TALES FROM TINSELTOWN: MGM scores one for free speech in its refusal to cut 'Barbershop'

The Founding Fathers were keen on the right of Americans to poke fun at things. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson's first Declaration draft included this ditty: "How many monarchs does it take to screw in a light bulb?" But as there were no light bulbs back then, he struggled to come up with an appropriate punch line and deleted the joke from the final version. (Jefferson continued to use the line in public, keeping John Adams in stitches, and prompting Ben Franklin to "check out this electricity thing.")

The Founding Fathers were keen on the right of Americans to poke fun at things. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson's first Declaration draft included this ditty: "How many monarchs does it take to screw in a light bulb?" But as there were no light bulbs back then, he struggled to come up with an appropriate punch line and deleted the joke from the final version. (Jefferson continued to use the line in public, keeping John Adams in stitches, and prompting Ben Franklin to "check out this electricity thing.")

Somewhere along the way - probably around the time we surrendered our rights to privacy and to bash in the windows of cars with noisy stereos - we abandoned our blessed, Constitutionally-protected freedom to mock, tease, or otherwise poke fun at each other. Every public utterance today must be circulated through an array of PC filters until it is as clean and innocuous as our bleached laundry. (Note to editor: Please insert the plug for Tide here. Make sure we get the check first.)

Even movie-making, once an arena of free thought and expression, is subject to intense scrutiny and censorship. Studios are owned by multinational conglomerates afraid of offending movie-goers with controversial dialogue or subject matter, lest we boycott the cars, candy bars, theme parks, drinking water, or computers that the conglomerates also sell. "Sorry, this line's out. Got to keep an eye on the stock price, you know."

That's why studio publicists are always set to swing into damage-control mode when activists target something they find distasteful. An effusive apology is the normal response, followed by a hefty donation to a representative organization of the offended group.

So I was surprised and thrilled to see MGM's publicity team counterattack when Jesse Jackson blasted their new film Barbershop because of a characters' derisive remarks about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. MGM boldly responded "nuts" to Jackson's boycott threat and his demands that the "inappropriate" dialogue be deleted from the DVD and video release.

The film has earned a bit of much-needed cash for the studio, and while producers George Tillman and Bob Teitel did offer Jackson an apology, studio brass was adamant that nary a hair would be clipped from Barbershop.

We're even gonna make a sequel, they retorted. As is often the case, the publicity garnered by the flap buoyed the box office. Barbershop earned $10 million last week - outstanding for a film in its third week of release.

Good for MGM. This is America, dammit. And as long as we don't have more than 10 items in our shopping cart, we have the right to free speech and political expression. Even in the make-believe world of movies.

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