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‘Damned in the USA’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 29, 1993


Paul Yule
Not rated

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"Damned in the USA," British filmmaker Paul Yule's brilliant documentary about censorship in America, is a great movie. An important movie. Everyone must see it.

To delineate the film's virtues would require a detailed account of recent individual censorship cases in the arts and the passions they inflamed, and that's exactly what the movie provides: a reasoned, intelligent and, believe it or not, immensely entertaining exploration of a subject that many of us had dismissed as yesterday's news. That "Damned in the USA" could force the debate once again into the forefront of our thinking is no slight achievement, and a testament to the caliber of its persuasiveness.

Finally, many of us will be able to see, for the first time and with our own eyes, the actual works that the mainstream media would not show us during the long months of controversy over so-called "obscene" art. The film covers the trial of a Cincinnati museum director for displaying photos by Robert Mapplethorpe, the NEA funding debates, and the 2 Live Crew ban, among other controversies. It would have been nice if this bracingly lucid film had been around when those stories were still front-page news, and the issues they touched upon were still in desperate need of intelligent articulation.

And it would have been -- if the film itself had not been tied up in litigation.

After running successfully in England and Europe, and winning the International Emmy for Outstanding Arts Documentary in the United States, "Damned in the USA" became the target of a $2 million suit filed by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, American Family Association president and spokesman for so-called morality in art. (The sum was eventually increased to $8 million.) Wildmon, who called the movie "blasphemous and obscene," objected to his portrayal and managed to delay the film's release until now.

For the past 15 months Yule, his co-producer Jonathan Stack and Britain's Channel Four (which co-produced the film) have fought courtroom battles with Wildmon in New York, New Orleans and Mississippi. In each case, Wildmon lost. And "Damned in the USA" joined Mapplethorpe and company on the list of victims in what Wildmon himself describes as "a cultural war for the hearts and souls of the nation."

This final wonderful irony is the perfect capper to the filmmakers' argument. None of the thousands of words in the movie could have spoken as loudly and tellingly as Wildmon's single act of obstruction -- which, of course, made the film's reputation and guaranteed it a place in the culture far beyond that which the filmmakers could have dreamed possible.

Didn't Wildmon realize that his attention would be a godsend? That this work, which he unabashedly abhors, would flourish and gain widespread currency?

It's as if the ardent plea issued by Boston performance artist Jimmy Tingle, whose stand-up monologue appears throughout the film, had been answered by a divine hand.

"Get me censored," he cries. "Please! I need the exposure."

"Damned in the USA" is unrated, but contains art and/or pornography, depending on how you look at it.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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