Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) opens with the famous scene from Gone With The Wind (1939) where the camera pulls back to reveal a battlefield of injured and dying Confederate soldiers. Audiences have been conditioned to receive the scene as tragic, but Lee cuts on the fluttering of the Confederate flag in the foreground, then shows the same flag in the next scene behind Alec Baldwin’s white supremacist as he spews racist vitriol. Lee’s film also skewers DW Griffith’s straightforwardly racist The Birth of a Nation (1915), but Gone With The Wind—a much more widely seen and beloved film—was the more provocative target.
Two years later, Gone With The Wind is in the dock again. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow, American movies and TV have come under the scanner for furthering and enabling racist attitudes and practices. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on 8 June, John Ridley, screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave, asked WarnerMedia to consider removing Victor Fleming’s film, a paean to the American South, from their recently launched streaming service, HBO Max. “It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of colour," Ridley wrote.
On 24 June, the film was back up on HBO, this time with a panel discussion from 2019 titled “The Complicated Legacy of Gone With the Wind" and a filmed introduction by Turner Classic Movies host and film scholar Jacqueline Stewart. “Watching Gone With The Wind can be uncomfortable, even painful," she says in the 4-minute video, which can be seen on YouTube. “Still, it is important that classic Hollywood films are available to us in their original form for viewing and discussion. They reflect the social context in which they were made and invite viewers to reflect on their own values and beliefs when watching them now."
Stewart’s address is thoughtful and concise, but there’s something strange about a disclaimer for a well-known, much-discussed film that’s been around for more than 80 years. The “context" provided in the video—essentially, that the film glosses over the terrible details of slavery and the complicity of the culture it celebrates in perpetuating it—isn't something most viewers would need (whether they agree with it or not is a separate matter). Its primary use is in allowing WarnerMedia and HBO to save face, to keep a beloved movie up on their channel while also appearing sensitive to the feelings of its viewers.
A context-supplying video, whatever its impact, is an infinitely better response than what many thought HBO had done, which is remove the film entirely from its site. Contrast this to NBCUniversal’s decision last week to remove from circulation four episodes of the Tina Fey series 30 Rock that featured characters in blackface. 30 Rock was a popular show, and for them to have dealt in racial stereotypes several times and remained critically and culturally relevant says something about the TV watching public and the creators. To erase this fact under the guise of sensitivity is dishonest and misleading—a retroactive falsification of a political and social climate. There's also a danger of corporations fearing to give offence where none ought to be taken; Hulu recently removed an episode of Golden Girls where the characters are wearing a mud mask, apparently because it might resemble blackface.
With the current wave of introspection that’s sweeping Hollywood, it would be interesting to see which other streaming titles are deemed to require context, or a disclaimer. The many classic Westerns depicting Native Americans as savages are as deserving of context as Gone With The Wind. What about smaller instances, like Mickey Rooney as a bucktoothed Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)? Barring isolated bursts of conscience, the likelihood of added context should depend on the capacity of the aggrieved party to make the network or studio look bad.