The Hollywood Reporter’s columnist says that though such racist content is damaging, “we need a way to present art within its historical context so the works can still be available and appreciated for their achievements but not admired for their cultural failings.”
I have mixed feelings on John Ridley’s well-reasoned Los Angeles Times Op-Ed article asking HBO Max to temporarily remove Gone With the Wind, which the service then did on Jun 9. On one hand, Ridley is 100 percent correct. The film glorifies the Confederacy as if they were a bunch of highly principled martyrs hunkered down in holy glory instead of an entitled mob of human-trafficking murderers, rapists and traitors trying to destroy the United States. The film also romanticizes slavery as if it was nothing more than a workplace sitcom in which all the slaves were happy baristas at the plantation’s Starbucks. On the other hand, very few movies or TV shows from the past could withstand today’s rightfully rigorous standards. Almost every one of them that pees on the stick of political correctness will come up positive for insensitivity— or worse.
The question is whether or not works of art should be censored, regardless of how offensive they are. Americans are especially sensitive to this issue because we know that the quickest way to undermine democracy is by silencing a free press, which we’ve seen the Trump Administration make their main priority, from demonizing reporters at rallies, to spreading false rumors about a journalist being a murderer, to demanding CNN retract and apologize for a poll showing Trump vastly trailing Biden. Once we start silencing voices, the only voice left will be the one echoing those in power.
However, Ridley did not call for banning Gone With the Wind. It’s clear that those who are so vigorously raging against his article haven’t actually read the whole thing. Offering an opinion on something you only skimmed or heard about is just another form of censorship because now you’re poisoning the well for others. Here’s what he actually wrote:
“Let me be real clear: I don’t believe in censorship. I don’t think Gone With the Wind should be relegated to a vault in Burbank. I would just ask, after a respectful amount of time has passed, that the film be re-introduced to the HBO Max platform along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were. Or, perhaps it could be paired with conversations about narratives and why it’s important to have many voices sharing stories from different perspectives rather than merely those reinforcing the views of the prevailing culture.”
So, what he’s asking is that, given the current public heated climate of widespread protests over police brutality and systemic racism, maybe let’s hold off shoving the joys of slavery and heroes of racism in our faces.
Which brings up the crucial question of where do we draw the line. Whoopi Goldberg responded to the editorial by stating on The View that she was against pulling the film: “If you start pulling every film, you’re going to have to pull … a very long list of films.” Her solution was to have a frank conversation with her children about how filmmakers in the past “weren’t as enlightened as we are now.” Meghan McCain responded by saying she would explain to her child that “this is a fantastical, completely fictionalized version of the South during this time that was wrecked with slavery.” These may be a fantastical, completely fictionalized versions of the influence of parents in a world where kids watch movies spontaneously on their phones with no one around. What about the parents who say nothing to their children, or worse, praise the film’s portrayals of history?
Most adults have been brought up on an unhealthy diet of movies and TV shows that were proudly racist, misogynistic, homophobic and xenophobic. Women were addled-headed sex objects that were especially cute when they tried to act equal to men. Gays were predators or objects of ridicule. The portrayal of Blacks was generally as subservient, drug-addicted, or perhaps worse, non-existent. (Did you know that 25 percent of cowboys were Black? Not if you watched Western movies or TV shows.) It’s disturbing to me that many of the films and TV shows I loved as a child make me wince with embarrassment at their bold cruelty and callous dismissiveness. John Wayne in two different films spanking grown women to show them their place. The Beatles song, “Run for Your Life,” with the lyrics: “Catch you with another man/That’s the end of little girl.” Never mind the fact that he’s creepily referring to her as “little girl,” more to the point he’s threatening to kill her if she dates someone else.
Should we ban John Wayne and the Beatles? No, and no one is calling for a ban.
What we need is a way to present art within its historical context so the works can still be available and appreciated for their achievements but not admired for their cultural failings. The easiest way would be to include an introductory explanation—filmed or written—that explains that the work contains harmful racial or gender stereotypes that were acceptable at the time but which we now know are harmful. Links to further discussions and information also could be provided. That is the bare basics of what we should do to emphasize that these portrayals are no longer acceptable. To do nothing is a tacit endorsement of their destructive messages. And, like vaping, prolonged exposure causes damage to our children. We put a warning label on one, why not the other.
Art can either inform us of past follies or it can perpetuate them. Movies and TV shows that display the subjugation, humiliation, or marginalization of anyone are like the Confederate monuments: they have a place in history as both manifestations of and warnings against our ignorance. In contemporary life, they are weighty anchors pulling us down to the bottom while the rest of the world swims freely toward the future.