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Anger on the Airwaves : Filmmaker Doug McHenry Uses Radio Spot to Accuse MPAA of Racism, Sexism for Changes to Film and Poster

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

In a highly unusual move, the director and producers of “Jason’s Lyric,” an upcoming fall release from Gramercy Pictures, took the Motion Picture Assn. of America to task in a radio ad when the ratings board objected to the film’s steamy sexual content.

The MPAA’s Classification and Ratings Administration board had threatened to slap the movie with an NC-17 unless the filmmakers cut some sexually explicit scenes--a demand they ultimately complied with in order to get an R rating. The MPAA’s advertising board also mandated changes in the film’s promotional poster, which further angered the filmmakers.

In the 60-second spot, which ran in the top 20 markets last weekend, the film’s director-producer Doug McHenry (“New Jack City”) complains: “In this country, you can kill 50,000 people in a film, but you can’t have a tasteful, romantic love scene. If you have two black people making love, somehow that’s steamier than other people. . . . I think those have been issues of sensitivity with respect to the MPAA.”

In an interview, McHenry said he had asked Gramercy to buy the spot so he could deliver his message “direct to my market. . . . I wanted the active moviegoer to understand the hegemony, the control the MPAA--a self-regulating group--has over the movie business, and that this group is the filter to what they see and don’t see (on the screen).”

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The movie, which opens Sept. 30 and stars Allen Payne, Bokeem Woodbine, Forest Whitaker and Jada Pinkett, is a story of passionate romance and fraternal rivalry set in Houston.

McHenry estimates he cut 50-60 frames from the movie, including one showing the naked buttocks of Payne, to get the R. (Filmmakers are contractually obligated to distributors to deliver at least an R because of restrictive deals with cable networks and home video outlets.)

The filmmaker conceded that the cuts “did not destroy the integrity of the film” and that he and the MPAA “were able to reach a reasonable compromise on its content. I actually think they pushed the envelope for the film.”

What he is still incensed about, however, is the MPAA’s rejection of the movie’s original poster, which depicted Pinkett’s bare leg in a provocative, erotic pose with Payne between her legs. The leg was airbrushed out of the ad, then resubmitted and accepted last week by the MPAA’s Advertising Administration board, which reviews marketing materials.

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“I was infuriated that our marketing campaign to emphasize the film’s passionate romance would get hacked to death by the MPAA,” said McHenry, speaking from Florida where he’s shooting Savoy Pictures’ “The Walking Dead,” a story about black soldiers in Vietnam. “When the MPAA controls what your advertising looks like, that’s total dominance.”

The filmmaker said the MPAA is guilty of “hypocrisy on three levels,” alleging that the group is racist, sexist and enlists a double standard for sex and violence.

MPAA president Jack Valenti, accusing McHenry of using the press “to get free publicity” for his film, responded: “For somebody to say we are racist and sexist is almost bizarre. That’s the last thing in the world we are.” He pointed to one “interminable” sequence that the MPAA strongly objected to “of two people copulating in a vigorously sexual scene.” As far as the poster is concerned, Valenti said, “It has nothing to do with black, white, any color; it has to do with the sensuality of the artwork. . . . we never allow nudity.”

McHenry said he is “not one to levy the banner of racism at the wave of a hat,” insisting, “I’m not making the charge of overt racism, but there is cultural or institutional racism at work here.” He added: “When you have (ratings board members) not familiar with our culture or community, they are not sensitized to the validated norms and (they) apply a national standard that doesn’t focus on us.” (The ratings board is made up of eight to 11 members who are all parents and whose job it is to provide guidelines about a film’s suitability for children. The identity of most members is intentionally kept confidential.)

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McHenry argued that the MPAA has made allowances for many other movie posters, including those for the Sharon Stone erotic thriller “Basic Instinct” and “Body of Evidence,” starring Madonna, which he said depict “direct eroticism. But because (the actors) are not African Americans, it was fine.”

The director’s second charge against the MPAA is “clear and blatant sexual chauvinism--sexism.” He said there are many examples of other movie posters where “the female body can be depicted practically nude, but when you add the male body to it (as with “Jason’s Lyric”) it’s not OK.”

Finally, McHenry said, both with regards to judging a movie’s content and advertising materials, “the MPAA is much more liberal when it comes to violence than sex, romance and love. You can blow somebody’s head off, but you can’t have one tasteful scene of a guy’s butt going up and down (when he’s making love).”

He avowed that all of these issues are “heightened if there are black people involved. . . . If a black man has a gun, he’s more threatening than Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger. If it’s two black people making love, somehow it’s steamier.”

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When asked her reaction to McHenry’s accusations about the MPAA, Bethlyn Hand, senior vice president of the MPAA and director of the group’s Advertising Administration board, said, “I respectfully disagree. . . . I am the least racist person I know. We disapproved of the ad because it was too sensual. They resubmitted it and we approved it--this is nothing new. We do this all day long.”

Gramercy president Russell Schwartz said the company expects to release “Jason’s Lyric” in about 800 theaters and will resume its normal radio and TV campaign closer to the film’s opening. He said in the majority of spots, the film is being sold as “a love story set in an urban environment. . . . I think it’s the first time that African American love is shown like this on the screen.”


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