Want to Support Cinematic Freedom of Expression?

See “Selma,” or “Top Five” this Holiday Week

Now that The Interview is available to any American with an Internet connection or with proximity to one of the 300 independent art houses nationwide that began showing the political comedy on Christmas day, freedom of expression has prevailed.

At least this is the narrative that gelled a few days ago, after executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment reversed an earlier decision to hold the film. There’s no need to recap the entire drama here, but in short, the Tokyo-based entertainment corporation is at last generating positive public relations following a month-long period of remarkably inept responses.

Not for nothing, the wild swings by Sony during the past few weeks will probably be enshrined in the PRSA Hall of Fame in a category marked What to Avoid in a Crisis. Likewise, the company’s wobbly performance in the midst of crisis should be taught in every reputable Communications/Public Affairs graduate program. Call the course Corporate Damage Control: FUBAR.

Really, to anyone who values transparency and also appreciates the fundamentals of tight messaging, Sony’s public responses during a month-long period beginning in November was the PR equivalent of a massive, extended nose-to-bumper multiple car wreck. From first dithering on the extent of the hack, to limply apologizing to black filmmakers, actors, and (Holy Toledo!) to the President of the United States for the casually racist email banter between Sony executives, to prevaricating on whether it really had ‘no choice’ but to call off the film’s Christmas Day release; to triumphant blustering after independent theater owners and Internet streaming companies agreed to make the film available, Sony executives’ bumbling performance was shocking to behold.

Not even the late-breaking addition of Super Crisis Control Maven Judy Smith — real-life inspiration for Shonda Rhimes’ most popular protagonist — had magic strong or speedy enough to keep the LA leadership of Sony from spinning off a cliff.

What Genuine Heroism Looks Like In Hollywood

Director Ava DuVernay

Now, thanks to a largely uncritical press, we’re seeing a narrative in which Sony is heroic.

Since earlier this week, when the studio confirmed that it would open The Interview on Christmas day, we have been bombarded with story after story in which movie-goers, politicians, and members of the film-making community are praising Sony for the 11th hour decision to make The Interview available. While I too appreciate the value of our democratic right to freedom of expression, and while I’m glad that Sony finally decided to make the film available, I’m not prepared to pat Sony on the back. Why?

Because there are two films that also opened this month that more cleanly represent the on-going fight experienced by some film-makers seeking to freely express their artistic vision: Selma and Top Five.

Supporting Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, and Chris Rock, writer, director and star of Top Five, is in my view the more radical way to support freedom of expression in the realm of American big-budget cinema. Anyone who does not understand that Rock and DuVernay had to walk through all kinds of fire and heartache to get their films on screen needs to read film historian Donald Bogle’s books on the history of America’s most lucrative, illustrious, and racially exclusionary cultural export — the motion picture industry. There are also contemporaneous explorations of how race and gender bias have affected DuVernay’s and Rock’s work, as well, including Rock’s recent essay in The Hollywood Reporter.

And, while it is true that generations of Hollywood studio chiefs and other top executives have engaged in legendarily bad behavior — including racism and misogyny: see any biographic material on MGM’s Louis B. Mayer or independent studio chief David O. Selznick or Columbia’s Harry Cohn — I subscribe to the quaint theory that it is unacceptable for racism and misogyny to continue as below-decks conduct and beliefs in the Industry’s C-suites in 2014.

That Amy Pascal, Sony’s Co-Chairman, engaged in casually racist talk with executives, as revealed in the hacked emails, as well as signed off on payment arrangements for women film stars that were lower than their male counterparts, is a sign that the spinelessness Sony demonstrated in its initial response to the hacking is rooted in a thick core of cultural obliviousness that deserved to be exposed.

The hacked emails threw back the curtain on the belief system of one major Hollywood studio. However unfair or illegal the act of hacking, what we have seen cannot now be unseen. For democracy’s sake, I’ll support, philosophically, Sony’s decision to release The Interview in the face of censorship.

But, the cash I’ll drop this week at my local multi-plex will be for either Selma or Top Five — or maybe both.