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''Shaft,'' ''The Patriot,'' and ''Irene'' are courting controversy

EW takes a look at why the summer movie blockbusters are causing a ruckus

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Mel Gibson, The Patriot (Movie - 2000)

Have you heard that the Poultry Rights League plans to picket the new comedy ”Chicken Run,” claiming the film makes light of barnyard fowl? Okay, we made that up. But it seems almost every other summer movie has ruffled someone’s feathers. Here, a cheat sheet to the most recent controversies:

THE PATRIOT
OFFENDED PARTY The British
THE BEEF If you ask the English, Hollywood’s been bloody unfair lately. First, the Brits got their knickers in a twist over the submarine thriller ”U-571,” which they say gave Americans credit for U.K. heroics. Now comes Mel Gibson’s ”The Patriot,” where the villain is one Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), based on real-life redcoat Bandstre Tarleton. The mustache-twirling character — who shoots a child in front of his family and burns down a church — inspired London’s Express to run a furious June 14 article — ”Hollywood’s Racist Lies About Britain” — railing against the portrayal of Brits as ”cowardly, evil, [and] sadistic.” Ian Thompson, press officer for the British Film Council, attributes the bias to the death of another American foe: ”It’s because the Cold War’s over, maybe, and you’re trying to find new enemies.” And indeed, says Revolutionary War historian Herbert Sloan, Tarleton wasn’t quite that beastly: ”Sounds as though [the filmmakers] were pretty inventive.” Tarleton — a swashbuckling Liverpudlian — wasn’t any more brutal than the colonists, according to Sloan.
THE DEFENSE ”I’m sure the real person had some redeeming qualities,” admits Dennis Higgins, senior VP of publicity for Columbia Pictures. ”But in a two-hour movie, you have to take some dramatic license.”

ME, MYSELF & IRENE
OFFENDED PARTY Advocates for the mentally ill
THE BEEF The proudly over the top Farrelly brothers are no strangers to the outrage game. With their 1998 comedy ”There’s Something About Mary” — which included a plotline about a mentally handicapped man — the writing-directing duo angered some advocates for the developmentally disabled. And with the just-released ”Me, Myself & Irene” — starring Jim Carrey as a cop with a split personality — they’ve raised another ruckus. Among the many objections raised by the National Mental Health Association after seeing the trailers and ads: ”stigmatizing” language (e.g., ”From Gentle to Mental” and ”schizo”), the incorrect use of the term ”schizophrenia” (which is not the same as ”split personality”), and the ”ridicule” of a serious disease. Even ”Irene”’s promotional material (white jelly beans disguised as ”pills” for schizophrenia) gets a thumbs-down. ”I don’t think they’d be sending around medication for AIDS or cancer,” says NMHA spokesman James Radack, whose organization is asking ”Irene”’s studio, Twentieth Century Fox, to produce PSAs to accompany the film. ”I think Jim Carrey is a brilliant entertainer,” adds president Michael Faenza. ”[But] if he develops a mental illness, he will see the damage he is doing.”
THE DEFENSE ”It’s a comedy,” Carrey was heard to say at the premiere. ”The guy’s not a psychotic killer or anything.” Notes Peter Farrelly: ”We have a lot of friends with disabilities, and we put all our friends — disabled and not disabled — in our films.”

SHAFT
OFFENDED PARTY Members of the Latino community
THE BEEF They’re not diggin’ it. Two of the major characters in the Samuel L. Jackson update have Latino names — but are played by African-American actors. Namely, Vanessa Williams as detective Carmen Vasquez, and Jeffrey Wright (”Basquiat”) as Spanglish-spewing drug lord Peoples Hernandez. ”It’s unfortunate anytime you have a non-Latino playing a Latino role,” says Latina magazine editor Sylvia Martinez, who adds that minority helmed projects like ”Shaft” should have the ”heightened sensitivity to hire a Latino.” Says Juan Moreno, entertainment editor of El Diario: ”Those types of [casting] decisions are really something that should have been left in the ’60s.”
THE DEFENSE ”Shaft”’s studio, Paramount, had no comment. Still, we can say this: Producers originally tapped Latino actor John Leguizamo for Wright’s part, but he dropped out to film ”Moulin Rouge” with Nicole Kidman. And the filmmakers did ask for casting suggestions from the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. As for Williams, her publicist offers that her character isn’t necessarily Latina; she was married to a cop named Vasquez — a fact that was cut from the film. ”It’s a married name,” the spokesman says. ”That’s the easy answer.”

(Additional reporting by William Keck)