I have reached a moral conundrum and I would like to discuss it with you. Over this past weekend, Roman Polanski’s film “J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy)” won several awards at the Venice film festival. The film is about Jewish French Artillery Officer Alfred Dreyfus who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 because of doctored evidence, which is relevant because Polanski is a convicted child rapist in the United States who fled to his native Poland to avoid jail time in the 2000s. The film seems to be a personal statement of his, possibly reflecting his situation from his perspective, however, before you suggest that maybe he felt he was wrongly convicted, the conviction was due to a guilty plea, meaning he had confessed his guilt under oath. So, despite whatever objections his film might present, according to himself, he is a rapist and a pedophile.
In a somewhat relevant story, actress Scarlett Johansson came out in defense of director Woody Allen who is similarly accused of sexual assault, only with his then 7-year old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow in 1992. The story only gets weirder when you consider that he later married another one of his adopted daughters in 1997. Johansson says that she and Allen have had very direct conversations about the accusations where he maintains his innocence and she says she believes him. Allen’s films are usually met with massive critical and commercial success, but most of them were produced before these allegations coming to light. Once these allegations resurfaced last year, Amazon terminated their agreement to distribute his current film “A Rainy Day in New York”, which stars big-name actors Timothée Chalamet, Dakota Fanning, Selena Gomez, and Jude Law.
The moral issue I am facing is that is its audience’s responsibility to ignore its existence because of the actions of the people who made it? This can apply to many films and many filmmakers who have all either been credibly accused or convicted of serious crimes. If you are a fan of “The Usual Suspects”, are you obligated to stop watching it since the credible accusations against Kevin Spacey have come to light? Does the content of the character of those involved retroactively impact whether the film should be watched or even enjoyed? Kevin Spacey is still a very talented actor who made enjoyable films. It is also important to remember that there are more people than just the lone individual who worked on the film, all of whom probably worked very hard to create a film that they hoped would be enjoyed.
Fundamentally, I am anti-censorship. Limiting the ability of these filmmakers to produce films and audiences to see or enjoy them goes against a basic tenant of my own morality. Wherever you end up on this debate, it should be your own, personal decision whether or not you choose to engage with the films and not the result of coercion into believing or behaving in one way. It is important that everyone, even horrible people, be able to freely express themselves, or else we have taken away what I consider the main factor in the meaning of life: the ability to make your own decisions.
I honestly do not know where I settle on this issue for myself. Polanski is a rapist and naturally, I do not want to associate with anyone that vile. But, is giving his film attention an endorsement of him? I want to believe that we are able to separate the two but that is a decision we must all make individually. There are plenty of Michael Jackson fans still out there that I am confident are not pro-child molestation, yet I know many (older) people who refused to buy a Ford automobile because Henry Ford was close friends with Adolf Hitler.
We must ask ourselves if we feel the art is responsible for the actions of the artist. I argue that it is not. However, I am not naïve. I understand that the art and the artist are intrinsically connected and while they are separate entities, they will never be totally separate from each other, especially when the names Roman Polanski or Woody Allen are in big, bold letters on the films’ posters. Because there are actual victims in these instances, we should also take into consideration how they feel in this matter. I imagine seeing Polanski’s film generating award buzz could feel particularly insulting to his victim. And, I do understand that money is the most powerful influencer in the world. If we stop paying to see his films, someone will stop paying him to make them.
The thing we can all agree on is that Polanski belongs in prison and is a fugitive for his actions. But the idea of a horrible person being able to make something beautiful is a difficult situation. What do you guys think? Is it ok to watch and admire films made by terrible people? I do not expect everyone to have the same opinion here because I don’t think there is a universally right answer for everyone. Whatever answer you come to; I hope it is the best answer for you and your conscience.
One thought on “Is it ok to admire films made by terrible people?”
Great article, Zach. I think a fine piece of art should always be admired, regardless of the scandals that follow after it. There is definitely a fine line that must be drawn, though. I think it’s possible, though, to support a movie without condoning the actions of a member of the film.