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About thirty-five years ago the top bosses of my then-employer, the American Film Institute, got us into a real jam with our funders. Taking a stiff-necked, self-righteous pose, AFI impulsively issued strong statements and held an urgent press conference in support of a new artists’ rights movement headed by longtime board members and all-around AFI pals Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Saying yes to them must have seemed like a no-brainer. What, after all, could be controversial in 1980’s Hollywood about backing Steven and George? And they had allies; the film directors’ guild, as well as groups of film critics and other intellectuals, were coming out in force against a new media technology that they sternly called a mortal threat to America’s film heritage.
The new technique, supposedly so dangerous to preserving American culture on screen, was called colorization, using video technology to allow hand-coloring of black-and-white films and TV shows. In retrospect, it was one of the most overblown film controversies of the mid-Eighties. But the way it worked out set business precedents that still guide media law to this day, and shape the battleground over censorship and online cancel culture. Withdrawing Song of the South from general circulation, or turning police guns into walkie-talkies in E.T., cutting a Donald Trump cameo appearance out of Home Alone 2 or removing Kevin Spacey from All the Money in the World, —they were all affected by what happened in courtrooms and offices in the nearly-forgotten Colorization War of now-distant 1986.