Cancel culture has plenty of culture left to cancel
Quick, name the movie featuring this famous line: “I was born a poor black child.”
It wasn’t “12 Years a Slave,” “Moonlight” or “The Color Purple.” Steve Martin’s 1979 comedy, “The Jerk,” kicked off with that howler, spoken by the unassailably white star himself.
Problematic? Very likely in our cancel culture age.
Yet “The Jerk,” the film that poured petrol on Martin’s film career, hasn’t faced the woke mob’s wrath. Yet.
There’s no stopping cancel culture once it gains momentum, though, and pop culture is replete with problematic work. Heck, woke critics could spend the next decade pointing out all the films, TV shows and stand-up routines of yore now deemed hurtful, bigoted or just plain wrong in their eyes, history and context be darned.
And some of it came out only a few years ago.
The great Peter Sellers starred in one of the most unexpected comedies of the 1960s, “The Party.” Director Blake Edwards’ 1968 film, an experimental affair eschewing dialogue for long periods of time, drew raves upon its release. The late ’60s culture accepted that Sellers darkened his skin to play a hapless Indian actor who ends up the gala’s unlikely hero.
Anyone can stream that or “Soul Man,” the 1986 comedy featuring C. Thomas Howell donning blackface for much of a film that highlighted racism in between the yuks.
’Eighties movies are particularly ripe for future protests. When the decade’s most recognizable starlet, Molly Ringwald, attacks her own Reagan-era fare you know we’re standing atop wafer-thin ice.
It’s not just decades-old content ripe for “reframing,” the term TCM used earlier this year in a series exploring “problematic” film classics.
It’s a minor miracle that Robert Downey Jr.’s black-face performance in 2008’s “Tropic Thunder,” which earned him an Oscar nomination, hasn’t been canceled yet.
“The Danish Girl” was a 2015 movie starring Eddie Redmayne as painter Lili Elbe, one of the first people to receive gender reassignment surgery. The Oscar winner isn’t trans, so news outlets pounded both Redmayne and co-star Alicia Vikander (who won an Oscar for her work in the film) about the matter.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” only two years old, needs a warning label for not including enough Black and Mexican characters and for ignoring Charles Manson’s white supremacy leanings, according to Variety.
The much-beloved ABC sitcom, “Modern Family,” winner of no less than 22 Emmys, would struggle to reach the air today given the casting of a straight actor in a gay role (Erin Stonestreet as “Cameron”) and the show’s willingness to poke fun at both gay culture and liberal pieties.
Perhaps the most insidious part of today’s cancel culture scourge is this: Who knows what new films will soon be labeled “problematic” for breaking rules yet to be written? If two-year-old material must be instantly “reframed,” what hope do we have for future art?
Today’s Hollywood stars rarely defend their work, cowering in fear that they might be canceled next. Too many press outlets won’t stand up for politically incorrect art, either. TheWrap.com recently capped a four-part cancel culture series that all but waved pompoms in its general direction.
Surely the woke revolution won’t target goofy comedies like “The Jerk,” right? We’ve already seen the most popular film of all time, “Gone with the Wind,” temporarily canceled, only to return with a warning label affixed to its HBO Max home. That decision happened following a single Los Angeles Times op-ed.
Want the Blu-ray edition? Some copies will similarly tell you why it’s wrong for the film to play out like it does, attending to its lenient look at pre-Civil War era slavery.
Many TV shows featuring blackface moments got memory-holed last year, including highly regarded shows like “30 Rock” and “Golden Girls.” Yet “Saturday Night Live” slathered Fred Armisen, who is Korean and German, with darkening makeup to play President Barack Obama for several “SNL” skits without outcry then, or now.
Confused? Of course — but the rules of cancel culture are purposely vague to provoke fear and uncertainty.
Will Armisen be forced to make a hostage-like apology for those comedy crimes? It depends on whether his work “resurfaces” online, or if he says something that gets under the woke mob’s skin. Any performer, TV show or film is one angry op-ed away from finding their career under assault.
The trickiest part of this conversation is how censorship isn’t in the headlines as much of late, at least not in mainstream media circles. Those blackface erasures came following last year’s George Floyd protests, for example, and those seeking to “uncover” more examples may currently be taking a knee.
A prominent film like “Gone with the Wind” hasn’t been taken down of late like so many statues. One might argue the white-hot culture wars have cooled since a certain president left the Oval Office.
But you’d be wrong. Cancel culture is still in play, shrewdly working in secret to fulfill its ambitions.
Retail-giant Target just quietly cyber-banned two books critiquing elements of the trans community. Big Tech routinely censors comedy bits that don’t align with the progressive world view; comedian Ryan Long’s clips, which skewer the woke mindset from an apolitical angle, have been censored by TikTok and Instagram. Facebook’s war against The Babylon Bee, a right-leaning satirical site, shows little sign of letting up.
Earlier this year, Amazon yanked the streaming version of “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” without warning or explanation during Black History Month. Bet you didn’t read about that in The New York Times.
We all know six Dr. Seuss books are no longer being published because a microscopic group of naysayers declared their content racist. And Pepe Le Pew has flirted with his last house cat thanks to absurd accusations he promotes rape culture.
All it takes is an op-ed, a few blue checkmark types on Twitter or just the growing wave of self-censorship to get the job done. (Disney+ slapped warning labels on some of its most beloved properties without waiting for a peep of protest.)
Why did Steve Martin famously call himself a “poor black child” in his leading man debut? Because his character, Navin Johnson, was hopelessly innocent and, well, not that bright. What better way to capture it than with a line that poked fun at his dimwitted character, not any black person?
Martin probably couldn’t speak that line in a mainstream film today. Let’s hope we’ll still be able to watch him say it tomorrow.
Christian Toto is the editor of the conservative entertainment site “HollywoodInToto.com, the Right Take on Entertainment,” and host of the weekly “Hollywood in Toto” podcast.