“No movie is worth a life.” So said Doug Belgrad in the winter of 2014, when North Korea hacked Sony and let loose all their dirty laundry. Retaliation for The Interview, a benign Rogen and Franco comedy that would’ve been forgotten and still is only a footnote, albeit one that mocks North Korea and Kim Jong-Un throughout. It’s not nearly as good as Team America: World Police, but Kim Jong-Il was a film fan, and he reportedly sort of dug the movie. Kim Jong-Un doesn’t seem as amenable to satire or self-deprecation. There are no movie theaters in North Korea. Can you imagine?
Better but bad still: Rafiki, a lesbian love story from Kenya, was banned in its native country. Only after protests was it allowed to screen, but for just a week and only during the day. “Please carry your national ID cards/other forms of identification with you if attending a screening of Rafiki.” This was last September. Can you imagine?
I saw Rafiki here in Baltimore at the Parkway last Saturday to a mostly empty theater. I heard about the ban in Kenya and the packed matinee screenings in Nairobi. Some movie! It’s a nice movie, but nothing to get excited about. The circumstances and the story around it are more interesting than Rafiki itself. It doesn’t have a distinctive or confident visual style, it’s under-written and full of familiar signifiers, it isn’t cinematic, it’s pretty pedestrian. The only thing that stuck out was the editing, where scenes swim in and out of sync, jump cuts and lips losing their lines like in a Nicolas Roeg movie. The sex scene is handled this way too, cutting between the beginning of their encounter (a cupcake) and the height of it. The benefits of censorship.
No one asked for my ID when I saw Rafiki, or anything else. Going to the movies is not a political act in America. I don’t want to be anywhere else. Look around the world: suppression, censorship, or the illusion of choice. How far away are we from China? How many security cameras can you count on your commute? Probably not 250, but they’re there. Martin Scorsese’s Kundun was banned in China in 1997, delaying Hollywood’s entry into that dense market for another 12 years. Avatar brought cinema to China, but now they make their own movies, and they prefer them even to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hollywood is running out of watering holes.
We’re free to watch and see what we want. But the manicured choice of streaming services, and the arterial Marvel and Disney clogs in movie theaters, leave us no chance. Imagine living somewhere with a government that bans movies and monitors attendance at controversial screenings. Movies don’t have that power here; they’re just a detail. They rarely change minds or bring people together on a mass scale anymore. Even the Avengers are actively avoided by as many people as those that bring their babies to midnight screenings. Especially in the Trump era, nothing is more than a distraction from the main event. Culture orbits around him in a way that it didn’t under Obama. Political ties and false binaries were imposed on movies like Moonlight, La La Land, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but those conversations don’t last, and there are no protestors outside, waiting to tell you you’re going to Hell.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith