Despite initially backing down due to North Korean hacker threats, Sony Pictures forged ahead during the Christmas holiday with its toned-down release of The Interview in selected theaters and on YouTube. The move has been cheered by many as a triumph for free speech and as an act of bravery in the face of online intimidation from the North Korean hackers who threatened it.
But the spotlight on this national news story resulted in the (presumably unintentional) obscuring of another important conversation long overdue within the entertainment industry. In the fuss over The Interview's release, most people seem to have forgotten the original Sony scandal: revelations of the racism and prejudice that appears to reach all the way up to company's highest levels, and what that means for the entire industry.
The background: In one email leaked earlier in December, Sony co-chair Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin exchanged quips about whether or not Obama likes "black" films such as Django Unchained, The Butler and some of Kevin Hart's flicks. Not even Hart was immune, as another series of emails showed studio exec Clint Culpepper calling Hart a "whore" for requesting more money to promote a film through his social media channels.
These and other exchanges gave audiences an unexpected glimpse into the messy politics of movie-making. But more importantly, they underscored how the industry's culture and decision-making processes are impacted when there's little-to-no diversity at its highest levels. It's a problem that runs deep in Hollywood, and one that has a trickle-down effect when it comes to casting and hiring decisions.
The consequences: Pascal and Rudin have both issued apologies for their remarks. Just one week later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pascal met with the Rev. Al Sharpton on Dec. 18, where they agreed to set up a "working group" to tackle racial bias and diversity issues in the film industry.
That's where the conversation left off — because the hackers also threatened to attack movie theaters playing The Interview on their screens. And when Sony announced they would nix the planned theatrical release of the film on Christmas Day, the racist emails became an afterthought. Instead, politicians and others took issue with how this could set a dangerous precedent in the realm of cyber security, with the added implication of restricting free speech. Along with it came reports that U.S. investigators have enough evidence to tie the hacks to the North Korean government.
Of course, breached security and any attempt to undermine free speech are expressly against the values of many Americans. Some consider it an act of patriotism to defend free speech, even if it upholds something that's in poor taste or otherwise discriminatory.
That created a perfect recipe for Sony to allow select theaters to play The Interview and release it online on Christmas Eve. Many cheered the decision as a bold stand in the face of intimidation. And in a twist of circumstances, an otherwise penitent Sony became both the victim and the hero, resulting in a holiday movie event that dominated headlines (often for all the wrong reasons, given the film's casual homophobia, misogyny and racism).
The mere act of supporting The Interview, then, became less about entertainment and more about making a political statement — especially for stars Seth Rogen and James Franco. Unfortunately, this vehement defense of free speech is an all-too-familiar trap. It's also the same recycled argument people make while being confronted about racist jokes and remarks. The Interview was chock full of them, courtesy of two white dudebros and the studio that supported them.
The issue is much bigger than one movie or one entertainment company.
The same week as the email leak, 20th Century Fox released the film Exodus, which depicted an Egypt completely devoid of dark-skinned people. Instead of directly responding to the criticism of his casting choices, director Ridley Scott blamed it on the film's budget. Others, including Viola Davis, have decried what's been a "crisis mode" for black actresses, in both the amounts and quality of roles offered. And in a study released in February, researchers at UCLA noted that women and people of color are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera.
Ultimately, it comes with the consequence of creating art that's woefully out of touch with American society — and reinforces a hierarchy built upon the exclusion of marginalized groups.
Sony's leaked emails also came on the heels of Ava DuVernay's historic Golden Globe nomination for directing Selma, the first ever for a black woman. In an interview with the Daily Beast, DuVernay said the emails were a reminder of "sad, limited, crass view of the work that people do in this industry who are not from the dominant culture."
The release of The Interview should encourage people to continue the conversation about racism in the entertainment industry, especially at Sony. Instead, actual change and accountability are what's needed most to substantively change the climate, both at top levels and in what's produced. Although the controversy stemming from The Interview curtailed that conversation from fully fleshing out, it doesn't mean the public has to simply let it die.