In a flash, Gone with the Wind, the 1939 American film classic, was gone. So, too, was Cops, the pro-cop reality show about to start its 33rd season until Paramount Network banished it. Days later, A&E pulled from its schedule Live P.D., which follows cops on the job. All three have fallen victim to the prevailing politically correct winds that have already engulfed journalism, causing senior staff shifts at the New York Times, ABC News, Variety, Bon Appetit, and Refinery 29, among other less well-known outlets.
Now film and television have caught the censorship, or self-censorship bug, as self-appointed cultural commissars and Maoist online mobs demand that, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the eruption of protests, violence, and looting in more than 100 American cities, what we see on our movie and TV screens, in addition to what we read, must be devoid of what they deem to be racism, sexism, and “proto-fascism.”
But slowly, cautiously, some blowback has begun. Over the weekend, Jacqueline Stewart, a host on Turner Classic Movies and a professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Cinema and Media Studies, announced that she would be narrating a discussion of the film’s “historical context” when HBO Max returns it to its streaming service—still at an unspecified date.
When HBO Max announced last week that it was withdrawing the film pending the addition of a disclaimer denouncing the film’s “racist missteps” and historical context, Bob Greenblatt, WarnerMedia’s chief, called the move “a no-brainer.” That it was, but not in the way he meant.
Gone with the Wind, as Stewart reminded us in an editorial announcing her new role as contextualizer-in-chief, remains not only the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation, but the winner of eight Oscars—including a supporting- actress win for Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to take home the coveted statuette. Though widely criticized for its romanticized depiction of the antebellum South and its softening of the horror of slavery, the film is a work of genius. A sprawling Civil War epic chronicling the love affair of Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of a southern plantation owner, and Rhett Butler, an irresistible womanizer and gambler, it placed sixth, the New York Times reported, on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of “greatest films of all time.”
Among its many black defenders is Whoopi Goldberg, the actor and co-host of The View. Noting that the film was made at a different time, Goldberg warned that banning films like Gone with the Wind and shows like Cops was perilous. Censoring such films, she said, would mean that many popular “blaxploitation” films would also have to be banned.
Spike Lee, who used a celebrated sequence from Gone with the Wind in his own film, Black KKKlansman, told The View that students and other film buffs should be able to see such films, even those that are more openly racist. “I think that one of the most racist films ever, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, should be seen,” he said, adding that he showed the film in his class at New York University.
Film censorship in America is almost as old as the industry itself. In 1897, the state of Maine banned the showing of a film of a heavyweight championship fight. In 1907, Chicago became the first U.S. city to enact a censorship law authorizing its police chief to screen all films to determine whether they were fit to be seen by the public. Some 100 cities and states soon created local censorship boards. In the 1930s, self-censorship gradually replaced state bans and restrictions. Fearful of federal regulation, the motion picture industry adopted morality codes that persisted until the breakdown of the studio system and the rise of independent filmmakers, in another culturally revolutionary moment in America—the late 1960s.
Now, the self-censorship impulse has returned in force. The push to ban “unwoke” work, films considered openly or subliminally racist, moreover, has been embraced by media and cultural critics whose mission should be to expand the limits of expression. For if Gone with the Wind cannot be seen without a warning label, less highly acclaimed work stands little chance. Don’t expect to see Cops on TV anytime soon, no matter how many streaming services ostensibly compete for viewers.
Why stop there? Let’s ban screenings of Al Jolson’s performances in black face, and reruns of Norman Lear’s brilliant All in the Family, the 1970s sitcom whose racist, sexist, homophobic, working class antihero, Archie Bunker, was must-see viewing. Let’s throw Shirley Temple movies under the bus. We can’t have doorman Bill Bojangles Robinson, one of America’s greatest tap dancers, teach little Shirley how to do a time step to the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” in The Little Colonel. Forget about seeing the 1937 classic The Good Earth, whose apparently racist producers chose white actress Luise Rainer rather than Anna May Wong to play the sold slave and prostitute in her Oscar-winning performance. Should The Wizard of Oz be seen by impressionable Americans, given its portrait of dwarfs? PETA would surely object to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds for portraying our feathered friends as mass killers. And don’t The Godfather films suggest that Italian-Americans are in thrall to the mafia?
The impulse to self-censor, however powerful in such politically polarized times, is deadly to any vibrant culture, no matter how seemingly compelling its justification. It must be resisted.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images