Audiences at screenings around the world, and some even in the United States, have been cheering and applauding a macabre scene in a new film by Sacha Baron Cohen in which "Donald Trump" accidentally contracts HIV.
"The Brothers Grimsby" opens March 11 in the U.S., though chances are you're learning that for the first time here, given a decision by Sony Pictures to limit its marketing of the satiric comedy. The studio is concerned about the reaction from the real Donald Trump, according to industry sources familiar with the situation.
At the film's world premiere in London last week, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Trump moment was met with "loud cheering." The Metro newspaper called it a "massive cheer." A viewer at a different screening tweeted, "Went to watch Grimsby and the whole cinema clapped when Donald Trump got given AIDS in it."
Elsewhere in Europe, there were standing ovations. The joke, done in Baron Cohen's standard over-the-top style, is proving cathartic to overseas audiences terrified by Trump's rise.
Back at Sony's Hollywood headquarters, however, there has been much less enthusiasm about the scene in question. Three industry sources said that Sony had made its displeasure clear and pushed to remove the scene, but that Baron Cohen, in a rare deal for a producer-actor, has final authority over the film.
Studio executives are nervous about angering the famously vengeful and litigious Trump, compounded by the possibility of getting on the wrong side of the possible next president. Still traumatized by its run-in with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in 2014, Sony decided its best option was to limit the damage. The film now includes a disclaimer indicating that Trump did not, in fact, participate in making the movie. "If you were told that they're shying away from the movie because of the political implications, I can tell you that's 100 percent true," said a well-placed source.
Baron Cohen has been promoting the film himself by showing it to social media stars like Kim and Kourtney Kardashian and posting their delirious reactions. He also appeared on Jimmy Kimmel's show in character as "Borat" and at the Oscars as "Ali G."
The Sunday Times called moments of the movie "weepingly hilarious," while the Daily Telegraph wrote that "it's a vital, lavish, venomously profane two fingers up at Benefits Street pity porn and the social division it fosters. I laughed, winced, gagged, then laughed even more."
Sony's pre-emptive fear is a worrying sign of how corporate players are beginning to respond to the rise of Trump. While the biggest threats to liberty are assumed to come from aggressive government action, freedom is often lost through self-censorship, driven by fear and the natural impulse toward self-preservation.
"They're subtly trying to make it disappear so Donald Trump doesn't sue the studio, and also if Donald Trump wins, then they don't have a major problem with the corporation where they've alienated the president," said another source.
One industry source said conversely that the claims of a trembling studio are a "stunt" to gin up more publicity. "Sacha's been a great partner with the studio. It's silly. The studio always knew what the movie was," this industry insider said. "It's Sacha Baron Cohen's outrageous brand. Legal vets it. There's no worries there, and there's no big love affair with Trump out here in Hollywood."
But the best evidence to back up the assertion that there's been no serious marketing campaign is that no marketing campaign is visible. "You see any ads for it? See any television spots? See it digitally?" asked one source, adding that there isn't one billboard anywhere in North America.
That so many people have been cheering at a fictional HIV infection of Trump shows just how powerfully emotions are running. It raises questions about the role the U.S. will play in foreign affairs if someone so reviled actually winds up at the helm. That kind of hostility could be a threat to national security.
On a basic level, the cause of the disgust is straightforward: Trump, with his perfectly balanced combination of bluster, hypocrisy and ignorance, is almost a lampoon version of the "Ugly American," the loud, brash U.S. tourist whom much of the world loves to hate. But Trump has also done plenty to specifically draw the ire of the global public. The rundown is by now well-known: He accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers across the U.S. border, mocked a reporter with a muscular disability, proposed banning all Muslims from entering the U.S., promised to bring back waterboarding and "much worse."
Matt Labove, a publicist for Baron Cohen, declined to comment or to make the actor available for an interview.
Jean Guerin, a spokesperson for Sony Pictures, disputed the idea that the studio isn't whole-heartedly backing the picture. "This is utter nonsense. We have been supportive of the filmmaker and the film," said Guerin.
Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.
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