Stephen Arnell

Cancel culture on film

Cancel culture on film
Whiplash (Image: Shutterstock)
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As fireplace salesman-turned-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson enters the ‘cancel culture’ wars with his planned campus 'free speech law', what better time to investigate the phenomenon as depicted in the movies?

There are a surprising number of films that deal with the subject, from every side of the political spectrum, with right-wingers, the left and libertarians all on the receiving end of censorship from the authorities at some point.

As always, the focus will be on more recent movies, but first it’s worth mentioning a few older pictures that paved the way for later films.

In the 1930s-set The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), the titular educator (Maggie Smith) is ejected due to her romanticised view of fascism, whilst in Marathon Man (1976), Dustin Hoffman’s mature Ph.D. student Babe Levy lives in the shadow of the suicide of his father, an academic blacklisted in the McCarthy era.

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women (2017) – Amazon Rent/Buy

The professor enjoys an unconventional domestic life with his wife/fellow academic Elizabeth and their research assistant/polyamorous partner Olive Byrne.

When word gets out about the Professor’s troilism and advocacy of his BDSM-related DISC Theory, Marston and Elizabeth are promptly booted from their prestigious university posts.

A cash-strapped Marston goes onto create the Amazonian superheroine Wonder Woman in 1945, incorporating some of his more outré ideas.

The comic is an instant hit, but the trio’s love-life results in increasing strife with both neighbours and their children’s school.

Whiplash (2014) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Damien (La La Land) Chazelle’s second movie is one of my all-time favourites, one that I will always end up watching if it’s on the box.

Why? Terrific performances, great music and pitch-black humour make Whiplash a real treat.

JK Simmons knocks it out of the park as the frankly terrifying jazz bandleader Terence Fletcher, whose abuse and manic perfectionism shreds his latest student, eager beaver drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller).

To be completely honest, I have some sympathy with Fletcher, his methods may be unsound, but he does get results, and Neiman is not especially likeable, wearing a metaphorical target on his back throughout much of the movie.

Understandably, Neiman rats the teacher out for his cruel behaviour, getting Fletcher sacked from the music conservatory. When Andy chances on Fletcher playing the piano in a jazz club, his former mentor hatches a plan to get even with the snitch.

A Dangerous Method (2011) – Amazon Prime, STARZ and Amazon Rent/Buy

David Cronenberg delves into the rivalry between the ground-breaking psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender).

When Jung takes patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) as his mistress, Freud is ticked off by his unprofessionalism and their friendship begins to disintegrate when both attempt to ‘cancel’ the other's theories.

Creation (2009) – Amazon Prime & Rent/Buy

This Charles Darwin biopic concentrates on the events leading to the publication of his seminal work On the Origin of Species (1859).

When published, the book earned the naturalist notoriety, widespread condemnation, and a reputation (in the words of his friend Thomas Henry Huxley) as the man who ‘killed God’.

Jon Amiel’s picture has the definite air of ‘prestige’ awards-bait, although reviews were mixed on release. Paul Bettany stars as Darwin, with Jennifer Connolly as his wife Emma.

Kinsey (2004) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Pioneering sexologist Professor Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) began his academic career specialising in the staid field of studying gall wasps.

When he turns his hand to researching the subject of human sexual behaviour Kinsey becomes a household name, with all the problems that this entails.

The professor follows up the success of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948) with a volume on women, which stirs up further controversy, resulting in the withdrawal of funding when he comes to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who equates ‘deviant’ sexuality with communism.

Kinsey is a solid, well-made picture, benefiting from the sure hand of director Bill Condon (Mr Holmes, The Good Liar) and a superb supporting cast that includes Laura Linney, (as Kinsey’s wife Clara McMillen), John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Peter Sarsgaard, Lyn Redgrave, and Oliver Platt.

The Human Stain (2003) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Based on Philip Roth’s 2000 novel of the same name, The Human Stain concerns the travails of respected classics Professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) whose career is destroyed after being accused of making a racist remark in a class.

Silk conducts an affair with a barely literate college cleaner, the improbably named Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), which raises the ire of her ex, unhinged Vietnam veteran Lester (Ed Harris).

Flashbacks reveal Coleman is actually an African American, not the white Jewish identity he adopted as a youth to further his academic career.

Much depends on whether you buy into Hopkins and Kidman as Silk and Farley, respectively.

Mona Lisa Smile (2003) – Amazon Rent/Buy

The 1950s clash between liberal and conservative views plays out in highfalutin’ Massachusetts Wellesley College, a women's private liberal arts college, where new teacher Katherine Ann Wilson (Julia Roberts) seeks to expand her students’ mental horizons.

Although popular, Wilson’s free-thinking ways cause the college to insist that she must follow the syllabus, offer her lessons for prior approval, refrain from any hanky-panky with other faculty members, and only talk to her students about their work.

Naturally enough she tells them (in so many words) to stuff it and heads off to Europe.

Newell’s movie comes across as a wannabe Dead Poet’s Society (1989), so if that kind of quasi-inspirational picture appealed to you, Mona Lisa Smile could just about do the trick.

The Shape of Things (2003)

Neil LaBute’s picture plays like a cynical modern-day version of Shaw’s Pygmalion, with Paul Rudd’s nerdy English Lit major Adam remodelled by arts graduate Evelyn (Rachel Weisz).

Weisz effectively ‘cancels’ Adam’s previous personality and appearance, getting him to ditch his friends and undergo plastic surgery – removing the fake hooter Rudd’s character is burdened with.

Adam is shamed publicly when its revealed that he is her unknowing MFA thesis project; ‘to change someone’s world’.

Needless to say, the sensitive Adam doesn’t take the news well.

In & Out (1997) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Tom Hanks’ 1994 Academy Awards (Philadelphia) shout out to his gay high school drama coach and school friend inspired this whimsical comedy by Frank Oz.

Hollywood actor Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) outs his English Lit teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) at the Oscars. This is news to Brackett, who is engaged to be married to fellow teacher Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack).

Principal Tom Halliwell (Bob Newhart) is not thrilled by the media coverage and when gay reporter Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck) rocks up, Brackett begins to realise that he faces some tough choices.

The picture ends to the strains of The Village People’s Macho Man, a big favourite of former President Trump.

Oleanna (1994)

Playwright David Mamet directs this adaptation of his famously anti-PC play, which attempts to stir a hornet’s nest around the issue of sexual harassment, long before the #MeToo movement emerged onto the scene.

William H. Macy stars as university professor John (no surname given) pitted against his student Carol (Debra Eisenstadt) who claims that he sexually harassed her, wrecking his shot at being accorded tenure.

Bereft of the dynamics of a live stage performance, the picture largely falls flat, but the MeToo power play between the two leads is remarkably ahead of its time for a script penned in the 90s.