While Hollywood honored the best films of 2021 during its annual Oscar ceremony, a small group of cinema buffs huddled around laptops to watch a movie that cannot be seen in theaters or streamed on major cable outlets in the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and several other democracies. We were not in Russia or China, secretly accessing samizdat—literature and art banned by the state. We were all in the U.S., watching a film by one of the world's finest filmmakers.
The lavish, meticulously researched film is J'accuse. Made in Europe in 2019, it reconstructs the notorious affair of the late nineteenth century in which Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer, was falsely convicted of treason in a secret court martial and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Dreyfus was not a spy; he was railroaded by the military because he was Jewish. The case was a powerful symbol of Europe's deeply ingrained anti-Semitism, which set the stage for the rise of fascism and the Nazis' extermination of Jews and other "sub-humans" 40 years later. Both the film and the affair it depicts are disturbingly relevant in light of the new wave of anti-Semitic fervor gripping Europe and America today.
J'accuse (inexplicably translated in English as "An Officer and A Spy") is a work of genius—a gripping, stunningly rendered, deeply disturbing look at what can happen when bigotry triumphs over reason and the rule of law. Given that it is one of its director's best films and the winner of several of Europe's most treasured film prizes, one might expect it to be celebrated at the Oscars and regarded as required viewing in these polarized times.
But J'accuse has been effectively banned here because it is the work of Roman Polanski, 87, the Polish-French director, producer, writer, and actor who fled the U.S. in 1978 while awaiting sentencing for having sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl. He denied committing rape but pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of sex with a minor and served 42 days in a California prison for psychiatric evaluation before being released on probation. Told the judge planned to reject his plea deal and sentence him to up to 50 years in prison, Polanski fled to Europe, where he has made movies ever since, unable to return to the U.S.
Polanski's latest film has been "cancelled" as a result of this 44-year-old crime, and he has joined a growing list of artists and celebrities whose work has been boycotted or suppressed because of their crimes, alleged crimes, or politically incorrect views. Recently, W. W. Norton & Co. took the extraordinary step of recalling copies of a best-selling biography of the late novelist Philip Roth after the publisher learned that its author, Blake Bailey, faced multiple allegations of rape and sexual harassment from women who were once his high school students, and more recently, from a publishing executive. (He has adamantly denied the charges as "false and libelous.") Weeks after the cancellation, Skyhorse Publishing, which published Michael Cohen's book and picked up Woody Allen's memoir after it, too, was dropped by a publisher, announced that it would pick up Bailey's book. But over at Simon & Schuster, (my own publisher), some 300 employees, along with more than 3,500 writers and other supporters, have petitioned the company to cancel its two-book contract with former vice president Mike Pence. So far, Simon & Schuster has said that it will honor its contract—but if outrage over the deal persists, for how long?
The justifications for such public shaming and boycotts range from actual violence against women or children to "micro-aggressions" stemming from ill-considered remarks on social media to, in Pence's case, being part of an administration despised by progressives. To rebuke such wrongdoing—or even alleged wrongdoing—self-anointed censors have sought to ruin the reputations and livelihoods of artists, politicians, companies, and organizations.
"Roman Polanski raped a child," feminist author Kate Harding wrote in Salon in 2009. "Drugging and raping a child, then leaving the country before you can be sentenced for it, is behavior our society should not—and at least in theory, does not—tolerate, no matter how famous, wealthy, or well-connected you are, no matter how old you were when you finally got caught, no matter what your victim says about it now, no matter how mature she looked at 13, no matter how pushy her mother was, and no matter how many really swell movies you've made."
Indeed, as Harding argues, no one should defend child rapists. And I am certainly not doing so; nor do I excuse what Polanski did in 1977. But while the Polanski saga is complex—and some key facts about it remain in dispute—the case itself is not really the point. The issue raised by Polanski's ongoing travails is whether his art, consisting of 22 films, can and should be separated from its creator.
Even if Polanski had returned to America and been convicted and sentenced to prison, I would still wholeheartedly support the distribution of this film. For to suppress J'accuse and films, books, articles, and works of art that some consider "hurtful" or "offensive" is to risk crushing free speech, artistic expression, and the free flow of ideas—especially provocative ones.
In 2020, some 150 mostly left-leaning intellectuals called such expression "the lifeblood of a liberal society." In their open letter, they presciently warned that the current cultural revolution would inevitably devolve into tyranny and the silencing of opposing voices. "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces," they wrote.
Books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
It was an ominous sign of our hyper-partisan times, however, that even before the carefully worded letter gained wide distribution, several of its signatories were pressured into recanting their endorsement of it.
The virtual suppression of Polanski's latest work is particularly troubling not only because of the film's quality and relevance to the dangerous political trends taking hold in Europe and the U.S. but also because of the hypocrisy of such a move. While refusing to offer J'accuse to subscribers, Netflix and Amazon Prime prominently feature access to Polanski's earlier films. As Academy members voted on 2020's best films, Netflix was promoting Polanski's The Pianist, a 2002 film based on a memoir by Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman. A powerful story brilliantly told, Polanski won an Oscar in 2002's for his direction of The Pianist.
Compare this reception with that of J'accuse, which focuses on several of the same themes but has been shunned by American distributors. The reason seems obvious: J'accuse was released after the October 2017 sexual-abuse allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent rise of the #MeToo movement. Hollywood's panic over its record of ignoring women's complaints quickly spread and coincided with the growth of cancel culture, fueled exponentially by the 2020 protests over police brutality and allegations of systemic racism.
Since then, it has become increasingly dangerous to defend artists, writers, politicians and others accused of sexual abuse, or targets of cancel culture campaigns. An individual's own background and experience matter little. Many targets of cancel culture never enjoy the courtesy of getting their own defenses heard.
As the power of the "cancelites" grows, it is increasingly difficult and professionally risky to argue in public that we must separate our assessments of art from our judgments of its creators. But consider the likely result of a culture of artistic boycotts. Should we ban, say, Richard Wagner, whose music was adored by Hitler and whose widow entertained Nazis at Bayreuth? How about T. S. Eliot, widely regarded as the greatest poet of the twentieth century, many of whose poems contain what are regarded today as sexist or racist attitudes? Should we not read Ezra Pound, a major figure in the early modernist poetry movement but also a fascist collaborator in Italy during World War II?
The trend is ominous, says Alvin S. Felzenberg, a presidential historian and conservative political commentator. "Should we ban Gauguin because he slept with underage Tahitian women?" he asks. "Or if we ever discover that Shakespeare slept with underage girls or boys, would we ban Hamlet? Should we tear up the Declaration of Independence because Jefferson had unacknowledged children with his black slave?" He is not comforted by those who wish to ban or boycott only the work of living artists such as Polanski or politicians such as Pence.
Many critics now quietly ask, if only sotto voce: "Where does it end?" If we are to continue to have a vibrant, diverse, original culture, art must be kept separate from the many sins of its artists.