The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Movies have become their own form of justice, even when they don’t make it to the screen

Activists hold signs outside the César Awards ceremony (France’s Oscars equivalent) on Feb. 28 in Paris in protest of director Roman Polanski. The disgraced director’s “An Officer and a Spy” earned the most nominations at the awards, and Polanski ultimately won best director. (Karim Ait Adjedjou/Avenir Pictures/Abaca/Sipa USA/AP)

In the riveting new documentary “On the Record,” in which former recording executive Drew Dixon recounts how being sexually harassed and assaulted by powerful producers drove her out of the music business, the journalist Kierna Mayo reflects on Dixon’s promising career as a gifted young woman with a keen eye and ear for talent. Her eyes welling up with tears, Mayo wonders “what we’re poorer for” in the wake of Dixon being forced to give up her dreams. Considering all the music that went undiscovered, all the songs left unsung, she observes, “we all lose.”

It’s a shattering moment in an already shattering film, and it offered a sobering flip side to a question I’ve been pondering for a while: Do we have anything to gain when alleged perpetrators are shunned and their work is marginalized or erased?

The question isn’t abstract: Both Woody Allen and Roman Polanski made movies that came out recently. Allen’s is “A Rainy Day in New York,” a romantic comedy starring Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning. Polanski’s is “An Officer and a Spy,” about the wrongful accusation and trial of French military captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. Although both films were released last year in Europe and Asia, neither is available for viewing in the United States, with Allen having been dropped by Amazon, where he had a production deal, and with Polanski unable to acquire U.S. distribution.

It’s not that anything new has emerged about either man: It’s by now well known that Allen was accused of sexually molesting his daughter, Dylan, when she was 7, an allegation that was investigated but ultimately dropped without charges. The episode coincided with his publicly acknowledging an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow, who was also Allen’s romantic partner. (Allen and Previn have now been married for almost 23 years.)

We can stipulate that “messy” doesn’t begin to describe Allen’s personal life. Although his most stalwart fans have compartmentalized his films far away from the most unsavory facts, plenty of others have been offended to the point of boycotting his movies in perpetuity. The same can be said for Polanski, who in 1977 pleaded guilty to engaging in sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, but fled the country before he could be sentenced, convinced that he was not receiving a fair trial. (He has since been accused of rape by at least two other women.)

In the absence of any satisfying form of private or public accountability, it’s been left to the audience to sift through conflicting stories, argue about whom to believe and why, make categorical decisions about never seeing that man’s movies again or separate the art from the artist to the point of cognitive dissonance. Those of us who don’t have the luxury of declaring a personal moratorium have simply tried to do our jobs: contending with the art itself, noting when its themes intersect with real-life obsessions or contradictions, and confronting the unwelcome but enduring truth that bad people sometimes make great art (and vice versa).

Discomfort has now become an essential part of pop culture connoisseurship, and it has forced audiences to become much more sophisticated as they decide what, if anything, is worth salvaging in the films, music and novels they most cherish, by people they find morally flawed.

Apparently, as far as Allen and Polanski are concerned, even that discomfort is now off-limits. There was a time when renegade distributors might have jumped at the chance to market a film by exploiting its perceived controversy. Today, in the context of heightened awareness around sexual harassment and abuse, cancel culture and scorched-earth media takedowns, not even the edgiest film company is willing to invite the kind of blowback that Allen’s publisher received earlier this year for putting out his memoir.

Through one lens, this can be seen simply as the marketplace at its most ruthless and impersonal: No one is automatically entitled to a platform for their work. In the cases of Allen and Polanski, their movies have long been entwined with their auteurist myths. Distributors that once outbid each other to leverage those personas have made the simple calculation that they’re now a liability.

As a reckoning, though, the disappearing of Allen and Polanski feels simultaneously draconian and woefully inadequate; a form of collective but inchoate judgment that infantilizes the audience and unfairly punishes the hundreds of craftspeople whose contributions undergird a supremely collaborative medium. It also, not incidentally, mirrors a form of denial that powerful men have engaged in for centuries when it comes to one another’s misdeeds. Too icky. Too difficult. It might hurt my career. Let’s ignore it.

Perhaps most important, it does little to provide genuine healing, restitution and restorative justice to those who have been harmed. Situations that ideally would be fairly adjudicated by judge, jury, mediator or family therapist instead remain painfully unresolved. While the men in question remain resolutely above the fray, it’s the rest of us who arbitrate, often with incomplete information, by way of voting with our feet, tweets or ticket-buying choices.

In the absence of authentic due process for victims and the accused, we get . . . absence. And within that vacuum, movies have taken on outsized importance, not just as chronicles of injustice but as their own means of redress. That can be enormously satisfying, as in the case of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s 2012 documentary “The Invisible War,” which led to 35 congressional reforms having to do with sexual abuse in the U.S. military. “On the Record,” which was directed by Dick and Ziering, feels like a life-giving gust of fresh air in the face of long-buried secrets. By the end of the film, 20 women have come forward with sexual misconduct accusations against Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons, who has never been charged.

No doubt, viewers of “On the Record” will need to renegotiate their relationship with the music they love that Simmons helped create, much as Allen and Polanski’s fans have had to reconcile their viewing pleasure with the pain both men have caused. Now that we’re unable to see their movies, the audience must once again decide: Is this free enterprise at work? Or free enterprise as reparations? American puritanism and moral panic at their most misguided? Or a long-overdue, #MeToo-era course correction for men who have been unwilling to deal forthrightly with their most toxic shadow material? (Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.)

I remain uneasy with allowing fear — of criticism, bad press, a trending tweetstorm — to relegate anyone’s work to cinema non grata. But watching “On the Record” this week made me refine my objections.

I still believe that more speech is better than less speech, and that critical thinking should be encouraged, not stifled. I think it’s possible to deem a movie worth seeing, despite ambivalence — or outright anger — toward the person who made it. Work lost is a loss, worth at least marking, if not mourning.

But the only reason we know that we’re missing out on the latest Woody Allen or Roman Polanski movie is because they’ve been elevated as geniuses, with all the impunity and privilege such status confers. What we’ll never know is how many movies we didn’t see — or that weren’t even made — because women were harassed, hounded or horn-dogged out of the business.

Separating the art from the artist requires holding two competing thoughts at the same time. So, it turns out, does separating the art from the audience.

I’m still sorry I can’t see “A Rainy Day in New York” and “An Officer and a Spy,” think fairly and probingly about them, and evaluate them as works of art and psychological reflections of the people who made them. But the unseen films that haunt me — the ones I weep for — are by the countless artists whose work has been rendered invisible without our even knowing they’re gone.

Lynn Shelton had the audacity to tell her own stories on film. She will be missed.

Movies used to be an escape. Now they’re a risk-reward calculation.