Opinion

Ted Cruz is right about getting Chinese censorship out of Hollywood movies

We might have different reasons, though

Under normal circumstances, I tend to disagree with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) about basically everything other than the sacrilege of a Princess Bride remake. But with his latest legislative effort, he might just have my support.

Earlier this week, Politico reported that Cruz plans to introduce the SCRIPT Act (or "the Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity, Protecting Talkies Act," named in the great Washington tradition of painfully forced backronyms), which would discourage the widespread practice of studios reworking movies to be more palatable to Chinese government censors by blocking Department of Defense cooperation with the production of those films. That would be a great thing — but not necessarily for the same reasons as Cruz says.

First, it must be said that, although I suppose it's possible that Cruz is purely motivated by protecting the artistic integrity of the cinema, the timing of this move is suspect. In the weeks leading up to the SCRIPT Act announcement, Cruz has railed against an alleged "Chinese Communist [Party] cover-up" of coronavirus and promoted unfounded conspiracy theories alleging COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese government lab. He's also made sinophobic comments about "bat soup in the Wuhan province." At the end of last week, Cruz announced legislation intended to stop Chinese outlets from using Canadian or Mexican stations to (in Fox News' words) "spread foreign propaganda across U.S. airwaves." Sticking it to Beijing is a popular move right now, especially for Trump-defending Republicans looking to spread blame for the devastating outbreak. Nevertheless, the case may be that Ted Cruz has landed on a good idea with the wrong motivations.

Importantly, American filmmaking is not exactly the shining example of the freedom of speech that Cruz implies it is. The SCRIPT Act specifically targets movies that are supported by the Defense Department, which, it turns out, there are a lot more of than you'd expect. The Pentagon assisted on more than 800 films and 1,100 TV titles between 1911 and 2017, and on occasion it has exercised its own censorship over how the military is portrayed. When 2003's Hulk was in production, for example, the DoD requested "pretty radical" script alternations, The Independent writes, including "disassociating the military from the gruesome laboratories that created 'a monster.'" With Meet the Parents, "the CIA admitted it had asked that Robert De Niro's character not possess an intimidating array of agency torture manuals," The Independent adds. In fact, the Pentagon needs to be wooed anytime a movie wants U.S. military support, like borrowing a tank or consulting with military experts about logistics. Man of Steel was initially denied assistance from the U.S. government because the script's portrayal of the armed forces was too "cartoony," Business Insider reports.

A moral high ground, then, is not the best way to approach the question of resisting Chinese censorship. Still, as my colleague Matthew Walther has pointed out before, for an industry that otherwise lionizes the victims of the Hollywood blacklist, tinseltown has been pretttty quick to cede free speech to Chinese authorities for the sake of making a buck.

At the same time, Hollywood can't afford to ignore the socially conservative nation across the Pacific. China was expected to surpass the U.S. box office in 2020 before the coronavirus outbreak, and every major American studio executive understands that as much as 70 percent of a blockbuster's earnings comes from overseas, with China being "a big part of that," as Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science at University of Southern California, told CNBC. Chinese companies like Alibaba are also significant investors in Hollywood films, too. If you want to make a successful blockbuster these days, you basically need China — and its censors — on your side.

That requires relinquishing some of the freedoms Americans otherwise celebrate. A release of Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, was stripped of a scene about Freddie Mercury's sexuality before it hit Chinese theaters, while Martin Scorsese's Kundun was banned due to appearing sympathetic to the Dalai Lama. Perhaps the best example, though, is Disney's attempts to wow China with the forthcoming remake of Mulan. The producer, Jason Reed, told Mashable that the studio worked "very closely" with censors in China, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the artistic merits of the venture. (The filmmakers have already reportedly cut a kiss between Mulan and a love interest at the request of the "China office"). "I can't help wonder why Disney are remaking Mulan at all if they are simply going to pander to the nationalistic values espoused by the mainland Chinese government," critic Jingan Young wrote for The Guardian last year.

Which is a further, and perhaps most important, point. In a worst case scenario, movies made to appeal to censors are thinly-disguised and not-very-good Chinese propaganda. But the more common sin these days is Hollywood's unabashed commitment to making movies essentially as exports. Shooting a movie that will appeal to Chinese censors, rather than Americans, strips stories of any cultural specificity. Additionally, pervasive industry-wide beliefs — like that Chinese racism would tank a movie like Black Panther — can paradoxically limit diverse casting in American films that are intended to be overseas hits. Additionally, looking to address the broadest of audiences and governments with a work could only ever produce a bland, boring movie, as opposed to one that actually commits to being about something.

Discouraging movies from being made solely as vehicles that can get past a foreign government's censors isn't just a question of protecting some peachy American ideal about the freedom of speech. It's also about preserving the integrity of what makes art art: a film's specificity, say, or its ability to illuminate a precise human experience, or the derivation of a story from a particular place and time. The SCRIPT Act would require, at the very least, a reevaluation of the purpose of Hollywood movies. And while Ted Cruz and I might not necessarily agree on the why, he's right: it's time for Hollywood to decide the worth of its art.

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