A highly disingenuous claim so often freely circulated is: “[X] Film could never be made today.” Often applied to comedy of a bygone era (Airplane!, Flaming Saddlesmuch of John Hughes filmography) or dramas with questionable premises or characterizations (lolita, The Passion of Christ, much of Woody Allen’s oeuvre), the statement is usually passed off as a lament for the “good old days” when audiences were less “sensitive” and the only things “cancelled” were plans or low-rated TV shows . “We get the question, ‘Could you do that? Airplane! today?’” director David Zucker said in a recent interview.
There are many loopholes in this argument, but the biggest is the assumption that audiences have ever been passive or unconcerned with the way stories were told on screen. While it’s true that social media has increased critiques of representation and content over the past decade, it’s also true that there have always been tensions between the Hollywood imagery and those it has traditionally under- or misrepresented. And almost as long as there have been films, there has been press pressure and organized protest against them.
In my new podcast series, Screening Ourselves, available now on your NPR Pop culture happy hour Feed, I look back at three films that were challenged upon release for portraying a specific group on screen: The Godfather (1972) and Italian-American, The colour purple (1985) and Black Americans and primal instinct (1992) and Queer People/Women. If you weren’t there when some or all of these films were released—or even if you were—the word “polarization” might not immediately come to mind when you think about their respective legacies. But in certain circles, they unleashed fear and frustration borne by decades of harmful stereotypes. And in some cases, the audience was very vocal about their displeasure, literally taking it to the streets, and in the case of even primal instinctto the Oscars.
Despite being about different cultures and made in three different decades, I noticed several pressing issues and themes that spanned these films. For one thing, and perhaps most obviously, the locus of their respective controversies could be pinpointed in an environment of scarcity; There just wasn’t enough variety in Hollywood to take some of the pressure off. In every interview I conducted with scholars, critics, activists, or some of the artists directly involved with the films, the relatively barren landscape was frequently cited as a factor in their reception.
This leads to another similarity, which is that each of the films was groundbreaking or notable in some way: The Godfather was a stark departure from the typically goofy, glorified depictions of violent Italian-American gangsters; The colour purple focused on the joys and pains of queer black women at a time when black stories were rarely told on screen at all; and primal instinct presents an uncompromisingly queer femme fatale who (probably) murders men and gets away with it in the end.
But when a great film is the “first” of its kind – or at least called the first of its kind – it can never be “just a movie”. Because even for their subversions (or attempts at subversion, depending on who you ask), viewers still may not feel that the filmmakers have gone far enough to undo decades of damaging imagery. Finally, one could argue primal instinct still kills some of his queer female characters; the black men in The colour purple are terribly abusive to black women; and The Godfather it’s still about the mafia. As journalist Bill Dal Cerro told me, “The family gatherings, the affection [Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola] took – all that stuff you identify as legitimate Italian culture… they welded it to this family of fictional criminals. So crime and Italian culture are paramount in American thinking.”
Cultural fears, old and new, are reflected in the films by their creators and projected back onto them via us, the audience.
I didn’t plan it that way, but it just happens that way The Godfather, The colour purpleand primal instinct are all steeped in violent tropes – a fact that is as coincidental in this context as it is evidence of how Hollywood (and society) has traditionally treated and viewed “The Other.”
In its early days, the film industry was largely responsible for amplifying one-dimensional characterizations already entrenched in American culture and folklore and reproducing them for mass consumption. And you have The Birth of a Nation and others borrowing from minstrels and propaganda to produce anti-Black iconography and tropes: Blackface, Mammy, Sambo, Black Brute. Like the gangster movies of the 1930s scarface and Little Caesar relied on the already widespread assumption that all Italian-Americans were in some way connected to the mafia or illegal activities.
Meanwhile, anti-homosexuality laws were incorporated into the Hollywood studio system and the Hays Code, which restricted “sexual perversity” on screen – LGBTQ characters were coded explicitly or only as queer and rendered in monstrous form, as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and other homoerotic vampiric lore (such creatures might crave the blood of all sexes) and myriad feminine and butch sociopaths in noirs and melodramas like The Maltese Falcon and Rebekah.
These clichés were “scary” and “threatening” to the audiences they didn’t represent, and they appear in some form in each of the films I covered in Screening Ourselves. Viewing the controversy from this point of view, it makes sense why tensions were so high – moving image is a powerful means of communicating fear, and that fear could have real-life consequences. My interview with Margaret Avery who played Shug Avery in The colour purpleechoed this as she shared a memory of being on the European press tour.
“Someone asked me, ‘Do black men really do that? Well, that’s what told me that movies have power,'” she said. “Even with The sopranos and all that — I mean, I don’t know about the mafia and all that, but if you see this [show] about them, they’re always rough…old Italians…and that’s the picture I got of them. So what do I think of her? Maybe me do kind of think they act that way.
“Why wouldn’t someone who’s never lived with black people think, ‘Oh, is that what black men are like?’ I get it.'”
However, the reason these films have stood the test of time is because enough viewers have found something special or inspiring to hold onto, even under the tropes. Some of these people do not belong to the cultures represented, and that in itself can be a stressful aspect of this engagement. Despite this, black women have seemingly always been the base of Color Purple Supporters and queer people have embraced primal instinct. (Is Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammel a queer icon? Depends who you ask.) David Chases The sopranosowes a great debt, of course The Godfather.
Now, having re-watched these three films through this lens of fractured reception, what strikes me most is the need to remember this tension between subversion and trope amplification as part of their respective legacies. They help ground current identity debates into a tangible story, and paint a clearer picture of how and why the films came about the way they did.
A film adaptation of Broadway The colour purple should appear next year. Some of the debates may play out as they did in 1985, although enough has changed since then, and this version of Alice Walker’s book has already had a long, relatively uncontroversial life on the stage.
But would primal instinct or The Godfather to be made today, in This Climate?
Who cares? They exist.
Listen examine ourselves in which Pop culture happy hour Podcast Feed on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.