A grand jury indicted the company in Tyler County last month, citing the way it promoted the film. Netflix had teased Cuties‘ North American debut with a poster showing the pre-teen cast posing provocatively on stage in cheerleader outfits.
The film is a coming-of-age story about Amy, an 11-year-old Muslim girl from Senegal who joins a tween dance troupe in France. Amy “starts to rebel against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew,” the Netflix description says.
A grand jury in Texas has now charged the streamer with the “promotion of lewd visual material depicting a child.” The indictment alleges that Netflix promoted material that depicts the pubic area of a clothed or partially clothed child who was younger than 18 years of age, and that the content appeals to the “prurient interest in sex.” It also alleges that the film holds “no serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
Netflix rejected the allegations in a statement.
“Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children. This charge is without merit and we stand by the film,” the company said.
The film became a lightning rod for criticism in August, when critics had nothing to judge it by except the Netflix poster. Hundreds of thousands signed petitions against the film, and conservative lawmakers in the U.S. and Canada loudly denounced it as potential child pornography. Angry users also hounded director Maïmouna Doucouré, a Senegalese-born French woman, into deleting her social media accounts.
Doucouré has described the film as a critique of the way that society hypersexualizes girls at a young age.
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The film holds a solid 86 per cent rating among verified film critics on Rotten Tomatoes, though it has been widely review-bombed by internet users on various sites. Many of those dire reviews flooded in before the film was released on Sept. 9.
Some argued unsuccessfully for Netflix to cancel Cuties’ North American debut.
Others offered a more nuanced response of the situation, accusing Netflix of misrepresenting the film and making Doucouré a target for conservative outrage.
Netflix has apologized for its botched marketing but has stood by the film itself.
“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties,” Netflix said in August, using both the French and English titles for the film.
“It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.”
Tyler County District Attorney Lucas Babin, son of GOP Congressman Brian Babin, made the decision to indict Netflix for the film in Texas.
“After hearing about the movie Cuties and watching it, I knew there was probable cause to believe it was criminal,” Lucas Babin said in a news release. “If such material is distributed on a grand scale, isn’t the need to prosecute more, not less?”
The elder Babin had unsuccessfully called for U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr to charge Netflix for “child pornography” last month.
Doucouré says she decided to make the film after witnessing a tween girls’ dance troupe performing at a public event in France. She spent several months learning about the phenomenon of pre-teen dancers, then drew from her own immigrant story to develop the script for Mignonnes.
Doucouré enlisted a child psychologist to work on set throughout the filming, and assembled many of the dance routines through composite shots so the girls wouldn’t actually have to perform them.
“I created a climate of trust between the children and myself,” she said in an interview with the online magazine Zora last month.
She added that she hopes people will see past the viral outrage and judge the film only after watching it.
“I’m eager to see their reaction when they realize that we’re both on the same side of this fight against young children’s hypersexualization,” she said.
“What the film shows is that at 11 you’re still a child and therefore you can’t consent,” she told Paris March in an earlier interview, before the outcry erupted. “Mignonnes is a cry of alarm. And still, there are things that I did not dare to film.”
Netflix bought the movie after it debuted to critical acclaim in January at the Sundance Film Festival.
—With files from Reuters