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Censorship in media is a controversial and actively debated topic in modern society, mostly due to the fact that it borders legal, cultural, and ethical domains. The roots of the problem can be traced back to the early days of media itself. For instance, the controversy surrounding the regulations of the movie industry can be traced back to the early days of commercial cinematography.
Unsurprisingly, the first attempts of censoring a specific phenomenon from the industry were met with recognizable debate across society. Interestingly, the central premise of censorship was somewhat different. The following paper explores the history of prizefighting pictures, tracks major tendencies and assumptions accompanying the earliest attempts of industry regulation, and isolates several social, cultural, and ethical driving forces behind the process.
Predictably, one of the earliest examples of movie censorship occurred in the field commonly associated with controversy, specifically, the violent imagery. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one of the most popular genres was the prizefighting picture – a recording of a staged or real match between two professional boxers. The format excluded the need for plot or any significant emphasis on artistic qualities of the product – instead, the interest of viewers was primarily fueled by depicted action.
It is important to note that the ethical and safety standards of the industry were in their infancy, which resulted in the level of violence which was unusually high by today’s standards. Despite this, very few concerns were voiced with the violent display before the release of the “fight of the century” between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries (“Film Men Will Wait”). Despite the enormous popularity of both participants, the main tension arose from the fact that the winning boxer, Johnson, was black and Jeffries was white.
The concerns with potential aftermath were so high that the film was banned from release in several countries and eventually led to a ban on the distribution of prizefighting pictures (“Fight Views Held Back” 9). However, while the controversy understandably coincided with growing tendencies of racial segregation of the time, the manner in which these objections are raised throughout media suggest interesting implications.
Social and Cultural Implications
Specifically, most of the articles on the topic distance themselves from the obvious discriminatory nature of the dissatisfaction with the outcome of the match. An article in the Moving Picture World provided criticism of the pictures as dealing with the material which quickly becomes obsolete. The author discusses in great detail the unsustainability of the films in question considering their relatively high cost and short life by claiming “The past amounts to nothing in the sporting world. Only the live ones count” (“The Fight Picture” 715).
Interestingly, the date of publication suggests that prizefighting pictures are present on the scene for a long period of time and the reason behind the “decline” comes almost a decade late. A similar implication is made in a Motography article, which states that a ban on transportation of prizefighting pictures will ultimately lead to the overall improvement of the sports scene. Specifically, it addresses the uncertainty resulting from the possibility of staged fights and changes in behavior displayed by some boxers caused by the requirements of the cinematography industry (“Fight Films Not to Travel” 261).
Of particular interest is an article in the Nickelodeon which summarizes multiple attempts to explain the phenomenon, some of which openly condemn the dissatisfaction with the movie by racially charged groups. The article includes testimonies of several political and law enforcement officials which emphasize the involvement of double standards (Hover 33). This is also the only source which openly takes side with opponents of censorship. To sum it up, the sources that voice disapproval of prizefighting pictures shy away from the sensitive question while the ones who oppose the ban bring it to light.
At this point, it is important to clarify that there is a possibility that some of the alleged reasons for “decline” are real. One logical explanation is that the movie makers improved in their understanding of market demand and started relying on staged fights instead of the actual ones. It is also possible that the novelty of the genre was wearing off by 1909 leading to growing public dissatisfaction. However, the discrepancies in newspaper reports outline another possibility. The beginning of the twentieth century was characterized by a shift towards social Christianity and cultural transformation known as American constructivism (Streible 254).
Among its characteristic features were the junction of two mutually exclusive philosophies – segregation and humanitarianism. To mitigate the conflicts which arose from such setup, society attempted to implement an approach of circumventing the inconvenient facts associated with the former principle while promoting those driven by the latter. This approach found its reflection in the cinematography of the time which, like any art form, conveys the characteristic features of the era.
The prizefighting pictures and their decline following the victory of Johnson became a watershed event in the history of censorship. More importantly, it became a model of the American society of the early twentieth century. The discontent resulting from showing inconvenient truth combined with the perceived humanistic values of progressivism created a situation where the proponents of censorship displayed a reluctance to voice their true motives whereas the opponents were vocal in criticism, bringing the matter to light. This conclusion adds to the cultural as well as the social significance of the discussed phenomenon.
“Fight Films Not to Travel.” Motography. 1912: 261. Print.
“The Fight Picture.” The Moving Picture World. 1909: 715. Print.
“Fight Views Held Back; Two Continents Protest.“ Variety. 1910: 9. Print.
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“Film Men Will Wait: Not to Ask Aid of Courts Until Moral Suasion Is Tried.” The Washington Post. 1910: 4. Print.
Hover, Ken. “The Fight Picture Prospect.” Nickelodeon. 1910: 31-33. Print.
Streible, Dan. “A History of the Boxing Film, 1894-1915: Social Control and Social Reform in the Progressive Era.” Film History (1989): 235-257. Print.