“It’s a history we have to understand. You can’t just throw it away,” UCLA’s Darnell Hunt says
When “Gone With the Wind” was suddenly pulled from HBO Max last month, it kicked off a necessary wave of reassessment of how Hollywood has portrayed the issue of race in all kinds of media.
Episodes of shows with white characters in blackface disappeared from streaming services. White actors voicing people of color on animated series were recast and Disney announced plans to revamp Splash Mountain, a theme park ride inspired by the 1946 movie “Song of the South,” an animated retelling of Uncle Remus folk tales whose troubling depiction of racial stereotypes prompted the studio to largely shelve the film (it has never gotten a home video release in the U.S.).
But unlike many episodes of “30 Rock,” “The Golden Girls” and “Scrubs” that all pulled blackface episodes, the 1939 Oscar winner “Gone With the Wind” has since returned to its streaming home, now with a valuable introduction that doesn’t just ignore or erase the movie’s racist legacy, but confronts it. The film’s return comes with the understanding that one of the most popular and important films ever made can’t just disappear despite its problematic aspects.
“It’s an important thing to do as we try to get our arms around it. Because honestly, if I were teaching a class on structural racism, I would probably show ‘Gone With the Wind’ and we’d have a conversation around the movie and America’s racist history,” Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, told TheWrap. “But it’s a history we have to understand. You can’t just throw it away.”
In her four-minute intro, Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart acknowledged that “Gone With the Wind” has been controversial even dating back to its production. Hosts like Stewart have been commenting on the film and its flawed, romanticized view of the Antebellum South on television for years.
“The film’s treatment of this world through a lens of nostalgia denies the horrors of slavery, as well as its legacy of racial inequality,” Stewart said in the video. “Watching ‘Gone With the Wind’ can be uncomfortable, even painful, still it is important that classic Hollywood films are available to us in their original form.”
And while an individual episode of “30 Rock” may not have the cultural significance of “Gone With the Wind,” each of these works represents the efforts of dozens if not hundreds of people. And most cultural critics agree that all that effort shouldn’t just disappear because serious issues aren’t treated in a respectful manner.
Many film historians and culture critics agree that following the lead of HBO Max and adding other labels, warnings or introductions to offensive content is preferable to removal. And that approach will be necessary as Hollywood takes a long look at how films and TV shows have portrayed not just race, but also gender, sexuality and more.
“There’s an awful lot out there that could probably use a four-minute introduction,” film historian, author and feature writer for New York Magazine Mark Harris told TheWrap. Stewart’s introduction is effective and a reasonable addition to a nearly four-hour movie since it can help people understand the time in which it was made, he said, adding that even a short warning label playing before the opening credits would be preferable to making the film completely unavailable.
“You can’t discuss something you can’t see,” Harris said, referring to recent instances of removing entire TV episodes with blackface from circulation. “There’s no discussion about how it was used, what the context was, what the meaning of it was, whether the context was considered problematic at the time as well. You rob cultural historians and students of their ability to understand anything about how we got from one place to another. That just seems incredibly damaging to me. You can’t just obliterate pieces of history.”
Though Harris respects the choice of creatives who regret these past projects, he wonders if removing the shows does more harm than good. And he stresses that the reason we’re seeing so many shows disappearing isn’t the result of social media cancel culture but because of what he sees as a “top-down decision” of companies preemptively protecting their own legacy rather than owning up to their mistakes.
“Wholesale removal of objectionable pop culture is the worst possible solution to what’s going on right now, and I will say that about pop culture I like, and I will say that about pop culture I find offensive,” Harris said. “Anybody’s individual assessment of the quality of a piece of art cannot be the determining factor in making this decision.”
Moving forward, producers and media companies will have to consider their tolerance for risk and reevaluate everything within their catalog of content. “Every major media company is going to have to look at its library; it’s going to have to look at its personnel, and it’s going to have to project ahead five or 10 years and say, ‘We’re in the midst of a revolution. What will come out of the other end of the revolution?'” Stephen Galloway, dean of the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University, told TheWrap. “It may be that they have to do things that are too extreme, and then later they’ll say, ‘Well, we didn’t need to chop that head off.’ My fear is that they won’t do enough because they’re being reactive to today.”
Galloway suggested the creation of a task force of industry leaders to establish a code of ethics for how to handle problematic content from the past. “Nobody has actually created a pattern of rules, and when they are created, there has to be some flexibility to them, and how long they last,” he said, acknowledging that with the world moving so quickly, companies may have to “look for red flags that aren’t even being waved yet.”
Galloway noted that entire genres are problematic. Given the stereotypical depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood over the years, he said, “Do you ban every single Western ever made? At some point, somebody’s going to have to say, ‘This is where we draw the line,’ and the line is never acceptable to everybody.”
What’s clear is that Hollywood faces a new reckoning with its past. “We’re just in the beginning of a series of dominoes that will start falling, all of which are related to one crucial fact: The media institutions haven’t kept up with the times,” Galloway said. “There’s been a current flowing underneath this rock that’s chipped and chipped away and nobody’s noticed, and things are crumbling. It’s very hard for giant institutions to move very quickly.”
And while Black Lives Matter and Hollywood’s portrayal of race is top of mind, soon you can expect to see the world grapple with onscreen representations of women and other groups. “Two-thirds of the history of Hollywood is problematic on some level or another,” Harris said. “There’s sexism, there’s rampant homophobia, there’s invisibility, which is a huge problem in itself.”
To Harris, adding disclaimers to explain offensive material is far better than pretending they never existed in the first place. “I’m not so worried about where do you stop in terms of the number of things that need labels or explaining. I would like to see us hold the line at not completely de-platforming things, and if we can all agree on that, then I think you can have a slippery slope discussion,” he said. “But once you start saying, ‘No, we’re just going to get rid of this stuff,’ there’s no talk about where things might lead. You’ve already gone all the way down the slippery slope. You’ve made things essentially nonexistent, and that is really troubling and dangerous.”
Before “Gone With the Wind,” HBO Max and Disney+ added disclaimers and title cards to older cartoons that showed stereotypes, and a representative for HBO Max told TheWrap that it has been reviewing all the content that now lives on the platform. On Wednesday, all seven seasons of the Emmy-winning “Mad Men” will join IMDb TV with a disclaimer ahead of one of a third-season episode that features John Slattery’s 1960s ad executive in blackface. (“In its reliance on historical authenticity, the series producers are committed to exposing the injustices and inequities within our society that continue to this day so we can examine even the most painful parts of our history in order to reflect on who we are today and who we want to become,” the title card reads in part. “We are therefore presenting the original episode in its entirety.”)
But companies might also consider more substantive introductions in the vein of Stewart’s for “Gone With the Wind.” Ben Mankiewicz, another TCM host who works with Stewart, has himself introduced “Gone With the Wind” 10 times on the network over the years. And he imagined that two minutes of Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan introducing the problematic “30 Rock” episodes could be a great way of responsibly reintroducing them to a streaming platform.
“There’s a movement in the country to add greater context to the art that we are about to present,” Mankiewicz said. “It’s a nice step forward for an important art form. This is only good.”
There are no kids clamoring for “Song of the South” to be added to Disney+, but Mankiewicz said that film should only resurface with appropriate framing. “I don’t want to tell Disney its business, but I don’t think that denial of something ugly in art is the right decision, in general,” he said. “If that movie resurfaces in some way, it should have significant effort and resources put in to give it its proper context.”
Since his job at TCM is to put movies in historical and Hollywood context to make a connection with an audience, Mankiewicz said it would be “a grave mistake” to ignore things that could be unpleasant to talk about. “We may show old movies, but we’re not stuck in the past. We never have been,” he said. “We’re telling a story before we give you a story. If we need to change that story to reflect where we are as a people, I’m incredibly excited to do that as a person that tells stories.”