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Defining Censorship and Decency 

 

 

By Sir Arthur Foulkes

 

A half century ago – in December 1950, to be exact – the arbitrary banning of a movie by the Censorship Board caused an uproar in the Colony of the Bahama Islands and unleashed a chain of events that helped to change the social and political history of the country.

 

The movie, No Way Out, was about racism in America and featured black Bahamian actor Sidney Poitier in his first major role. It was a performance that launched the brilliant career of the 22-year-old from Cat Island.

 

Up to that time blacks were given mostly small and demeaning roles by Hollywood, so Sidney Poitier’s breakthrough also changed the history of American cinema.

 

To his everlasting credit, Sir Sidney never accepted a role which conformed to the racist stereotypical image of black Americans.

 

The local Censorship Board in the Bahamas, the white owners of the leading movie houses and the political establishment known as the Bay Street Boys regarded No Way Out as a dangerously inflammatory movie for a society in which blacks were routinely discriminated against socially, economically and politically.

 

So even if black Bahamians desperately wanted to see their boy Sidney in an important role on the silver screen, the Bay Street Boys decided they could not risk showing a black actor in such a performance, particularly one dealing with strong racial themes.

 

That was a mistake.

 

The protest spread and a group of black Bahamians including Dr. Cleveland Eneas, Maxwell Thompson and Kendal Isaacs started an organization to campaign not only for a reversal of the ban but for social and political reform in the colony.

 

The Citizens Committee achieved its immediate objective and the movie was finally shown. Although it never became a full-fledged national political party the Committee is regarded as the forerunner of the Progressive Liberal Party which was established three years later.

 

Six years later discrimination against blacks in public places – hotels, restaurants, movie theatres – came to an end when Sir Etienne Dupuch moved his anti-discrimination resolution in the House of Assembly.

 

Then in 1967 the Bahamas got its first government reflecting the black majority.

 

It is not likely that the banning of the movie Brokeback Mountain will have the same impact on Bahamian history as No Way Out, but the issues involved are somewhat similar.

 

The first is about process and the second is about the more complex question of managing artistic expression to protect the norms and mores of a particular society.

 

Most Bahamians seem to accept the idea that some form of control over plays and films is necessary in our society. However, very much in question today is the process.

 

Bahamians have always been deeply conscious of the importance of process in community affairs. It was inherited from African social institutions which survived slavery and consolidated by the formal institutions of the former imperial power.

 

When church and opposition political leaders got together to attack constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling FNM Government before the last election, the rallying cry was about process.

 

This had resonance throughout the country even though the PLP Opposition had implicitly approved the process by participating in it without protest.

 

Now it is time to examine the process by which the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board makes decisions about who sees what in the Bahamas.

 

Press reports say that the Board had approved the screening of Brokeback Mountain, a film with strong homosexual content, and then reversed itself at the instigation of the Bahamas Christian Council.

 

If true, that is quite worrying. Whatever the Board does should be in accordance with established guidelines, not by its own arbitrary will, and much less by the dictates of any religious authority.

 

I have said before that the Bahamas is fortunate to have separation of church and state but also to have evolved a satisfactory way in which both can live and work together in the service of the people.

 

However, it seems that in recent years there has been a growing tendency to upset that balance and to blur the lines between the two estates.

 

Some religious leaders apparently want to dictate to the state and some politicians seem willing to accommodate them in the hope that they will deliver their congregations at election time.

 

In the long run that will not be to the advantage of either and can only lead to more conflict in an already conflicted society.

 

The more religious leaders overreach, the more likely they are to provoke a backlash, so they should resist the lust for temporal power.

 

Furthermore, it would be a good thing to see whether the law allows for appeal from decisions of the Board. If it does not, then provisions should be made so that citizens and theatre owners can ask for judicial review.

 

In any event, the power of the Board to ban a particular play or film should be restricted to extreme cases. The Board should be about giving the public guidance through the rating system so that children and young persons can be protected and mature citizens will have notice of the contents of a particular play or film.

 

Religious leaders are free to advise their congregations -- and anyone else who wants to listen -- about what they should and should not see. But they should not be able to dictate what adult citizens can or cannot see.

 

In fact, the whole idea of control over entertainment in this technologically-advanced age is becoming more and more problematic, and responsible parents are desperately trying to see how they can protect their children from the avalanche of trash now easily accessible at the touch of a button.

 

Sir Arthur is the Bahamas' ambassador to China. A former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and the European Union, he is a journalist, writer, political activist and was a delegate to the Bahamas Independence Conference in London in 1972.

 

Sir Arthur blogs at Bahamapundit 

 

E-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

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