Most of you have probably heard that HBO Max has decided to temporarily pull the famous movie “Gone With the Wind” from its streaming services, later to replace it with a version that has an explanatory introduction by University of Chicago Cinema and Media studies professor Jacqueline Stewart.
This New York Times article gives the details:
When I first saw this movie as a teenager, its racism was palpable: not only was slavery whitewashed, so to speak, with the slaves depicted as the usual “happy darkies” of that era, but the two black supporting actors, Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel (the latter winning an Oscar for her role) seemed to me stereotypical blacks as depicted in that era (1939), shown as groveling, happy-go-lucky, slow-witted toadies, though I have to admit that McDaniel had a bit of nuance in her role. (Another example is Stepin Fetchit, who starred with Shirley Temple.)
Still, as I’ve said before, anybody with two neurons to rub together should be able to see the racism in “Gone with the Wind”, so why not simply show it by itself without the “explanation and indictment,” which could be overly political and ideological. After all, I told myself, it’s patronizing for someone to tell people why a movie is bad. And it’s also subjective, and, depending who the “explainer” is, could be dire and contentious. And of course the movie, despite its misrepresentations, is still a classic, remaining the highest-grossing movie of all time when adjusted for inflation. Beyond the racism, it’s romantic and engrossing, and the photography is very good. It’s surely worth seeing by everyone, just as “Triumph of the Will” despite its fawning over Hitler, should be seen by all (it also has pathbreaking cinematography). “Gone With the Wind” portrays attitudes about slavery that are outmoded, but do we need to hear why they’re bad. Yesterday I thought “not really: we already know.”
I’ve now changed my mind about thinking the movie should be shown without commentary. When I was thinking about how I’d show this movie in a class, I certainly wouldn’t overlook the racism. But rather than lecturing to the class about why the movie is racist, I’d try to get the students to discuss it, and hopefully would have black students in class. After all, it’s this kind of discussion that changes people’s minds, not hectoring about “why this film is racist.” I’d do the same were I teaching Huckleberry Finn.
But HBO’s presentation cannot involve teaching in that way. And by presenting the film without comment, it’s omitting any context, and bestowing what some might see as approbation for the film. You may not know, for instance, that black Americans repeatedly attacked and even picketed the movie for its racism and false depiction of slavery. Here’s a photo from the New York Times article of a protest in 1940:
While I thought that an “explanation” was patronizing, I now think it’s necessary, and applaud HBO for making the movie available and not censoring it, but also giving people the opportunity to hear some context by Dr. Stewart. I would hope she’d avoid excessive polemic. (Her piece in CNN, below, suggests that she’ll draw a line from the film to the protests of today, for she argues that films like “Gone With the Wind” “have played a major role in perpetuating the racist belies that devalue Black lives and normalize the use of excessive force against Black people.” To me, that’s going too far, and I’d prefer not to have Critical Race Theory brought into the analysis. But we don’t yet know what she’ll say.)
How would I “contextualize” the movie? Instead of having a single voice be “The Interpreter,” I’d create a short film incorporating a number of voices, similar to how I’d teach it in the classroom. Most of those voices would be black ones, for it is blacks who have called out the racism of the film. But at least the viewer would get a number of viewpoints from a number of scholars, film experts, and others (Spike Lee would be a good choice)—a diversity of views that would be more likely to foster discussion.
What about other films? Should we do this with Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will“, or “The Eternal Jew“, Nazi propaganda films, with the latter viciously anti-Semitic (like “Triumph of the Will”, it is also available on the Internet, so you can see how horrible it is)? Those films should definitely be available, for I firmly believe we should not erase history, and there’s much history to learn from these and similar pieces of bigotry. But we should contextualize history, especially when movies don’t contextualize it themselves (“Schindler’s List” is an example of a film where evil is presented as evil).
Below is Dr. Stewart’s analysis of the film on CNN (click on the screenshot), which is pretty reasonable though I worry about her being the sole interpreter. Will I watch the movie again? I doubt it: I’ve seen it twice and when it’s not racist it’s schmalzy.
Feel free to weigh in below about whether you think the movie should be “contextualized,” and, if so, how you’d like that to be done.