‘The Hunt’ and a New Era of Forbidden Films

Betty Gilpin in The Hunt

“Hollywood is racist. What they’re doing, with the kind of movies they’re putting out, it’s actually very dangerous for our country. What Hollywood is doing is a tremendous disservice to our country.”

United States President Donald Trump spoke these words recently. Regardless of whatever his other thoughts and policies might be, on the matter of film racism, the President is absolutely correct. Even nearly two full decades into the 21st century, example after example after example after example show Hollywood to be as racist as ever. Ethnic groups repeatedly portrayed as subhuman and what few humanizing roles they have available given to white actors, as said, are indeed very dangerous things.

But presumably, his words are in reference to The Hunt, a movie about a collection of people kidnapped and forced to run for their lives against a band of hunters. It has sparked much coverage and outrage from the news media (mainly politically-focused outlets), but that vitriol against the film may have come from a misunderstanding. While the premise sounds much like numerous other films, television shows, or even real life incidents, an added element here is that the villain characters are coded as liberals while the heroes are conservative types. The latter are even referred to as “deplorables” by the former in dialogue.

In any event, The Hunt was due for release on September 27, but Universal has pulled it indefinitely. While the on the record reason is for sensitivity given recent high-profile criminal activity, some believe that to be untrue, seeing as how every other film with gun violence has been unaffected. The prime counterexample is Ready or Not, which is also a violent human-hunting movie, but was released as planned. Regardless of why it ended up there, The Hunt has now joined a list of films that have been deemed forbidden.

One of the go-to books in my collection is Forbidden Films by Dawn B. Sova. It details the censorship histories of 125 films that raised controversies over their content. Some fell victim to the Hays Code, others to the social mores of their eras. Across the decades of the 20th century, the reader sees how guidelines for censoring have changed, and in some ways how they haven’t. From Birth of a Nation to Amistad, The James Boys in Missouri to Natural Born Killers, Lolita 1962 to Lolita 1997. While many of these films are easily found today, a number of them remain quite rare. 

In recent years, studios have become very censor-happy. Earlier this summer, Disney removed a scene from Toy Story 2 which they believe implied sexual misconduct (this is going to be a common theme with most of these). Show Dogs was altered while it was still in theaters to remove lines that some considered evocative of child molestation. The Predator dropped a scene when the press got wind that one of the actors in it is a sex offender. All the Money in the World was ready to go, but reshot at the last minute to remove Kevin Spacey from a sizable supporting role. An American release has been all but denied to I Love You, Daddy and A Rainy Day in New York (incidentally, that’s a film I had somewhat of a hand in making, since it had some shooting done at Drew University and I was the operator who fielded the call).

Television isn’t immune either, and may in fact yield some more egregious examples. The Simpsons episode “Stark Raving Dad” in which Michael Jackson guest starred has been removed from syndication and any further circulation (DVDs, streaming, etc.). Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is also from Universal, saw its episode “Unstoppable” banned from airing. Sister series Law & Order: Criminal Intent had the Olympics-themed “The Glory That Was” pulled (never even making it to ancillary markets) some years back, and though the 2016 games have come and gone, it has yet to resurface. Over on Netflix, the first season finale of 13 Reasons Why had its suicide scene edited down long after the fact. Alabama Public Television refused to run an episode of Arthur because it featured homosexual characters.

Yes, going back to revise films is nothing new. Yes, the studios have every legal right to make these alterations or withhold their products from release. However, speaking as critic, consumer, and collector, this trend is a rather distressing one. As much as we’d like to think that we have the freedom to choose which films we’d like to see in their original forms, instances like these serve as reminders that such thoughts are greatly mistaken. The increasing shift towards digitalization and away from physical media is only making things worse. Without hard copies, there’s no guarantee of preservation. As video game fans can well attest, anything can be yanked at not even a moment’s notice and be lost forever to the digital void.

Sure, filmmakers can try to craft their works to be released safely intact, but there’s truly no telling if that will happen. Virtually all of the banned or censored items mentioned found themselves there due to unforeseen circumstances, and that will most certainly be the case with more to come. With all manner of events playing out every day and any resulting changes in societal norms, what will or will not be considered acceptable for release can hardly be predicted.

All one can really do is wait it out. Maybe The Hunt will be released in some manner down the line, be it months or years. Maybe it will quietly go direct to video instead of having a theatrical run. Maybe someone from the studio will leak it. Odds are this won’t be as extreme an occurence as The Day the Clown Cried.

A number of cliches could be used in summation – “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” “take nothing for granted,” “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” – but this whole situation really cannot be so neatly moralized. It is rather fitting that the original release date of The Hunt falls within this year’s Banned Books Week (September 22-28). Perhaps on that day, now that going into the theater to watch the film is no longer an option, a would-be viewer might want to seek out a different movie or book that’s had a similar history and reflect on what it went through. 

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