The Glen Falls Post-Star on reactions to a musical about the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia protests
The decision by a local filmmaker to revise the script of his movie musical because of criticism from people who had not read it is an example of the hyper-sensitive cultural moment we’re living in.
We used to wait to see or hear an artist’s work before getting offended by it, but now we’re taking offense as soon as we hear the subject.
That’s what happened with Ben Rowley’s “Millennial,” a musical that was going to follow 10 young people as they heard about and reacted to the “Unite the Right” protest carried out by white nationalists and neo-Nazis on Aug. 11, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
A story in The Post-Star mentioned Rowley’s project and said he would be using City Park in Glens Falls to film a scene. But negative reactions from people who were in Charlottesville on the weekend of the protest persuaded Rowley and his “creative team” to remove any reference to Charlottesville from their movie.
We’ve reached a censorious place where we allow uninformed public opinion to squash works of art still in the process of being created. Part of this is the bad influence of social media, whose users jostle to be the first to have something righteous to say. Part of it is the increasing public sensitivity to bigotry in all its forms.
A willingness to take offense at things that are offensive — like a march by tiki torch-carrying white supremacists who chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” — is a good thing. But objecting when artists decide to address sensitive subjects looks like an effort to show how excellent your morals are even when you have no idea what you’re talking about.
No subject — not slavery, not the Holocaust, not religion, not constipation (addressed at length in “Portnoy’s Complaint”) — is off-limits for art.
Imagine Mel Brooks making his pitch to Hollywood backers for a movie called “The Producers”: “It’s about a washed-up Broadway producer who’s been reduced to having sex with old ladies for cash. He gets this idea to stage a show so bad it will close instantly, so he can keep all the money investors have put up. The show is a Nazi musical called ‘Springtime for Hitler.’”
Lines from Brooks’ show-within-a-show are classics of absurdity, like this one: “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the nazi party.”
It wouldn’t be fair to compare any budding filmmaker’s work to Brooks’ farcical brilliance, and it sounds as if Rowley is aiming at something more serious. Young artists should be allowed to do their work — and make mistakes, too — without a crowd of would-be cultural arbiters judging their every word, or thought.
What an artistically constipated world we will live in if we allow the amateur critics of Twitter and Facebook to shut down movies before filming has even started!
We were taken aback when we read that Rowley was filming a musical about reactions to a neo-Nazi march, especially since the march was followed the next day by the murder of an anti-Nazi protester.
But in Charlottesville itself, a high school drama teacher, since the march, has been using drama to address racial injustice. Madeline Michel of Monticello high school is getting a special Tony award for her work in helping students write and produce plays like “A King’s Story,” about a teenager shot and killed by police, and “#WhileBlack,” about racial profiling.
Theatrical works can be a powerful and effective way to address difficult social issues.
Who cares what the critics and carpers have to say? Some people will always be negative, and ignorance won’t stop them.
Rowley should forge ahead — maybe his film will be good, maybe not. Those judgments can be delivered when it’s done. But he and all artists should be free to pick their subjects and practice their craft without interference from people who claim, without justification, the right to control their work.