TCM takes aim at cancel culture arguments with new series devoted to 'problematic' movie classics

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Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·6 min read
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Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in 1939's 'Gone with the Wind,' one of my Hollywood classics that will be revisited in a new TCM series. (Photo: Everett Collection)
Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in 1939's Gone With the Wind, one of the Hollywood classics that will be revisited in a new TCM series. (Photo: Everett Collection)

An honest attempt to reckon with the pop culture of yesteryear or cancel culture run amok? That’s the debate that’s been playing out across America over the past year, as movies like Gone With the Wind and Tropic Thunder and TV shows including The Dukes of Hazzard and The Simpsons have been re-examined for problematic depictions of race, gender and class. Even childhood staples like the Muppets and Dr. Seuss have been put under the microscope: Disney+ recently placed content warning labels on select episodes of The Muppet Show, after previously doing the same for animated films like Dumbo and Peter Pan.

Meanwhile, Dr. Seuss Enterprises — which oversees Theodor Geisel’s estate — announced that they’d be ceasing publication of six of the late author’s books, including If I Ran the Zoo and The Cat’s Quizzer. Both of those moves have incensed conservative critics, even as others have endorsed the company’s attempts to wrestle with their respective histories.

Turner Classic Moves is taking its own approach to the debate. On March 4, the premiere cable network for vintage Hollywood fare will unveil its newest series, Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror. The month-long program will feature lineups of classic movies preceded by a roundtable discussion anchored by TCM’s five hosts: Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone, Eddie Muller and Jacqueline Stewart. Their "rearview mirror" conversations will start with Gone With the Wind, followed by seventeen additional titles ranging from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Searchers and Psycho.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 12: Ben Mankiewicz attends his hand & footprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre on April 12, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage)
Ben Mankiewicz attends his 2019 hand and footprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre Los Angeles. (Photo: JB Lacroix/WireImage)

In discussing these various films, the hosts intend to spotlight the various aspects that are out of step in the present day, while also placing the movie itself in the proper historical context and celebrating the elements that endure. In that way, the hosts hope to illuminate why it's OK to have an honest discussion about our pop culture past and offset any charges that they are "canceling" these movies. “In this Reframed series, we're literally showing the movies," Mankiewicz tells Yahoo Entertainment. "It's hard to argue we're canceling them. This is what we do: the national conversation we're having, we embraced it and we're grateful for it. We want these movies that we love and take care of to be part of this conversation. They can help in so many ways."

Mankiewicz has a personal interest in wanting to re-examine classic fare: The 53-year-old film historian is part of a Hollywood dynasty that stretches back to the industry’s Golden Age. That's when his grandfather, Herman J. Mankiewicz — the subject of David Fincher’s Oscar contender, Mank — penned classics like Citizen Kane, while his great uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, wrote, directed and produced such perennial favorites as All About Eve and Woman of the Year. The latter film, which featured the first pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, is included in the Reframed series, and his descendent got to watch it with fresh eyes. "He personally introduced Hepburn and Tracy, and it touched off the quarter-century love affair that they had," the younger Mankiewicz says. "They made nine movies together, and this is one of their best. They're wonderful together."

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in 'Woman of the Year,' one of the classics included in TCM's new 'Reframed' series (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year,'one of the classics included in TCM's new Reframed series. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

The movie's ending, on the other hand, isn't so wonderful. For much of Woman of the Year, Hepburn's ambitious journalist puts her career first, sparking tension with her new husband, played by Tracy. But in the last act, she reverses course and makes a desperate bid to save her marriage, leading to a climactic comic set-piece that Time magazine critic, Stephanie Zacharek, has described as a "failure of nerve."

Mankiewicz would agree with that assessment of his great-uncle's production. "Throughout the movie you see the significant struggles of a high-achieving woman in public life," he explains. "But then this cockamamie ending is slapped on, because there was a strong feeling at MGM that we'd better stick this ending on here so nobody thinks Hepburn's character is too uppity. They felt they needed to make sure she valued having Spencer Tracy more than having her independence. There's no value in us not showing that, but there's tremendous value in us seeing it and learning from it."

And that attitude is indicative of TCM's larger approach to its extensive back catalogue of Hollywood classics. Mankiewicz suggests that the network won't be adding Disney+-like content labels or following the Seuss estate's example and pulling specific movies from the airwaves — though he also declines to criticize those companies for doing so. "Those ultimately aren't my decisions," he notes. "But that's not what we do at TCM: We put stuff in context and we curate, so we'll continue to curate. When we launched the network, we took on this role of being the stewards of classic Hollywood. I'm not a programmer, but I'm not sure warnings at the front would do enough anyway. We might get to a point where people move past it the way they move past the FBI piracy warning. There's a value in having someone you trust tell you the history of this in an engaging thoughtful manner. Reframed is an opportunity for people to see what we do and the value of what we do."

One of the arguments often advanced by those advancing the "cancel culture" argument is that none of the offenses identified in older movies and TV shows were problematic at the time. But the Reframed conversation around Gone With the Wind pushes back against that point of view, signaling how the film's depictions of Black men and women in the Civil War-era South were criticized before even a frame had been shot. "In 1937, the NAACP expressed their concerns about adapting Margaret Mitchell's book into a major motion picture," Mankiewicz says. "They knew very clearly what it would mean. So the conversation surrounding the racism in Gone With the Wind is 84 years old, and I think that's significant for us all to realize."

"The phrase, 'cancel culture,' ends up distorting the history and minimizing the importance of what we're talking about," the host continues. "It's a phrase that serves a political end, but not an artistic end or a meaningful understanding of what we're talking about. I am very pleased to be on the side of having thoughtful, interesting conversations about popular art forms that — through their sheer power — unleveled the played field. You don't have to respect those conversations, but they are going to make us better and stronger as a country. I don't know why anyone on Earth would be afraid of that."

Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on TCM.

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