVIEW.

But the major point of difference that makes any comparison between DEATH OF A PRESIDENT and THE INTERVIEW untenable is the fact that DEATH OF A PRESIDENT was produced in a country that is an ally of America: Great Britain.  The fact that the United States and Britain are allies allows the artistic license of the filmmakers to remain valid in the sense that the film could not be interpreted as an attempt by Britain to suggest that the President of the United States actually be assassinated by British agents.  In short, DEATH OF A PRESIDENT was not a direct insult to an enemy, but hypothetical criticism of an ally cleverly disguised as a television news journal in countries where freedom of speech is mutually respected.

By contrast as Prof. Todd Boyd of USC School of Cinematic Arts noted,”… it was naive of Sony to proceed with the film [The Interview] without expecting some blowback from the North Korean government.  Free speech is an American value, he said, not a North Korean one. It’s provocative to make a film where a living figure is assassinated, in spite of what you may think about that figure,” Boyd said. “To do so in a comedy seems especially arrogant and inconsiderate and naive, and as it turned out, Sony had to pay the price for making a bad decision. (6)

In sum, an insult to a friend must be interpreted as a joke for the friendship to remain intact, but an insult to an enemy is a provocation that can be interpreted as a prelude to a fight.

I think a comparison with the 2004 satirical film Team America: World Police (a film that has now unfortunately been pulled from revival screenings) and The Interview is an extremely revealing and productive comparison. For one, the explicit plot of Team America: World Police is a satirizing of American political policies which uses caricatures of World Leaders, including then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, as a commentary on U.S. idealism and political hypocrisies. By contrast, the explicit plot of The Interview is the recruitment of two journalists to assassinate the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un which isn’t really a satirizing of American Political policies or a cogent commentary on those political policies.  It was not so much a comedy as it was a pro-American political provocation poorly disguised as an action-comedy.

The Interview reveals that all the writers involved in this messy debacle did not fully grasp the concept of fictional “distance” as one of the most important aspects of satire and/or comedy. That Team America was created with marionettes instead of live actors allowed the concept of fictional distance to support the criticism of U.S. political policies. With The Interview, which was not criticizing the U.S. but instead insulting North Korea, the film is an overly propagandistic representation of American force in the form of a successful covert CIA assassination plot and thus no manner of actual fictional distance could allow for the film to be seen as a harmless action/comedy to even the most enlightened minds.  In my opinion Team America: World Police is a more subversive film because it critiques the politics and hypocrisy of the country wherein which it was produced and The Interview is just poorly conceived propaganda against another country produced with the arrogance abetted by the filmmakers ignorance of American political, moral and economic hypocrisies.

Now is it necessary to question the reaction of North Korea who according to the FBI was behind the hacking into of Sony’s computer systems.  The Sony Hack by the cyber terrorist group Guardians of Peace and the gathering of all manner of private corporate data including the leaking to the media of infamous emails where various Sony Studio executives made light of the film viewing choices of President Obama, referred to actor Kevin Hart as a “whore”, made disparaging remarks about Angelina Jolie and suggested that Denzel Washington not be cast in films that have an international market appeal. (7) These leaked private emails make it clear that two wrongs don’t make a right.  The creation of a political propaganda film about a particular country by a particular movie studio does not justify the wholly criminal actions of hacking into that movie studio’s computer system, leaking private data to the media, and making veiled threats of 9/11 style attacks on movie goers who might see the propaganda movie if it is ever released in theatres.  The alleged computer hacking actions of North Korea against the Sony Pictures Corp are wrong,  inexcusable and as President Obama suggested they should be met with a “proportional” response from our government.(8)

But as an African-American I am extremely conflicted with regards to the racially biased information contained within the leaked emails because even if they have been criminally obtained, these emails and perhaps others like them are the damning confirmatory evidence of Hollywood’s persistent racial segregation of Black films from the international market and the ghettoization of Black cinema as a niche market that only appeals to domestic Black audiences.  The comments in particular about President Obama’s taste in film, reveals that when in unmixed social company (i.e. social company of solely one race and/or one gender) White studio executives have a penchant for devaluing, disparaging and limiting the work of Black actors, Black films and their appeal to global audiences.  Moreover, since the majority of all Hollywood studio executives are White (and mostly male) these executives are most often always in unmixed social company situations where their own Whiteness makes them inherently racially insensitive, non-empathetic and prejudiced against the work of other individuals outside of their own race.

Even considering the leak of an email from a Sony executive that openly declares that Black British actor Idris Elba,” …should be the next James Bond,” taken together these private emails reveal the ongoing and unchecked tensions of racial exploitation and racial prejudice behind the White controlled corporate walls that have a devastating impact upon Black cinema nationally and internationally. (9)        

Particularly contemptuous and hypocritical is the email where Denzel Washington, an internationally bankable leading A-list Black actor, is discussed as being an international box office liability because the unnamed executive believed that,”… the international motion picture audience is racist.”(10) This email reveals to us how domestic White racism is often displaced onto a racially diverse international audience as a means of keeping Black films and Black stars segregated from the global marketplace, which in turn impacts the profits of a Black film and in turn convinces White controlled studios to keep the budgets for Black films or films with Black stars lower than those films that are White films with White stars in the lead roles.  These emails, and others like them, reveal that Hollywood for all intents and purposes considers all Black film and Black stars as part of a second class cinema that is not truly worthy of global distribution and that these Black films should be kept in the financial background of the domestic market.

The fact that we know that there is a global market for Black films and that Black stars like Denzel Washington or Will Smith appeal to international markets is further confirmatory evidence that Hollywood’s segregation of Black films from the global market is an intentionally racist practice that is not justified by unfettered capitalist considerations.  Evidence of racial bias within those infamous emails could finally be the impetus necessary to get that vast silent majority of conservative Blacks and contented token Black film industry employees off the fence and into the fight for a real global Black film industry.    

Sometimes a single criminal act can have revolutionary consequences.

The leaked Sony emails have destroyed any notion of plausible deniability when it concerns the second class status of Black films and Black actors within the White controlled American Entertainment Complex.   And yet perhaps it will take other more damaging emails to be released before a contented token Black filmmaker like John Singleton, who finds the comments by Pascal and Rudin,” troubling,” but not racist, can finally realize that White systemic racism in Hollywood is a Janus faced problem: Blacks can be exploited for profit by Whites, but never allowed to have equal power over their own images as Whites. (11)  

With regards to the alleged criminal act of North Korea hacking into the computers of the Sony Pictures Corp. (itself part of a larger Global corporate oligarchy) and the irresponsible action of Sony Pictures Corp. financing, producing and intending to globally distribute a propaganda film against the leader of North Korea: two wrongs have shed light on a greater injustice, that of the segregation, exploitation and prejudice against Black films, filmmakers and actors that has been perpetuated within White Controlled Hollywood studios for decades.        

The fact that no other Hollywood studio immediately came to the defense of the Sony Pictures Corporation speaks volumes about the amount of racially insensitive, disparaging and prejudiced remarks that must be contained within the private emails of the White studio executives of other well known Hollywood studios.  The Sony Hack was a wake-up call to the racists in other studios to beef-up their cyber security rather than risk exposure to the world by cyber terrorists if they openly supported Sony during this time of crisis.

Now we have White stars like George Clooney stating that Sony Pictures “caved” in to the terrorists and that the film THE INTERVIEW should be released because cancelling the release of the film is tantamount to artistic censorship of the United States by a foreign government. (12) This returns us to our opening discussion: Is the film THE INTERVIEW a satire or a filmed piece of political propaganda which would in my opinion disqualify it as art and as an example of freedom of speech.  The apologists say we should have the choice to decide whether or not the film is art or propaganda by being able to see the film in the theatres, but a choice of this magnitude that could de-stabilize diplomatic and economic relations between other countries (North Korea, South Korea, Japan) including our own, is a choice that may carry too high a price to actually be afforded.

Releasing THE INTERVIEW now would be nothing more than a form of political belligerence on the part of the United States to antagonize North Korea as a tactic of revenge for what the F.B.I. has determined was a North Korean sponsored cyber attack of Sony Pictures Corp.    

Do we really want to go down this road?  How long will we be laughing at THE INTERVIEW if North Korea decides to mount a more violent response to the tasteless political insult that is contained within this film?  How many innocent lives would it be acceptable to lose just to yell “Fire!” in a crowded political theater?  

Chris Rock has told us that,” it’s a White industry,” but after this latest corporate film studio debacle one has to wonder,” Yeah, but for how long?”(13)

Notes

(1) http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/19/politics/fbi-north-korea-responsible-sony/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

(2) http://www.thefreedictionary.com/satire

(3) See the chapter B Synthetic Part, IV The Mechanism of Pleasure and the Psychological Origins of the Joke in Freud’s The Joke and It’s Relation to the Unconscious, Penguin Classics, New York, 2002.

(4)  Pg. 178 “Film Policy in The Third Reich” by Julian Petley in The German Cinema Book, eds. Bergfelder, Carter, Gokturk.  Palgrave Macmillan, UK 2008.

(5) http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/17/forget-sonys-the-interview-this-award-winning-movie-imagined-the-assassination-of-george-w-bush/

(6) http://bigstory.ap.org/article/a334cd140f6b47c888b065340d28f2ce/will-artists-skip-studio-support-after-sony-scandal

(7) See: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/the-gift-that-keeps-on-giving-leaked-sony-email-challenges-denzel-washingtons-overseas-box-office-appeal-20141217

And see: http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/leaked-sony-emails-reveal-jokes-about-obama-and-race-1201376676/

(8) Op. cit.

(9) http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/12/19/exclusive-sony-emails-reveal-studio-head-wants-idris-elba-for-the-next-james-bond.html

(10) Op. cit.

(11) http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/john-singleton-sony-hack-jokes-758633

(12) http://deadline.com/2014/12/george-clooney-sony-hollywood-cowardice-north-korea-cyberattack-petition-1201329988/

(13) http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/top-five-filmmaker-chris-rock-753223

Andre Seewood is the author of “SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film.” Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com here.

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