“Gone With the Wind,” “Birth of a Nation” and, more recently, Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” are movies that should be explained rather than forgotten, a panel of top film critics said in TheWrap’s second in its series “Conversations on Cancel Culture.”
Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday said that a new generation of viewers see these films as problematic, and critics need to frame them appropriately. “Their expectations have fundamentally changed in terms of what they see as acceptable behavior, and this gets to their expectations as audiences,” Hornaday said. “They look at this stuff, and they’re wondering why we ever accepted it in the first place. It’s our job to the degree that we’re stewards of the culture and the patrimony to explain to them why this was valued and also to why it has problems.”
The panelists agreed that this is the job of the film critic in the cancel culture era. And as part of TheWrap’s series “Conversations on Cancel Culture,” critics Alonso Duralde of TheWrap, Hornaday of the Washington Post and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune discussed why smart film criticism is more vital than ever when looking at movies both old and new.
Hornaday noted that some are providing new and critical context. She praised the recent efforts of TCM host Jacqueline Stewart, who introduced an airing of “Gone With the Wind” on HBO Max with a disclaimer that put the film in an appropriate context without erasing or censoring it.
Phillips said the most interesting criticism he reads today is from young writers, primarily women and people of color, who love Old Hollywood and are able to appreciate the historical value of films like “Gone With the Wind” while also dissecting what makes them so complicated.
“They love sorting through the contradictions of it all. That is what we have to do. That is the value of a critic now,” Phillips told moderator Stephen Galloway, dean of the film school at Chapman University. “If you can’t reserve the right to just puzzle through these massive contradictions and minefields, don’t run from them, run toward them. That’s the crazy instinct we have to have. Otherwise, we are at risk of dismissing decades and decades of film history, and we would do that at our cultural peril, no doubt.”
That said, all of the critics on the panel shared some of the movies they’ve been forced to reexamine in recent years. Duralde, for example, mentioned “Sixteen Candles” and its troubling issues with consent, and “The Party,” in which Peter Sellers wears brownface.
“It’s the role of every upcoming generation to force older generations to question their presumptions and assumptions,” Duralde said. “We all sort of come across things we have to reevaluate. I’m not saying censor those films, bury them in a mine somewhere, but we have to look at them through the eyes of where history has brought us now, and we will do that for the rest of our lives.”
Phillips agreed, saying he was humbled when he showed Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings” to a film class, only to have his young students challenge the film’s themes of white colonialism, despite its romantic, Old Hollywood charms.
“This is how we have to go at everything. We can teach anything, we can show almost anything, as long as we’re willing to have the right discussions about it, and hopefully, enough of the right people writing about it as to what it meant to people back then,” Phillips said. “Our opinions have to change over time.”
This conversation is the second of four in a series of roundtables titled “Conversations on Cancel Culture,” presented by TheWrap, which began on May 25. TheWrap will be livestreaming a new discussion every Tuesday at 12 p.m. PT on one of the following topics: journalism, film criticism, comedy and rehabilitation from cancel culture. On Friday, June 4 at 4 p.m. PT, audiences are also invited to tune into an encore and follow-up discussion with the panelists exclusively on Clubhouse.
Watch the full “Cancel Culture in Film: Separating Art from the Artist” conversation here and above.
This conversation is the first of four in a series of roundtables titled “Conversations on Cancel Culture,” presented by TheWrap, which began on May 25. TheWrap will be livestreaming a new discussion every Tuesday at 12 p.m. PT on one of the following topics: journalism (May 25), film criticism (June 1), comedy (June 8) and rehabilitation from cancel culture (June 15).