Criterion Channel’s edit of a classic 1971 film is latest attempt to expunge all traces of past insensitivity
The latest barometer of a radical shift in our cultural establishment’s relationship to the past is Criterion Channel’s editing a short sequence out of William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller The French Connection. Those who see the movie on the channel will miss a brief bit of dialogue in which the hardboiled Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle uses a racial slur.
Fans have not reacted well to this latest bit of post-hoc virtue signaling, and even progressive journals like The Atlantic have published essays and opinion pieces denouncing it. An opinion piece in National Review made the sensible observation that the dialogue in question is not meant to endear Popeye Doyle to audiences, but rather, to show one of his weaknesses. To make him look not like an angel, but more of an anti-hero.
The French Connection aims for gritty realism. These are not Baywatch extras pretending to be cops and heroin smugglers. They’re supposed to be the real thing. The movie aims to take you into a seedy underworld of vice and moral rot. The filmmakers present ugliness in the service of verisimilitude.
So, devote a bit of thought here to what a realistic portrayal entails. Is it plausible that a New York detective in 1971 might have used a slur in conversation? Is it just possible? Doesn’t matter. Someone powerful at Criterion, or at Disney, the streaming channel’s owner, has bought into the current wisdom that the presentation of bigotry for any purpose—even to point out one of a character’s flaws, as is clearly the case here—is an offense calling for censorship. If you even repeat a slur in order to declare how offensive and unacceptable you find it, that is no different from yelling the slur at someone from a car shooting down the street. The insult, offense, outrage knows no context and exists outside of any agency or purpose on the part of the person using it. In the Alice in Wonderland reality of the woke present, to denounce something is to endorse it. Or exemplify it.
As in the recent furor over Inclusion Ambassadors’ selective editing of Roald Dahl’s work to make it more suitable for today’s children, one does need to ask about the implications of what the censors have done and where the logic of this censorship leads. Looking back on your schooling, you will recall many instances where someone who is probably the last person you would ever accuse of bigotry committed a transgression according to the logic of our moment.
You may remember a kindly, progressive older English professor who stated, in full, the title of a certain 1897 novel by Joseph Conrad, or a left-wing history professor who, in course of reading out a historical source dealing with slavery, repeated a slur that was, unfortunately, common at the time of the document’s writing. Today students would complain and the schools would promptly fire the professors. There are no distinctions anymore, no mistakes of the head and mistakes of the heart.
But a larger issue is what to do with all the written and visual work that belongs to a time and place in the past. If it is now acceptable or even mandatory to expunge or erase content according to ever-shifting standards of sensitivity and acceptability, then it is not just the works of Conrad, Crane, Twain, Fitzgerald, Huxley, Waugh, Faulkner, and many other canonical writers that needs to go. Even living authors are in pretty serious trouble. Stephen King’s 1978 epic The Stand contains a racial term now considered passé. Not the one that got The French Connection in trouble, but one that will still offend some for sure. And, worse still, King does not put the term in the mouth of a character we are supposed to dislike. He uses it himself! Time to cancel the king of horror.
We can lead a long march through the libraries and bookstores and streaming channels, hack and slash, and toss works on bonfires until we expunge every single relic of dated attitudes and vernacular from the culture.
Or, we can simply accept that times have changed, and that works of the past are useful—warts and all—for helping us understand why we believe what we believe and how we can do better than many people in history did.