Screening Ourselves: The art and archive of feeling unseen on screen
A most disingenuous claim so often freely bandied about is, "[X] movie could never be made today." Frequently applied to comedies of a bygone era (Airplane!, Blazing Saddles, much of John Hughes's filmography) or dramas with questionable premises or characterizations (Lolita, The Passion of the Christ, much of Woody Allen's oeuvre), the statement is usually doled out as a lament for the "good ol' days" when audiences were less "sensitive," and the only things that were "canceled" were plans or TV shows with low ratings. "We get the question, 'Could you do Airplane! today?'" director David Zucker said during a recent interview. "The first thing I could think of was, sure—just without the jokes."
There are plenty of holes to poke in this argument, but the biggest is the presumption that audiences have ever been passive or unconcerned with the ways stories have been told onscreen. While it's true that social media has amplified critiques around representation and content over the last decade or so, it's also true that tensions have always existed between the Hollywood image-making machine and those who have been traditionally under- or misrepresented within it. And almost as long as there have been movies, there has been pushback against them through the press and organized protest.
In my new podcast series "Screening Ourselves," now available in your NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour feed, I look back on three movies that were challenged upon release for how they depicted a certain group onscreen: The Godfather (1972) and Italian-Americans, The Color Purple (1985) and Black Americans, and Basic Instinct (1992) and queer people/women. If you weren't around when some or all of these films were released – or even if you were – the word "polarizing" may not immediately come to mind while contemplating their respective legacies. But within certain circles, they inspired anguish and frustrations borne out of decades' worth of damaging stereotypes. And in some cases, audiences were very vocal about their displeasure, taking it literally to the streets and even, in the case of Basic Instinct, to the Oscars.
Despite being about different cultures and emerging in three separate decades, I noticed several pressing issues and themes that stretched across these films. For one, and perhaps most obviously, the locus of their respective controversies could be pinpointed within an environment of scarcity; there just wasn't enough variation in Hollywood to take some of the pressure off. In each interview I did with scholars, critics, activists, or some of the artists directly involved with the movies, the relatively barren landscape was frequently cited as a factor in their reception.
This feeds into another commonality, which is that each of the films were groundbreaking or notable in some way: The Godfather was a stark departure from the typically buffoonish, glorified depictions of violent Italian-American gangsters; The Color Purple centered queer Black women's joy and pain at a time when Black stories were rarely being told onscreen at all; and Basic Instinct presented an unapologetically queer femme fatale who (probably) murders men and gets away with it at the end.
Italian-Americans didn't go out and buy 'The Godfather' – Americans did.
But when a big movie is the "first" of its kind – or is at the very least framed as being the first of its kind – it can never be "just a movie." Because even for their subversions (or attempts at subversions, depending on who you ask), audiences might still not feel as though the filmmakers went far enough in making up for decades' worth of damaging images. After all, one could argue, Basic Instinct still kills off some of its queer women characters; the Black men in The Color Purple are horribly abusive to the Black women; and The Godfather is still about the mafia. As journalist Bill Dal Cerro told me, "The family get-togethers, the affection [Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola] took – all of that stuff that you identify as a legitimate Italian culture ... they welded it to this family of fictional criminals. So criminality and Italian culture are number one in the American mind."
Cultural anxieties old and new are reflected within the movies through their creators and projected back upon them via us, the audience.
I didn't plan it this way, but it also just so happens that The Godfather, The Color Purple, and Basic Instinct are all steeped in violent tropes – a fact that is as much coincidence in this context as it is a testament to how Hollywood (and society) has traditionally treated and viewed "The Other."
In its earliest days, the film industry was hugely responsible for reinforcing one-dimensional characterizations already firmly embedded in American culture and folklore, and reproducing them for mass consumption. And so you have The Birth of a Nation and others borrowing from minstrelsy and propaganda to churn out anti-black iconography and tropes: blackface, the Mammy, the Sambo, the Black Brute. The 1930s gangster movies like Scarface and Little Caesar drew upon the already widely-held assumption that all Italian-Americans were in some way connected to the mafia or illegal activity.
Basically, a lot of the anger started to build around the making of 'Basic Instinct,' which is a slanderous film. It's hideous. It's awful. It's very anti-bisexual. It's very anti-lesbian and it's misogynistic in general.
Meanwhile, laws against homosexuality carried over into the Hollywood studio system and the Hays Code, which restricted "sexual perversity" on screen – LGBTQ characters were explicitly or merely coded as queer and rendered in monstrous form, as in Bram Stoker's Dracula and other homoerotic vampiric lore (such creatures could crave the blood of all genders) and countless effeminate and butch sociopaths in noirs and melodramas like The Maltese Falcon and Rebecca.
These stereotypes were "scary" and "threatening" to the audiences they didn't represent and they appear in some form or another in each of the movies I covered in Screening Ourselves. When you consider the controversies from this point of view, it makes sense why tensions were so high – the moving image is a powerful tool for communicating fear, and that fear could have real-life consequences. My interview with Margaret Avery, who played Shug Avery in The Color Purple, reiterated this when she shared a memory of being on the European press tour.
"Someone asked me: 'Is that really how Black men act'? Well, that told me there is power in film," she said. "Even with The Sopranos and all – I mean, I don't know about the Mafia and all that, but when you do see the [show] about them, they're always rough ... old Italians ... and that's the image that I've gotten from them. So what do I think about them? Maybe I do kind of think that's how they act.
[She's Gotta Have It] was not done with hate, and none of the men here are one-note animals, like Mister was in 'The Color Purple.'
'So why wouldn't someone who's never lived around black people, why wouldn't they think, 'Oh is that how Black men are?' I understand it.'"
Yet the reason these movies have stood the test of time is that enough viewers have found something special or inspiring to grasp onto, even among the tropes. Some of those people do not belong to the cultures that are represented, and that can be a fraught aspect of this engagement in its own right. Nevertheless, Black women have seemingly always been the base of Color Purple supporters, and queer people have embraced Basic Instinct. (Is Sharon Stone's Catherine Trammel a queer icon? Depends who you ask.) David Chase's The Sopranos, of course, owes a huge debt to The Godfather.
Having now revisited these three films through this lens of fractured reception, I'm most struck by the need to remember that tension between the subversion and reinforcement of tropes as part of each their legacies. They help root current identity debates in a tangible history, and paint a clearer picture of how and why the films got made when they did, as they did.
A movie adaptation of Broadway's The Color Purple is set to come out next year. Some of the same debates may play out as they did in 1985, though enough has changed since then, and this version of Alice Walker's book has already lived a long, relatively uncontroversial life onstage.
But would Basic Instinct or The Godfather get made today, in this climate?
Who cares? They exist.
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