The Gone with the Wind conundrum
To show, or not to show? That is the question for historic studios like Disney and Warner Bros. Entertainment. The studios both possess movie libraries around a century old, and both have grappled with what to do with films that include racist stereotypes, dialog, and implications that aren't just offensive, but "painful," as John Ridley, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, put it in an opinion article for the Los Angeles Times this week.
On Tuesday, the question came to a boil as the WarnerMedia-owned HBO Max temporarily removed 1939's Gone with the Wind, due to the film being "a product of its time" and depicting "some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society." It's not gone forever though: HBO Max intends to return producer David O. Selznick's Best Picture winner to the service once it's added "a discussion of its historical context." The decision inspired outrage from some, but this is exactly the right move by the streamer: adding an intro or disclaimer ahead of Gone with the Wind changes the way we watch the film, and robs the movie of its ability to perpetuate racial prejudices by instead turning our attention toward how they're wrong.
Gone with the Wind is hardly the first movie to find itself in the center of a conversation about historic censorship (it's not even the first time there's been outcry about Gone with the Wind specifically). But the film, based on the book by Margaret Mitchell, is different from other movies that commonly get brought up when talking about censorship, such as the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will or the KKK-idolizing Birth of a Nation. While I don't doubt there are white nationalists out there who will stick a bowl of popcorn in the microwave and plop down on the couch to enjoy a lazy Friday night with Leni Riefenstahl, the latter movies are now primarily watched in academic settings, or sought out by film aficionados who understand their background and their value today. That is not the case with Gone with the Wind, which endures in American culture as one of the most popular and epic films ever made, with its sizzling battle of wills between Vivian Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable's Rhett Butler, all presented in the Technicolor whirl of the Civil War. Speaking purely from an aesthetic appreciation of cinematography, directing, and production design, it is a spectacle; there are few cinematic experiences quite as impressive as watching the burning of Atlanta on the big screen.
But it is movies like Gone with the Wind, then — movies that people want to watch just for fun, movies that will undoubtedly inspire some viewers to write angry letters to HBO about "keeping politics out of my entertainment" — that need disclaimers like the one HBO Max intends to append. As Ridley wrote for the Los Angeles Times in his call for Gone with the Wind to be removed from the streamer, "it is a film that glorifies the antebellum South. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color." As The New York Post's Lou Lumenick wrote in a 2015 article calling for the movie to "go the way of the Confederate flag," the film additionally "buys heavily into the idea that the Civil War was a noble lost cause and casts Yankees and Yankee sympathizers as the villains, both during the war and during Reconstruction." And perhaps most insidiously, Gone with the Wind implies that some slaves didn't mind their servitude, or were treated kindly by their masters, and in turn felt fondly toward their owners — thereby mitigating the meaning of that word, "owner," like it was no big thing to possess and control another human being.
Where things start to get tricky, though, is how to present this information. Disney+, for example, has had the uncomfortable responsibility of navigating this conundrum for quite a number of its classic films. One approach has been keeping the movie off its service entirely, as it's done with Song of the South, a film that was widely denounced by black Americans when it was released in 1946. While there's a fair argument to be made for this approach — a streamer has the discretion to choose what it provides audiences with, and doesn't have the same educational responsibilities as, say, a library — it is also subject to the criticism of "erasing," or otherwise turning a blind eye to the past. Removal is almost too convenient an answer: it ignores the fact that such movies were a part of its history. Additionally, such an approach isn't the most practical response for a movie like Gone with the Wind, which won eight Oscars and is very easy to get ahold of if you want to watch it; even if you tried to shut it back in the vault at this point, you couldn't.
Another approach Disney+ has taken has been to censor out the offensive parts of the movie. This is the most dubious approach of all, since it attempts to dodge a past wrong, rather than take responsibility for it. There are situations where this approach does make some sense: Fantasia is the best example. Parents should be able to show their children the movie without worrying about the racist caricatures that populate the Pastoral Symphony tableau, which have been edited out of the movie by Disney since 1969, though the streamer should also offer the original version with an explanation — for its historic value and to acknowledge its role in amplifying those ideas.
By providing context, either with a video introduction or supplementary materials or even, at a minimum, with text, a movie can take on another dimension. In the case of Gone with the Wind, this might be as simple as drawing a viewers' attention to the rose-tinted, and erroneous, way that the character Mammy is portrayed — while also not taking away from the supporting performance by Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar for the role. Or perhaps it will bring attention to the casual use of the word "darkies," a replacement of Mitchell's N-word, or the misleadingly nostalgic view of the antebellum South. Providing such context is not just a lip-service denouncement, but actually a valuable service to audiences, offering an added layer of understanding to the movie.
Warner Bros. has actually long been a leader in how to do the "disclaimer" right. When releasing classic cartoons, like Tom and Jerry from the 1940s, the Warner Home Video DVDs came with an extensive notice forewarning of "ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society" and noting "these depictions were wrong then and are wrong today." Perhaps most importantly, as The Verge noted, the DVD box set also included "an introduction from Whoopi Goldberg" addressing why certain scenes weren't removed. Warner Bros.'s blu-ray release of Gone with the Wind likewise included a half-hour featurette with scholars discussing the film's problematic depiction of Mitchell's South.
The most close-minded viewers, of course, won't care about any of these measures. They'll fast-forward through recorded introductions, ignore supplementary discussions, and flip past meticulously-researched descriptions. But most audiences likely won't have a problem sparing an extra minute or two to reflect on the power of the cinema to shape our perceptions of the world, and the way we need to take responsibility for our national wrongs in order to move forward from them. "If we are to create a more just, equitable, and inclusive future," an HBO Max spokesperson explained to CNN, "we must first acknowledge and understand our history."
To paraphrase Rhett Butler, all the past can't be corrected. But we must do our best to try to learn from it.
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