THE EXASPERATING ISSUE of political correctness always acquires an “edge” with the arrival of the holiday season. This week, for example, Variety’s proposed “holiday greetings” card was vetoed because it showed a fragment of a Santa Claus outfit. Get lost, Santa — we’re drawing up a more PCish card. The PC issue is making waves in film and TV, as well. Oprah Winfrey has just come under attack in the New York Times from a black Harvard professor because of a TV movie, “There Are No Children Here,” produced by her company that he believes wallowed in PCishness. According to the professor, Orlando Patterson, the film was based on a book that depicted the plight of a ghetto mother who kept churning out children,eight in all, despite the fact that she could neither love nor care for them. In the TV movie, however, the character of the mother, played by Winfrey, was changed to “a loving, caring archetypal woman-savior of black bourgeois mythology — the ultimate martyr and victim,” said Patterson. TV can do without “sugar-coated ghetto moms,” he declared. The problem with PC television is that the initials end up standing for Placid Characters: Witness “NYPD Blue,” produced by the curmudgeonly Steven Bochco, in which all the white cops, consistent with PC television, report to a black supervisor, played by a gifted actor named James McDaniel. The trouble is that McDaniel has absolutely nothing to do except look solemn and responsible. When I asked Bochco about this the other day, he gave me his customary flinty-eyed stare and assured me that McDaniel would have plenty to do before the season ended.
MOVIES THIS SEASON are aggressively PC. “Philadelphia” is a finely crafted drama that will reap wide praise, but a few critics have bridled at the blatant demographics of the cast — Tom Hanks has an Hispanic boyfriend, an African-American attorney and a completely supportive and loving family from mid-America. The two “Geronimos” pose a fascinating glimpse at the new world of PC Westerns. Since the protagonist in the two films — one from Columbia, the other from Turner — had a nasty habit of murdering white settlers, he was traditionally depicted in Westerns as a heavy — a rather savage heavy. In the Turner version, however, Geronimo is a classic victim driven to bad deeds by unprovoked attacks from the white man and Mexicans. Indeed, we’re told Geronimo didn’t even know how to scalp anyone until the Mexicans taught him. In Walter Hill’s earnest and affecting film, Geronimo is a complex figure who surrenders himself to the white man, only to rise up in anger after soldiers murder an Indian ghost dancer in the middle of a ritual. The original script, written by John Milius — no champion of PC thinking — took a somewhat different tack: The main reason Geronimo left the reservation was that he hated being a farmer. His paranoia was such that he was convinced, after opening some canned ham delivered to his reservation, that the ham was really the flesh of slain Indians. John Milius greatly admires the final film, but he hopes that audiences won’t regard Geronimo as a victim. “He liked to raid,” says Milius. “We should accept the fact that there were people around who raided because they liked to raid.”
HILL’S FILM INVITES comparison to the Westerns of old because it was shot in “John Ford country”– the striking plateaus around Moab, Utah. In the old Westerns, of course, the line between good guys and bad guys was always vividly clear, and the Indians were always the bad guys. According to my scholarly colleague Todd McCarthy, glimmers of change began to appear in the 1950s with films like “Devil’s Doorway” and “Broken Arrow,” which showed the Indian blatantly attacked by settlers — a theme finally revisited by John Ford himself in “Cheyenne Autumn.” Even in these revisionist films, however, the Indians were always played by people like Robert Taylor or Sal Mineo. Today it seems the PC Western will reign supreme, with Native Americans playing Native Americans — witness Turner’s several projects in the genre, which will roll on for more than a year. More and more, the PC mentality is terrorizing film festivals. At Toronto last September, one event was disrupted by a Maori who delivered a stinging denunciation of white Europeans for destroying his land. In the middle of another screening, a noisy couple got to their feet, demanding that a show be canceled because it suggested a young woman character seemed to be “enjoying” a rape scene. Let me make one thing clear: I have nothing against PC movies and TV shows provided that the “attitude” doesn’t get in the way of such prosaic considerations as reality, empathy and verisimilitude. It’s praiseworthy to redress the errors of the past, provided the truth isn’t further distorted by the new revisionism. Come to think of it, I think I’ll take another look at that Variety Christmas card.