In January 2020, Netflix removed a popular title from its streaming library in the US, provoking complaints from irate fans. Dozens of online petitions cropped up begging Netflix to reverse its decision, but it was no use. Friends was gone.
Well, sort of. The ’90s sitcom juggernaut was still available to purchase or rent through other services; it was just temporarily unavailable on any streaming platform. WarnerMedia had paid an estimated $425 million to bring the Central Perk crew to its newest streaming service, HBO Max, which launched this spring, so Netflix lost the rights. Although the amount of money involved is eye-watering, this sort of content swap is not unusual. Streaming services frequently rotate their offerings. Sometimes it’s due to licensing budgets. Or, as was the case with Friends, the result of losing bids to competitors. Sometimes it depends on what the services think their audiences want to see. Thus, people who began watching Frasier on Netflix last year are now continuing the show on Hulu. Similarly, people who enjoyed Wes Anderson’s Rushmore on Hulu in 2019 must now stream it with a Cinemax subscription. Most of the time, these programming changes aren’t met with accusations of artistic suppression.
This week, though, when HBO Max removed the Civil War drama Gone With the Wind from its roster, backlash commenced immediately. The film is still one of the most financially successful blockbusters ever, and actress Hattie McDaniel was the first black person to win an Oscar for her role in it. Gone With the Wind featured prominently in HBO Max’s promotional materials along with Friends for an obvious reason—it’s still popular.
So, just like when Netflix lost Friends, its disappearance prompted furor. This time, though, many of the prominent people complaining about the loss of Gone With the Wind characterized the programming choice as a troubling act of censorship. In a tweet referencing its removal, Senator Ted Cruz protested: “STOP the censorship, you Orwellian statists!” “The Woke Taliban have won,” Breitbart News declared. Former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly wondered: “Where does this end??”
This anger isn’t just tied to the fact that Gone With the Wind is gone; it’s also tied to the reason HBO Max decided to yank it. The streaming service cited the film’s racist depictions as the impetus for its momentary removal. Although HBO has not specifically referenced it, screenwriter John Ridley’s recent Los Angeles Times op-ed asking HBO Max to not offer Gone With the Wind until the film was accompanied by disclaimers or additional context swiftly brought renewed attention to the movie’s issues, and the company made its decision soon after the piece was published. “We felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible,” an HBO spokesperson says, calling those depictions “counter to WarnerMedia’s values.”
The movie’s nostalgia for the antebellum South and its portrayals of black characters as derogatory slave stereotypes were controversial even upon its release. This is far from the first contemporary debate over whether and how to show Gone With the Wind. In 2017, when Tennessee’s Orpheum Theater broke with tradition and stopped showing the film during the summer, it kicked off a similar maelstrom. (A Fox News commentator used the phrase “cultural jihadists.”) Programmers, film critics, fans, and academics have been talking about what Gone With the Wind’s place in the cultural conversation should be since it hit theaters in 1939. This week’s events are just the latest chapter.
Although some of the chatter has made it sound like HBO is trying to memoryhole Gone With the Wind forever, it is planning to return the film to its roster soon. A spokesperson tells WIRED that HBO will include “a discussion of its historical context” and a denouncement of the film’s racist depictions. As to what exactly that will look like, the company hasn’t elaborated, but there are models out there already. Disney+, for example, places warnings about “outdated cultural depictions” on some of its older movies. Charles Tabesh, the programmer for Turner Classic Movies, agrees with the decision to add context. “It was smart of them to temporarily pull it in, but also smart of them to put the proper context around it and then bring it back,” he says. TCM is the cable channel that plays Gone With the Wind most frequently. Tabesh says that TCM has been in talks with HBO about how it could introduce the film, as TCM had previously aired Gone With the Wind with historical context. “We will always acknowledge in the introduction that it’s a fundamentally racist premise to the film,” Tabesh says. “That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seen.”
It’s very hard to find a controversial, successful Hollywood film that has truly been disappeared forever. For example, the much-loathed 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, is available to stream on Sling and Kanopy, it has been uploaded for free to YouTube, and DVDs and Blu-rays are available from major retailers like Amazon. (It’s way harder to find Kevin Smith’s 1999 comedy Dogma than it is The Birth of a Nation.) Disney’s Song of the South is probably the most famous example of a racist movie locked away, and film historians and critics continue to debate whether shelving the film entirely is the right move.
Last year, film critic Aramide A. Tinubu suggested that it would be more educational to present Song of the South and other racist parodies from Disney’s past on the Disney+ service under a parental lock and with a disclaimer. “Unpacking how, why, and when these projects were made would provide context for newcomers and those who haven’t seen these films in decades. It would offer an opportunity for growth, conversation, and healing,” Tinubu writes. “But, by sweeping these issues under the rug, Disney suggests they would rather shut the door on their past atrocities than take the time and space to learn, grow, and evolve from them.”
This is a compelling argument, and if Time Warner was attempting to lock Gone With the Wind away entirely, it would certainly be one worth discussing. But that is not what is happening here. The novel element about this round of shouting about Gone With the Wind is how much the anger has been directed at HBO Max. The controversy may stem from what appears to be a widespread misunderstanding of what HBO Max is. This is somewhat understandable, as HBO Max is confusing—it’s the company’s third streaming service, joining HBO Now and HBO Go, and the messaging about what makes it different has been muddled. But despite what some of the protests around Gone With the Wind may suggest, HBO Max is not a stewardship project meant to preserve historically relevant cinema.
The United States actually does have something like that—the National Film Registry, which is the US National Film Preservation Board’s picks for historically, culturally, or aesthetically significant films. The NFR lobbies for the survival, conservation, and increased availability of the films on its list, and Gone With the Wind has been on it since 1989. Moreover, the NFR has given no indication that it will remove it. Gone With the Wind hasn’t needed much help being preserved, either, as it was first regularly screened in theaters before the advent of television, went on to enjoy a robust life airing regularly on Ted Turner’s TV stations after the mogul purchased its airing rights in the ‘80s. It is now widely available for rental and purchase online through mainstream platforms like YouTube, Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Redbox, and more. It is also available for free