Monday, January 15, 2018

Jennifer Fronc's "Monitoring the Movies"

Jennifer Fronc is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. She is the author of New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era.

Here Fronc dreamcasts an adaptation of her recent book, Monitoring the Movies: The Fight over Film Censorship in Early Twentieth Century Urban America:
Monitoring the Movies: The Fight over Film Censorship in Early Twentieth Century Urban America doesn’t sound like it would make the most exciting movie. But after sitting with the idea for while, I am now convinced that it could work—given a huge budget and the directorial talents of Oliver Stone. Monitoring the Movies would be a period political drama, set in the early 1920s, and the main characters would be the women hired to travel the southern United States, speaking to audiences about the danger that government censorship of motion pictures posed to democracy.

In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Ohio censorship law; because motion pictures were not considered part of the nation’s press, they were not entitled to First Amendment protections. Following that decision, dozens of state legislatures introduced motion picture censorship legislation, which was largely supported by women, who had recently won the right to vote. In response, a group of activists and organizers in New York City—the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures—set out to fight censorship of movies. W.D. McGuire headed the National Board, and he was passionate about “free speech for the movies.” Liam Neeson will star as McGuire, who was often impatient with the people he was trying to win over. For example, he once asked an audience, “Are we going to say to D.W. Griffith because little Mrs. Smith hasn’t any brains and doesn’t know how to bring up her children, you must present only fairy tales?” Thus, the National Board hired women to speak to audiences of women’s clubs, religious leaders, and local Chambers of Commerce about the wisdom of local, voluntary motion picture regulation. Mary Mason Speed was one of those organizers. She was a native Virginian and the great-great granddaughter of George Mason; she often described her work to protect motion pictures from censorship as part of her lineage. Reese Witherspoon should play Speed, who was steadfast in her belief that her cause was righteous. Frances McDormand would be ideal as Louise Connolly, educator, suffragist, and librarian, whom the NB hired to travel through North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida in 1921. While she was well respected in the urban Northeast, Louise had a harder time winning converts in the South. “There is nothing wrong with the Southern mind,” she wrote. “The trouble is that they are thinking of something else when they look at you with their sympathetic manner.” In addition to the drama of political campaigns, this movie will also bring lost silent films back to life. Theda Bara, who is on the cover of my book, was a star during this period, often appearing in dark revenge fantasies. Christina Ricci has Theda Bara eyes, and could bring that sensuality to life. Oscar Micheaux was an accomplished African American director and producer who was routinely scrutinized by the Virginia censors. I would cast Jordan Peele as Micheaux, who can also bring dark humor to the frustration of Micheaux’s situation.

The dramatic climax in Monitoring the Movies comes when New York, Virginia, and Florida all adopt state censorship boards within months of each other, in many ways, indicating that Mary, Louise, and McGuire had failed in their efforts—but of course, it’s not as simple as that! If your curiosity is piqued, you don’t have to wait for Oliver Stone to option this project. The book is available now.
Learn more about Monitoring the Movies.

--Marshal Zeringue