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Sony executives’ jokes were lame, not racist

Sony Pictures Co-Chair Amy Pascal and Hollywood uber-producer Scott Rudin have been backpedaling mightily to distance themselves from their embarrassing email banter over President Barack Obama’s fantasy film favorites.

As the free world knows by now — thanks to a targeted hack of Sony’s computers — the two executives joked in advance of a breakfast with the president in November that Obama’s top movie choices might be those with black themes, including Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Butler or Think Like a Man. Rudin suggested the president might particularly like Kevin Hart, the motor-mouthed comic star of Ride Along.

The pair has since carpet-bombed their atonement: “The content of my emails to Scott was insensitive and inappropriate and not an accurate reflection of who I am,” Pascal wrote, while Rudin declared, “To anybody I’ve offended, I’m profoundly and deeply sorry and I apologize for any injury my remarks might have caused.” Pascal reached out to the nation’s two elders of racial redemption, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to commence what she called “the healing process.”

The public apology tour was inevitable but was it necessary? The exchange over the president’s movie picks was sophomoric but not remotely snarky, nothing like other comments that have surfaced from the email hacks. One Sony executive brands Kevin Hart “a whore” for trying to wring higher fees to promote his film on Twitter, while Rudin calls a fellow producer a “bipolar lunatic.” He also labels Angela Jolie “a minimally talented spoiled brat from Crazyland.” Has anyone called Jon Voigt to start his healing process?

Nor did Pascal and Rudin stoop to any personal trash talk directed toward the president. Consider the case of the Republican staffer who Facebook-scolded Obama’s daughters for appearing bored and pouty at the annual White House sparing of the Thanksgiving turkey. She was booted from her Capitol Hill communications job in a D.C. minute.

Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy flatly calls the Pascal-Rudin emails “racist.” Sharpton compared Pascal to former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling and said the emails reveal the prejudice and inequality pervading the entertainment business. UCLA sociologist Darnell Hunt, head of the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies, told the LA Times: “We have a diversity problem … the fact that you can have these perceptions that are made jokingly give us a peek into the underlying culture of the industry.”

Maybe I’ve watched too much Comedy Central, but to me, the bit cooked up by Pascal and Rudin seems like an outtake from a Friar’s Club roast — and not so far removed from the self-deprecating remarks President Obama himself has made at the yearly White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Of course, it takes a rare talent who can get away with tossing “us-them” jokes across racial lines — Richard Pryor could do it, as can Chris Rock, Aziz Ansari, Margaret Cho, Jon Stewart, Eddie Murphy, Jeff Ross and Obama himself. Our two Hollywood honchos clearly lack the chops, but to badge them as racist based on this barest of evidence seems overreachingly unfair, as if every man who whistles at a woman is a rapist.

Actually, the Pascal-Rudin email could have scrolled on for pages, given the number of box-office hits Hollywood has produced in recent decades chronicling America’s black experience — from Boyz ‘n the Hood and Do the Right Thing to Glory, Ray, Clockers, Remember the Titans, Fresh, Akeelah and the Bee, the Fridays and Barbershop series, Amistad, Love and Basketball, Dreamgirls, Precious, 42 and dozens of others. Obama should be flattered that his presumed wish list didn’t include any Tyler Perry titles.

Ironically, Jews, who have long held power positions in Hollywood, have few modern films to call their own. Imagine the email that might have ensued had Pascal and Rubin been headed to a breakfast with Mike Bloomberg or Joe Lieberman. Pascal: “Should I ask him if he liked Schindler’s List?” Rudin: “Oh, right, Schindler!' Pascal: “Yeah, Schindler. Rudin: OK, save me a croissant.”

That Pascal chose to call on Jesse Jackson for a sensitivity gut check is itself odd. Some might recall that in 1984, when he was still a viable presidential contender, Jackson was outed by a Washington Post reporter for calling New York “Hymietown” and Ed Koch “Mayor Hymie.” Jackson initially denied the comments and blamed them on a Jewish conspiracy, even though the Post reporter who captured the conversation was himself black. Jackson later issued an emotional apology to Jewish leaders, but his credibility suffered greatly — it didn’t help that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan threatened the reporter and Jews on his radio show.

It’s been widely reported that North Korea might be behind the Sony hack, payback for the studio’s pending release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco farce The Interview, in which a pair of journalists become CIA tools to take out Kim Jong Un. Indeed, some of the disclosed emails reveal heated discussion between Rogen and Pascal over demands by Sony brass to delete or tone down certain absurdly gruesome images in the film.

If the speculation is true, this would be a terrible time for the PC police to gain the upper hand — whether in causing Pascal’s termination, a boycott of Rudin films, or forcing Sony and others to engage in more diversity training. Instead of issuing global apologies, Pascal and Rudin should beseech the one person best suited to restore the humor in Hollywood: Obama. If America’s Dear Leader can pardon a large bird, he can certainly forgive these two turkeys for their lame attempt at sketch comedy. And for good measure, he should award Kevin Hart the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic and elsewhere. Readers may send him email at arippnyc@aol.com.

©2014 Allan Ripp

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