A Brief History of Hollywood Annoying Foreign Dictators

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June 25 2014 6:20 PM

Kim Jong-un Does His Part to Market Seth Rogen’s New Movie

the_interview
Franco and Rogen on a mission to kill Kim Jong-un.

Photo by Ed Araquel for Columbia Pictures

It’s not every day that the dudes from Pineapple Express can prompt an implicit threat of nuclear war. So I presume that the producers of The Interview, the new Kim Jong-un assassination comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, presumably can’t believe their good luck today.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

A spokesman for North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the film as an “act of war” and promised a “decisive and merciless countermeasure” if the U.S. government allows it to be released.  (I wouldn’t worry too much. This is a pretty low-key threat by North Korean standards.)

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The Interview, the plot of which involves a talk show host and his producer played by Franco and Rogen being recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korea’s young leader, is certainly not the first time a Hollywood movie has raised the ire of a foreign government.

Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler spoof, The Great Dictator, was banned in Nazi-occupied Europe, though the Führer did apparently watch it and, according to some accounts, enjoyed it.

More recently, last year’s Argo prompted the Iranian government to organize a conference on “Hollywoodism,” described by one participant as a “conspiracy by capitalism and Zionism.” (In attendance, oddly enough, was former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, whom I interviewed after he got back.)

Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat was heavily criticized by the government of Kazakhstan, which the comedian took full advantage of when marketing the film in character. Longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev later tried to laugh the film off, though many Kazakhs were (understandably) still miffed years later at was is probably still the best-known portrayal of their country.

Of course, the one foreign dictatorship Hollywood can’t afford to offend is China, where studios have long lobbied the government to relax its tight controls over which foreign films get released to the world’s second-largest movie market. 

Back in the 1990s, Tibet was a cause célèbre in Hollywood thanks to the advocacy of Richard Gere and films like Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. Martin Scorsese’s Dalai Lama biopic so irked Chinese leaders that Disney had to bring in Henry Kissinger to patch things up.

Today you will almost never see Chinese villains in a Hollywood movie. In fact, they’re more likely to edit in new Chinese heroes. MGM even went as far as to retouch it’s widely reviled 2012 Red Dawn remake after it was already filmed to change the villains from Chinese troops into North Koreans.

Given that it’s not exactly a major film market, North Korea has been a pretty safe villain for Hollywood. Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was memorably spoofed in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police as a mincing, demented puppet. The elder Kim, a big film buff, never responded to the portrayal. 

In The Interview, Kim will be played by Randall Park, who’s been great on Veep, though he’s about 10 years older than the dictator. The trailer doesn’t feature too much of him.

I’ve expressed some ambivalence about North Korea jokes in the past, but if the movie has gotten this much of a rise out of a truly despicable government, that seems like nothing but a good thing. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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