Opinion: Beyond ‘The Interview’: A short list of films banned for political reasons
“The Interview” may not be much of a film, but then again, it doesn’t take much to put a Hollywood movie on one or more countries’ blacklists.
A quick search of the Internet reveals scores of titles that have been censored for one reason or another. The most common motive for banning a movie is because it’s too sexy, violent or “deviant,” which is a reminder that for all its Puritanical impulses, the United States remains one of the world’s most open cultures. But there have been plenty of films that drew condemnation for their political views, explicit or otherwise.
Sony says it will distribute “The Interview” someday, and when it does, we’ll see which members of the Axis of Evil forbid it from being shown within their borders. In the meantime, here are a few of the more notable instances of films being banned for their political content, courtesy of the Jones Media Center at Dartmouth College, Hunter Duesing of Letterboxd and other astute observers, as noted below:
“The Great Dictator,” a 1940 film by Charlie Chaplin that’s a thinly veiled mockery of Adolf Hitler, was, not surprisingly, never permitted to be shown in Nazi Germany.
Saddam Hussein banned “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” in 1999, most likely for depicting him as being Satan’s gay lover.
Kuwait banned Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” for insulting the royal family ... of Saudi Arabia. As an Information Ministry official explained to the Associated Press, “We have a law that prohibits insulting friendly nations, and ties between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are special.”
“Sadat,” a three-hour miniseries about late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, was generally viewed as a laudatory account of the assassinated leader’s life. But Egypt banned it -- and, temporarily, every other movie coming out of Columbia Pictures -- because of alleged “historical errors.” Evidently, the authorities took offense at the casting of a black actor, Louis Gossett Jr., in the title role.
It’s probably a fool’s errand to list the films China has banned for political reasons. But here are two examples: “Back to the Future” in 1985 because it depicted time travel (the ultimate in disruptive lawbreaking) and “The Departed” in 2006 for daring to suggest that the Chinese government might use nuclear weapons against Taiwan.
Kazakhstan banned Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” in 2006 for being offensive to the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Not to be outdone, Tajikistan banned Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator” in 2012 for being subversive. Evidently, the government saw too many parallels between its country and the Republic of Wadiya.
Iran, like China, bans a lot of Hollywood films for perceived offensiveness. A good example: the 2006 film “300,” which a government official characterized as “hostile behavior which is the result of cultural and psychological warfare.” The film, a fanciful retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, depicted a small force of Spartans desperately holding off a much larger and thuggish force of Persians.
“The Year of Living Dangerously,” a 1982 thriller about a foreign correspondent covering political turmoil in Indonesia in 1965, was banned by the Indonesian government for almost two decades.
France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Finland and Germany banned “Battleship Potemkin,” a celebrated but “rabble rousing” silent film from the fledgling Soviet Union, in the years between World War I and World War II for fear it would incite Marxist revolution. As it happens, their problems came from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.
The 2009 sci-fi movie “District 9” by South African director Neill Blomkamp was hailed by reviewers as a powerful allegorical denunciation of apartheid. Missing the point, the government of Nigeria saw it as a denunciation of Nigerians and banned it.
“Zoolander,” Ben Stiller’s near-perfect send-up of the fashion industry, was banned in Malaysia for its portrayal of garment sweatshops in that country.
Here in the United States, censorship tends to be done on a local, not national, basis (see, just for example, the battles over “Birth of a Nation”), and the usual reason is graphic sex or violence, not offensiveness to the body politic. However, there are at least two examples of movies being silenced for political reasons.
One is “Death of a President,” a 2006 pseudo-documentary about a fictional future assassination of President George W. Bush that used footage of the real president. Two major theater chains refused to carry the movie because, as the head of one of the chains put it, the subject matter was inappropriate.
Another is “Hillary: The Movie,” a sharply critical biographical film about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The nonprofit group Citizens United wanted to advertise the movie and show it on cable TV during the Democratic primaries, but a federal court stopped it on the grounds that a 2002 federal law banned such independent campaign expenditures within 30 days of a primary election. The court’s ruling kept the movie off the TV airwaves, but it also led the Supreme Court to issue a landmark 2010 ruling eliminating the limits on corporate (and union) spending on campaigns.
Follow Healey’s intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.