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As U.S. industries contend with a national reckoning on race, Hollywood has started to grapple with its past.
The popular film “Gone With the Wind” has landed at the center of the debate over how to handle cultural artifacts containing racist depictions. The 1939 Academy Award-winning film is an adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel about a love story between Scarlett O’Hara, a plantation owner’s daughter, and Rhett Butler, a member of the Confederate Army. While it is beloved and considered one of the greatest American films, it has faced decades of criticism for its romanticization of slavery and the Confederacy.
Last week, “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley called for the temporary removal of the film from HBO Max, writing that it perpetuates “some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.” Since then the streaming service pulled the movie and said it would eventually reintroduce it with historical context and a denouncement of its “racist depictions.”
The film is still available online and jumped to the top of Amazon’s bestsellers chart after HBO Max’s shelving.
Why there’s debate
While there is widespread agreement that “Gone With the Wind” includes racist stereotypes, people are debating where the film belongs in the American cinematic canon.
Advocates say the film is a cultural touchstone and should stay as it is, arguing that viewers can identify racism for themselves. Censorship of art is a slippery slope, and it’s difficult to determine where to draw the line for art, they say.
A few critics say the film deserves a permanent ban, citing the racism and the discrimination against Black people at the time it was created. Queen Latifah cites the unjust treatment of Hattie McDaniel, who became the first Black Oscar winner for her role as Mammy, a slave. McDaniel was allowed in the awards ceremony, held in a segregated hotel, only after a producer petitioned for her attendance.
Other critics reject a ban, calling instead for additional historical context. Removing the film effectively erases the egregious mistakes of America’s past, they say. Instead, we should educate viewers about American slavery and the Confederacy, they argue.
Though “Gone With the Wind” is one film, the debate holds broader implications for Hollywood. Some say it’s time to move beyond “Gone With the Wind,” arguing that the United States must examine how to handle other cultural works that include racist or otherwise hateful depictions of people. Additionally, they say, it’s time for Hollywood reckon with its role in elevating racist and harmful stereotypes through movies.
HBO Max has not announced a date for the return of “Gone With the Wind,” but cinema studies professor Jacqueline Stewart wrote in a CNN op-ed that she would provide an introduction that contextualizes the film’s history.
Get rid of ‘Gone With the Wind’ for good
“Let ‘Gone With the Wind’ be gone with the wind. … The opportunities at that time and the way that those in power in that business were relegating us and marginalizing us and not allowing us to grow and thrive after that was just terrible. And a lot of that is still around today.” — Queen Latifah to the Associated Press
If we lose ‘Gone With the Wind,’ we lose a cultural touchstone
“Its characters represent common psychological struggle, their spiritual desperation penetrating to the tragic heart of American ambition. … When maniacal progressives are on a censorious rampage — and our corporations and institutions go along with it — we lose our cultural foundation and deny the truth about ourselves.” — Armond White, National Review
People can recognize racism for themselves
“Watching depictions of what happened in the past doesn’t condone those actions. We don’t need Big Brother stepping into the film to remind us that slavery or beheading or shooting someone in a locked revolving door is wrong.” — Nancy Eshelman, Penn Live
Censorship is a slippery slope
“Films, plays, books and other works of historical significance should be readily available and studied, for all their brilliance and failings, not shut away and censored. Don’t we yet understand the slippery slope of censorship?” — Ward Bukofsky, letter to the editor, Los Angeles Times
Banning movies makes it more difficult to grapple with them
“Unlike statues and monuments, which are merely glorified gravestones, popular culture is a living entity, constantly being commented on and referenced. We can't go back in time and alter the circumstances that led to the creation of abhorrent works, repellent narratives and distorted images. As a result, removing them from view actually makes it harder to contend with them. It allows creators, companies and audiences to comfortably pretend they never existed, and to move frictionlessly onward without engaging in real structural change in the present.” — Jeff Yang, CNN
Getting rid of ‘Gone With the Wind’ risks forgetting Hattie McDaniel
“I don’t like the film either. At the same time, it is sad to see the actress get canceled along with the movie. She endured so many trials to stand, briefly, in the spotlight. … Think of all the years McDaniel invested in becoming an artist on her own terms. All the sacrifices. All the hope.” — Pamela K. Johnson, Los Angeles Times
‘Gone With the Wind’ can stay, but it needs an introduction
“What we need is a way to present art within its historical context so the works can still be available and appreciated for their achievements but not admired for their cultural failings. … To do nothing is a tacit endorsement of their destructive messages.” — Kareem Abdul-Jabar, the Hollywood Reporter
If you love these movies, it’s time to examine why
“We cannot even begin to grow as a nation or dig through the suffocating layers of abhorrent racism in this country unless we face our true selves in the mirror. … If simply addressing the inaccuracies in a film that romanticizes the sale of human beings bothers you, it is long past time to take a good look at your racial biases, prejudices and core beliefs.” — Aramide A. Tinubu, NBC News
To solve the true problem, address Hollywood’s lack of Black stories
"It doesn't solve the white supremacy that made it to begin with. ... It doesn't change that Hollywood thinks of black-led and -directed movies as having less value, especially abroad, even when data says otherwise. All it does is paper over these failures. If you really want to put ‘Gone With the Wind’ in context, do it by addressing Hollywood's historic lack of black stories told by black people." — Franklin Leonard to CNN
We need to discuss and determine a standard of what’s acceptable
“It’s too early to be cautious or too handwringing. It’s impossible to know exactly what this moment will mean. But the issues of culture, of how we tell our stories, what’s ‘acceptable’ now and what is not, is fraught, and somehow, we need to find a way to discuss it. Together.” — Gay Alcorn, the Guardian
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