A museum curator on trial for displaying “obscene” photographs defends his free speech rights in a fierce legal battle. Based on a true story. [Dir: Frank Pierson/ James Woods, Craig T. Nelson, Diana Scarwid/ 95min/ Drama/ Freedom of Speech, Government Enforced Morality] Click here to see trailer.
For the most part, the work of late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is uncontroversial. But it also includes a few pictures — some sadomasochistic others blasphemous — seemingly calculated to offend. So, when Dennis Barrie, curator of the Cincinnati Arts Center, exhibited Mapplethorpe’s show The Perfect Moment, he knew that such photographs would be criticized. But Barrie did not expect what happened next–he was promptly charged with “pandering obscenity.” His trial is the focus of this film.
Barrie is portrayed as a modest, ordinary man, suddenly thrown into extraordinary circumstances, an accidental hero who rises to the occasion to defend his First Amendment rights despite enormous pressure to give in. And indeed the real Dennis Barrie did face possible jail time and personal intimidation. The other heroes of this story are the jury, who, despite biased decisions on the part of the judge and personal pressures of their own, managed to navigate their way to the right decision.
Much to the credit of the filmmakers, all one-hundred and seventy five photos from the original Mapplethorpe exhibit, including those named in the indictment, are shown in the course of this film; so you get to see what all the hoopla was about firsthand. Another plus is the inclusion of series of short interviews on the subject of censorship from William F. Buckley, Jr., Rep. Barney Frank, Fran Lebowitz, Salman Rushdie, Susan Sarandon, and Nadine Strossen. These thoughtful, well-selected exchanges underscore the issues and are artfully interspersed with events. Thanks to that kind of cleverness in the structure, as well as a satisfying performance by James Woods in the leading role as Barrie, this superior made-for-TV movie won the Golden Globe award for “Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV.”
The film ends with a speech, the upshot of which is that if freedom of expression is not to be lost an inch at a time, its defenders must not concede it an inch at a time but defend it at every instance. It’s an inspiring statement, but it’s not the last word. In an ominous epilogue, the lead proponent for banning the Mapplethorpe pictures expresses confidence that, despite his loss in the courts, the trial itself will intimidate others into self-censorship. It’s clear that the battle for free expression will call for more like Dennis Barrie. The tree of liberty must be constantly replenished, if not with the blood of patriots, then at least with their determination and fortitude.