It’s been surreal watching the past few days of the eruption between Dave Chappelle, Ted Sarandos, a handful of activists, and a complicit media machine. “Engagement” is the standard measure of online success, so the media is leaning into headlines that go viral. That can be the only explanation as to why this story has rattled on and on in the midst of a country falling apart.
On the one hand, had no one ever said anything, fewer people probably would have even known this battle was happening. On the other hand, it was so rare for any corporate CEO to stand up to calls to ban something or fire someone or censor something that it became news in and of itself. Very quickly the rage turned away from Chappelle and toward Sarandos. He even said he “screwed up” for telling his employees, you know, the truth, instead of what they wanted to be true.
Ironically, at the end of Chappelle’s special, he says, “it’s over.” He says he isn’t going to make jokes about the LGBTQ community anymore. Many of them seem to have either not watched the show or not accepted his “truce.” Chappelle also asks, in return, that people stop coming after black artists for things they think or things they said in their past. I was particularly moved by his standing up for Kevin Hart. He said that Hart had wanted to host the Academy Awards his entire life and activists “just took it.”
Not only did Hart not host the Oscars, but the Oscars still have no host. Every year when there is no host, it is a reminder that there is no host because the many voices in the community have become so toxic and cruel that no one can withstand the headache involved in not being perfect or good enough. They really do need someone who is willing to stand up to the waves of outrage, fear, and panic misdirected at the wrong people — someone like Ricky Gervais, Joe Rogan, and yes, Dave Chappelle. Sure, the Academy would be treated to exactly what Netflix and Sarandos are being treated to now. But guess what? The majority would watch the Oscars again.
I have been consistently opposed to this madness from Day One. I have never gone along with any of it. I have defended people who have been canceled and attacked. Some of this has gotten me in a lot of trouble even before this latest wave of panic, fear, and hysteria began. I have defended Roman Polanski’s WORK and Woody Allen’s WORK and other undesirables. Why? Because I love this country, because I love FREE SPEECH. I love freedom of thought, of expression, and freedom to be whatever you want to be. You can’t find that anywhere else. And, most importantly, I FUCKING LOVE MOVIES.
I grew up in movie theaters. I made out in movie theaters. I cried in movie theaters. I laughed, I screamed, I clutched the arm of someone I was sitting next to. I waited in line to see movies in movie theaters, sometimes for a whole day. I fell in love in movie theaters. I even had sex in movie theaters. They have always been my second home. I walked into them like I owned the place — because I did! There was nowhere on this planet I felt more at home, walking through the doors and finding my seat, 3rd-row center.
This past year was devastating in so many ways, but the rotted cherry at the top of the shit sundae was not being able to go to the movies to escape every terrible thing outside of it.
And now, a year later, people still aren’t going to the movies. Hollywood did not build its house out of bricks. It did not build its house to withstand this moment. Netflix did. We can now say that without a doubt. Streaming is being unfairly blamed for putting movies out of business, but Netflix didn’t do that. Movies were fading fast long before Netflix came along. They simply met the demand from adults who were staying home and not going to watch the five fast food joints in theaters posing as actual movies. Formulaic, interchangeable, meaningless — but enough spectacle to justify the rising ticket prices.
(I should say: full disclosure, I do have something that will appear on Netflix. So I am an adjunct to the platform, though I have been writing about Netflix for years now, it’s probably worth mentioning. That will turn out to be something activists can try to take from me if they don’t like what I’m saying, or what I’m writing, or what I think. They believe they can accuse me of something and that will mean I am forever guilty unless I “take accountability” or “do better.” But I’m probably not important enough to destroy.)
There doesn’t seem to be a line now between what is actually offensive and what isn’t. That’s because they’ve taken out the factor of intent. Today’s activists actually believe intent doesn’t matter. Maybe because they ran out of targets. They can’t target those who have actual intent to offend them. Those people would laugh in their faces. They have to target people who CARE about their image. There is value in that. Obviously, Ted Sarandos cares deeply what people think of him and Netflix, otherwise, this wouldn’t be a story.
But leave it to the market and not Twitter and you will see that the majority stands up for Sarandos and Chappelle. Meaning, they believe that comedians should be allowed to tell jokes, even offensive ones. The market is the better arbiter. People will watch, or they won’t watch. They’ll buy a ticket, or they won’t buy a ticket. But we can’t return to the days of censorship and a new kind of Hays Code that decides who gets to participate in polite society and who must be banished.
Hollywood and the Oscars are in a precarious place at the moment. What I see when I look around, as someone who has been here before there was ever even film coverage or Oscar coverage online, is that there are too many people out there spending too much time evaluating movies for failure. You can probably look to the past and maybe to the future to understand how societies really have no clue that what they hold in their hands won’t always be around. The Great Barrier Reef, for instance. The glaciers. Sooner or later, everything will be gone and replaced with something else. Good or bad, it is what it is. Newspapers are mostly gone. Book stores are mostly gone. And now, post-COVID, we’re probably living through movie theaters being gone.
Meanwhile, millions of people are showcasing themselves on sites like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, where they are content creators, not necessarily content consumers. We are all inundated with content constantly: stimulating, moving, enraging. People are selling versions of themselves every day, hoping to go viral. Celebrities cling to their platforms knowing that one false move could bring it all down.
Remember every time you see a movie now you might never see a movie like that again. That theater might close. That director might not get work again. The stars might be banished forever. It would be one thing if the thing replacing all of it was worth it. But it isn’t. Why aren’t there more people protecting them? Why aren’t more people standing up for whatever is left? Why don’t more people realize there isn’t much left?
You can’t stop people from protesting, or from expressing their collective outrage, or their activism. That is their right. You can’t tell them to shut up or to go away. But you can stand up for those who put themselves on the line as Sarandos has done.
If movies really are going away, and all of them are going to be funneled through a massive tech platform like Amazon or Netflix or Roku or whatever it is, then we have to be able to trust that those gatekeepers aren’t going to police thought or buckle under pressure to censor content. Netflix was right to push back and hold the line. The media was wrong to demonize him for it in almost complete unison.
But imagine, at one time in history, someone greenlit this movie:
When they made Network, there was a moral panic about the role of television in our lives. That panic lived for quite some time and was explored for many decades. Technological advances have always caused moral panic. The internet, social media, and streaming are causing a similar kind of panic. But the difference is that back then, movies like Network were being made and celebrated. There are stories cropping up here and there that are still daring and raw and truthful and challenging. But they are too rare and Twitter all too often condemns them.
Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is one of the best films of the year but it is getting shunned by many on Twitter because it depicts two rape scenes, even though in essence it is a #MeToo movie. It did terribly in its opening weekend at the box office because no one is going to the movies. It is almost as though the movie didn’t even open because the only people talking about movies are sucked into the vortex of social media.
You can’t get movies like Network or The Godfather or Blue Velvet or Fight Club without an industry that is willing to dive through the layers of polite society and get at the truth, even if it is offensive to some. We need people at the top who have a good sense of what is and what isn’t harmful content. Otherwise, stick a fork in it.
The Oscars are going to be policed in the same way. Every single movie, every filmmaker, every actor in that movie, every interview they give, every artistic choice they made will be scrutinized, and if an offense is found it will be called out. You can’t stop that part of it, but you can stand there and take it. That much, you can do. Prepare yourselves for the fight ahead. It isn’t going to get easier, at least not for a while. Eventually, the pendulum will swing back after the house of cards comes collapsing down. That will be a great time to be alive — a creative renaissance of daring, provocative art. I hope I am still alive to see it.
Artists have to be brave. People who support them and help get their work made have to be even more brave. I don’t know what that is going to take, but I know asking Netflix to pull The Closer and thinking that is the right direction to take is a kind of insanity I never thought I would be living through.