ON A ROCKY knoll in the rubblestrewn South Bronx of New York City, Paul Newman rose last month to defend himself against charges that "Fort Apache, the Bronx," a violent police melodrama being filmed on location there, is a racist exploitation of the neighborhood and its residents.
A coalition of 10 minority groups had filed a lawsuit, claiming that the film portrays their place of residence as a dehumanized jungle. The Committee Against Fort Apache has demanded script changes, picketed on shooting days, threatened a boycott of the complete motion picture and engaged as counsel the flamboyant attorney William M. Kunstler.
"I was in Alabama before Kunstler was," Newman said, pleading his social-awareness credentials before an emotional crowd.
At the time, in San Francisco, the Chinese-American community was rising up against a movie called "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen," set to begin filming there tomorrow.
Eliza Chan, a representative of Chinese for Affirmative Action, claimed the Chan character "belittles" Asians by "reciting fortune cookie inserts" in "chop-suey English." The $8-million movie should be stopped, she said.
Meanwhile, a year-long battle by homosexual and lesbian organizations has come to a head over the movie "Cruising," in which Al Pacino portrays an undercover policeman assigned to penetrate the seamist depths of gay subculture. Shooting was disrupted in New York City last summer, complaints about the script publicly aired and a boycott of the movie urged. "Cruising" opened 10 weeks ago, received negative reviews and has not done well.
Hollywood's subjects, it would seem, are rising up to demand a say in the creation and perpetuation of their screen image -- which, since the first evocations by D. W. Griffith, has projected powerfully stereotyped majority perceptions of immigrants, blacks, hispanics, Jews and other humans in the American Melting Pot.
Are these subjects, now stridently come to life, having success in the repainting of their image? Are scripts at this moment being rewritten in Hollywood so as to avoid offense? What, if anything, do film and television producers owe their subjects beyond a realistic portrayal? Is Hollywood -- always susceptible to pressure -- facing a new threat of censorship? Or will the movies develop a social consciousness previously quashed by studio profit ledgers?
"Conscience is dictated by profit, it's as simple as that," said Kunstler, "and the whole point of the Fort Apache protest is to get at the profits. We wanted the Lincoln Hospital drug detoxification center shown in the film -- to balance the bad things about the South Bronx. They haven't done it, although they said at one point they would."
Kunstler's tactic was to file a suit against Time-Life Films, charging libel and invokng the controversial Frank Snepp case, since he claimed the filmmakers had agreed to make script changes and later reneged.
The libel ploy was "untenable," Kunstler freely admitted, since large groups cannot be libeled under New York law. The invocation of Snepp was curious, partly because the Supreme Court, ruling that the CIA has the right to read an employe's book before his publisher does, cited national security as justification for such potential prior restraint. The New York court found neither of Kunstler's arguments compelling and dismissed the Fort Apache case. It is being appealed.
"The point is that you have to use the courts anyway you can," Kunstler said cheerfully. "Maybe we didn't get the script changes, and we haven't stopped the movie. But look at what we did get -- eight stories in the New York Post, seven stories in The New York Times, four stories in the Village Voice and a lot of TV and radio time.
The Committee Against Fort Apache is an ad hoc organization literally intent on defending its own turf. But similar tough talk is heard from Nosotros, a Los Angeles-based agency founded 10 years ago by the actor Ricardo Montalban.
The goal of Nosotros is to protect the image of Hispanic-Americans in movies and television by combating stereotypes and by seeing that ethnic roles are played by ethnic actors.
"We have power," said Jerry G. Velasco, the Nosotros president. "We have warned studios and networks that ther are 20 million Hispanics in the viewing audience, and that every year they buy $38 billion in merchandise. We can boycott. That's not a threat, it's a fact.
Nosotros' primary goal is to obtain roles for Hispanic actors and to prevent what Velasco calls the "Wallace Beery-as-Pancho Villa" syndrome. When it comes to the alteration of specific scripts of stories, he admits he has seen little success.
"We objected to the movie "Walk Proud," which had a chicano lead role -- played by Robby Benson. We tried to get some scripts changes too, but they didn't seem to want to cooperate, I think one word -- beaner, as a derogatory word for Latino -- was left out, but they wouldn't change anything else."
"However, we do hear about movies being made and we keep trying," Velasco said. "There's one coming now called 'Fast Walking,' and I hear there's a scene in where a Mexican girl gets gang raped. We'll want to see the script and I'm sure they'll comply."
"Fast Walking" is a Lorimar production, directed and written by James B. Harris. It is based on the novel "Rap" by Ernest Brawley, and the plot concerns an assassination contract behind prison walls. Harris was bemused when told of Nosotros' likely request for a script.
"I don't like to give scripts out," Harris said. "When you do real life stories, there's always somebody who feels mistreated. What you try to do is portray things as they are, but not exaggerate them.
"Anyway, there is no Mexican girl in the picture. She's actually supposed to be half Hawaiian. She rides a motorbike and she's into scams and drugs, but there is no rape scene. I'll probably cast her as a Caucasian, anyhow."
Harris, a former partner of Stanley Kubrick and the producer of such provocative films as "Lolita" "The Bedford Incident" and Paths of Glory," said he has never had a problem with minorities. "It's the majorities you have to look out for. In the old days, it was the Catholic Legion of Decency, because they could condemn your movie. Now it's the Motion Picture Code -- you have to almost guarantee your financial backers what your rating will be. The word boycott may get your back up, but it's not going to be your biggest concern."
In fact, it is majority -- not minority -- pressures that have historically influenced Hollywood the most. In time of economic depression, the studios turned out pictures to cheer up the population, and in time of war to kindle the fighting spirit. Where there came a time of suspicion in the late 1940s, the industry ran for cover. So covetous of majority opinion was Hollywood that it blacklisted 400 of its own personnel, and kept them out of public view for 20 years.
About 114 million people went to the movies last year as compared to 94 million 10 years ago, and the industry wants the numbers to continue to increase.
Cooperation is necessary, but with whom? Filmmakers regularly submit scripts for war movies to the Pentagon -- which maintains a special office to consider them -- in order to obtain Department of Defense assistance in providing troops, tanks and locations. Even the Congress needs to be cultivated, as writer-director-star Tom Laughlin found when he dropped into Washington in the Bicentennial spring to shoot "Billy Jack Goes to Washington." The movie suggested corruption was present in the capital city, and Laughlin claimed to find Washington strangely uncooperative. He eventually packed up his cameras and left, insisting he had been harassed by bureaucrats and that "the abridgement of the right to free expression has been totally beyond belief."
Minorities attempting to take on the movies encounter not only similar Establishments in situ but also the cold facts of cash. The Committee Against Fort Apache for example found little sympathy when it asked that filming permits for the movie be rovoked by the Mayor's Office of Motion Pictures and Television.
"We can't get involved in that sort of thing," said a spokesman for the office. "Our basic role is to help film companies operate, so they'll come back. There were 79 features made here last year, and 38 television projects, and 11 of the 13 soap operas originate here. It's a $500-million annual business for us. We're not about to revoke people's permits."
Nor are the producers themselves, toughened by the movies wars, easy to push around.
"I could have predicted all this trouble for Paul Newman," said Irwin Yablans, the producer and distributor. "There's a particular danger to making films in a ghetto area that you can't understand unless you've lived through it. You're dealing with people who want a piece of the glamor, with hustlers oftentimes, and where the lines of authority aren't clearly drawn.
"I was shooting a film called "The Education of Sonny Carson' about six years ago in New York, in Brooklyn. It was a story about gangs. So it's Friday night, and I'm sitting in the production office on location talking to my wife in Beverly Hills. Some mundane matter, I don't know what. Pretty soon all these punks come in and start terrorizing the office. One guy has a gun and another guy has a knife, and the guy with the gun says, 'Hey, it's Friday night, we want some money to get high, got to get some drugs.'
"I knew who they were, of course, because they worked for me. They were real live gang members we'd hired for the movie. In my hubris and arrogance, I thought we were doing them a favor. But as it happened, we found it almost impossible to communicate with each other. We each wanted different things." Yablans said he just kept talking to his wife, and eventually the gang members went away. "But it was a mighty strained conversation."
When Yablans distributed the film 'Mohammed, Messenger of God," however, he encountered a case in which a minority definitely held power over the box office. The minority was a small band of Hanafi Muslins, who were holding 149 hostages at three locations in Washington. One of their demands was that the film "Mohammed" be withdrawn from circulation because it was sacrilegious.
The movie was temporarily pulled, but reopened shortly thereafter. "At first, there was a tremendous surge of attendance," he said, "but it dropped off fast. People thought there'd be bombs in the theaters. It was special, very frightening case."
To the question "are minorities gaining more control over their screen images?" Yablans still answers, "No."
Sumi Haru, a national chairman of the ethnic minorities committee of the Screen Actors Guild, tends to agree -- if from the other side of the fence.
"I don't believe we'll have any real success in affecting stories and the way they're told until we minorities get into a decision-making, producing capacity. What we can try to do, though, is open up the casting procedure to people of color, and for women. We're talking about equal access, and role model, and getting the voices of the Asian-Pacific community heard."
"I love the idea of a boycott -- it's the community speaking out -- but it seems to me that any publicity also works to benefit the movie. We'll see what happens with "Hanta Yo."
(Producer David Wolper is preparing a TV mini-series based on Ruth Beebe Hill's best-selling book about Lakota Sioux culture. Tribal representatives, claiming the book misrepresents Sioux life, and lobbying to have the project killed).
Haru herself is an example of the difficulties minority actors face in casting. "Ethnically, I'm a Filipino," she said. "My real neame is Mildred Sebilla. But I changed it to Sumi Haru because I was playing a lot of geisha roles."
"I don't think things are any better," said Jesse Jackson, the founder of Chicago's Operation PUSH. "Movie-makers are more arrogant than ever. Hollywood is run by a racist in-crowd, and TV is the same way -- of 134 TV executives, only two are black."
Jackson said he believes protests will work, if they increase in numbers and focus. "We have to make the networks and the producers feel our moral indignation in the top 20 markets," he said. He cannot, however, readily name a demonstrably effective campaign against a film or TV show. "We had some success in getting changes in the television biography of Martin Luther King," he said. "But we couldn't really push very hard, out of respect for the involvement of the King family."
Jackson, when he refers to the film capital, calls it "Hollywierd." "That's because everybody in their world is white. White families with white neighbors with white children. We thought things had changed a couple of years ago, when Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby and others were working steady, but it turned out to be an aberration. They're now out of work as far as movies go. 'Roots' was an aberration too. Nothing will be changed until we successfully communicate our moral indignation."
The oldest of the minority image-watchers is the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in part to do battle against the sterotyping of Jews in American vaudeville.
The ADL style is persistence and reliance on "education rather than intimidation," according to Ira Gissens, director of the national discrimination department in New York. "Even so, we get ignored a lot too," he said. "There are barbarous stereotypes even in the classics of English literature -- in "The Merchants of Venice' and in Dickens -- and they can be made worse by contemporary productions. We try to express our concern, and to explain our position.
"For example, the movie 'Jesus Christ, Superstar,' which was in fact shot in Israel, turned out to be quite distressing. We conveyed our unhappiness to the producers. The other day an episode of the TV program 'Second City' aired, featuring a Passover seder apparently inspired by the cafeteria scene in the movie 'Animal House.'
"We asked for a screening, even though the episode had already run. Our staff watched it and found it to be offensive. We conveyed this to the producers. I suppose if PBS put on a one-sided documentary, we would seek a disclaimer or at least a follow-up. But we would shun the notion of a boycott. Information works better than force."
Television, because it is seen in the home without cash admission and because broadcasters are subject to government licensing and review, has responded more quickly than movies to minority activism over images.
When NBC filmed a six-hour mini-series called "Beulah Land," many blacks in the TV industry found the script "incredibly repuslive, all large eyes and broad slave smiles," according to Robert Price, a television writer who leads an organization called Committee to Stop the Airing of "Beulah Land." The series was scheduled to air next month and has now been delayed until the fall. "I don't really know how much we've accomplished yet," Price said, "but we can at least take credit for the delay."
Indeed, when the Polish-American Congress objected to the televising of "The End," a Burt Reynolds movie about a robust man stricken with terminal cancer, NBC rushed to make good.
"The Dom Deluise character was very offensive to Polish Americans," said Frank Milewski, a vice president of the New York Congress."He was a caricature, an inmate in an insane asylum. We met with NBC, and they agreed with us. When the film aired on TV, all of the material demeaning to Polish-Americans had been deleted. We sent the network a letter of commendation, in fact."
Despite loud Saudi Arabian complaints regarding "The Execution of a Princess," however, public television is going ahead with plans to air that British-American coproduction on many of its stations.
In movies there remains only a single dramatic example of major script alteration accomplished by a minority group: "The Godfather," from which all references to "mafia" or "cosa nostra" were removed at the request of the Italian-American community. The enormous publicity generated by that film also effectively bore another minority protest, when 30 million households heard Sacheen Littlefeather officially refuse Marlon Brando's Oscar with a speech that accused the motion picture industry of being "as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing him as savage, hostile and evil."
Brando's gesture provoked titters, but it also taught a lesson which has not escaped minority groups seeking to regain control of their own public image.
It seems clear, to virtually all such organizations, that theirs is not now the power to rewrite scripts, or to dictate the course of commercial entertainment programming, or a stop an offensive program or picture in its tracks. The movie-makers have paid for the privilege of creating whatever images they see fit. They own the script and the right to sell it.
What the makers do not own, and cannot exclusively control, is the glamor and the publicity they themselves generate.
"We went all out against 'Cruising'," said Tom Burrows, special assistant to the executive director of the National Gay Task Force. "We felt it was a fantastically voyeuristic escapade on the part of its director, Billy Friedkin. We said 'Boycott! Stay Away. Don't go.' What happened was that as soon as the movie opened every went to see it out of curiosity -- even a large number of gay people. It's not doing well now, but that's probably just because it's a bad film."
Burrows feels that gays in the end had little influence on "Cruising," but that they accomplished something much important.
"What we got was an organization. What we call our Action Network. Because of the 'Cruising' thing, we now have organizations in Vermont, Maine, California, Florida, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Ottawa, Houston, D.C. . . . the list goes on. The movie brought us together because it was glamorous, and because it was glamorous, it got us a great deal of publicity."
So it is that both William Kunstler, of the Committee Against Fort Apache, and Ted Elpert, the Fort Apache unit publicist, can both get what they want. "Have the protests hurt us?" answered Elpert. "Let's just say that if a publicist's job is to get publicity, we're doing our job."
"Look," said Irwin Yablans. "You can't negotiate significant changes on location, and shoot a movie too, and keep on schedule. That's not where it happens."
"But that doesn't mean Hollywood doesn't change. Take that Charlie Chan movie being made in San Francisco. I'll bet you anything there's no Birmingham character in this one running up with his eyes bulging and yelling, 'Mr. Chan! Mr. Chan!'"