Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Last week, novelist, director and television writer John Ridley – an Academy Award winner for his screenplay for the movie “12 Years a Slave” – wrote a brief but compelling op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, asking HBO (a sister company of CNN under the ownership of WarnerMedia) to take the movie “Gone With the Wind” off of its much-hyped new streaming platform HBO Max.
Ridley wrote that the movie “glorifies the antebellum south. 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 color.” In Ridley’s estimation, the film “continues to give cover to those who falsely claim that clinging to the iconography of the plantation era is a matter of ‘heritage, not hate.’”
Just a day after Ridley’s op-ed ran, HBO temporarily pulled the film from streaming. There’s a deeper conversation to be had about how “Gone With the Wind“‘s racist depictions and white-supremacy-indulgent view of our nation’s past should be addressed today, which University of Chicago professor and Turner Classic Movies co-host Jacqueline Stewart goes into here.
But in an era where we’re finally challenging some of our society’s most deeply anchored (and frankly, cherished) pillars of oppression, we should also consider the broader question raised by Ridley’s op-ed and other recent articles: What should we do with cultural artifacts that reflect grotesque and shameful aspects of our history?
“Gone With the Wind” is hardly the only movie that celebrates America’s era of slavery. It’s not even the only such film that’s considered a “classic” – D.W. Griffith’s explicitly racist work of Ku Klux Klan propaganda, “The Birth of a Nation,” appeared alongside “Gone With the Wind” on the American Film Institute’s 100th anniversary list of the “100 greatest movies,” as picked by a jury of 1,500 film creators, critics and academics.
That list also included “The Jazz Singer,” the 1927 drama that made a superstar out of a blackface-wearing Al Jolson, and Disney’s 1940 animated epic “Fantasia,” whose original “Pastoral Symphony” sequence features a sharply offensive depiction of a little black centaur with stereotypical features and a screen role that can generously be described as servile.
Also on the list of classics: films that present retrograde depictions of trans people (“Tootsie,” “Silence of the Lambs”) and the disabled (“Psycho,” “Forrest Gump”); the 1961 adaptation of the musical “West Side Story,” with its abundant Puerto Rican caricatures and a very white Natalie Wood in the Latinx role of Maria; and “Annie Hall,” directed by the multiply problematic Woody Allen.
The fact is, our past is full of problematic faves, which we’ve chosen to address in wildly uneven fashion. “The Birth of a Nation” isn’t on any major streaming platform, but it’s available on Sling, Dish Network’s streaming subsidiary, and on the library platform Kanopy, which calls it “profoundly influential and controversial.”
“The Jazz Singer” can be rented on Amazon Prime, among many other platforms – all of which describe it as a seminal film and reference its groundbreaking Jewish themes, without mentioning its blackface content or explaining the damaging history of blackface minstrelsy.
Disney digitally removed its stereotypical centaur from all releases of “Fantasia” after its original run, and has stamped warnings about “outdated cultural depictions” on other films, like the 1941 animated feature “Dumbo” (which contains a bird whose actual character name is “Jim Crow”), 1953’s “Peter Pan” (which features extreme caricatures of Native Americans) and pretty much every animated depiction of a Siamese cat in the company’s history (caricatured orientalist renderings and ching-chong antics).
And Disney has essentially indicated it will never rerelease what some call its “most notorious movie,” “Song of the South,” a live-action/animated pastiche that features Amos ‘n’ Andy castmember James Baskett as “Uncle Remus” telling black folktales to the grandkids of a white plantation owner.
Baskett – who was not invited to the premiere due to segregation – was later awarded an honorary Oscar for his performance, making him the first black male actor to receive an Academy Award. And because the film also starred a live-action Hattie McDaniel, it’s also the first film to have featured two Oscar-winning black actors on screen at the same time.
The fact that this milestone in African American history is now essentially unavailable for viewing (although the movie still serves as the storybook theme for Disney’s popular Splash Mountain amusement park attractions) highlights one concern with simply pulling movies out of circulation – doing so leads to both disposal of evidence of oppression and erasure of milestones of resistance.
But there are equally significant issues with editing out repugnant content or with simply stamping them with warnings..
So what approach makes the most sense given our desire to evolve beyond our problematic past without, presumably, denying it?
I’ve found myself in the thick of this debate before, most notably in the context of rereleases and showcases of the much-beloved 1961 Audrey Hepburn film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (which was one of several hundred movies nominated for, but not selected as, one of AFI’s top 100).
Anyone who’s seen the film knows that, embedded amid its agile, comic-romantic patter and lyrically optimistic view of New York, is one of the most egregious yellowface performances in cinematic history: Mickey Rooney’s slant-eyed, bucktoothed, living anti-Asian propaganda poster I.Y. Yunioshi.
In 2011, when I was still in New York and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservatory decided to show the film as part of its publicly funded free screening series, my longtime friend Ursula Liang, a veteran documentarian and journalist, organized a boycott of the series in response. I disagreed with the boycott then, because my instincts favor the encouragement of contextualization and counter-speech, rather than attempts to erase or suppress ugly history.
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.
“Literally the easiest thing to do [with repulsive content] is to remove it – it’s not an act of courage, solidarity or progress to do so,” Rebecca Carroll, author of “Uncle Tom or New Negro?” and “Saving the Race,” and host of WNYC’s race and culture podcast “Come Through,” told me.
She likened it to the black square posted on social media by would-be Black Lives Matter allies. “It’s what you do when you don’t have the right words, to buy time hoping things will blow over. But it shouldn’t be so easy; it should be really hard and super uncomfortable. Struggle with your answer. I’m here. I’ll wait.”
To John Ridley’s credit, his op-ed didn’t ask for permanent removal of “Gone With the Wind” from HBO Max, but rather for it to be pulled back until it could be framed with appropriate statements and framing. The question is whether a simple “trigger warning,” readily skipped or ignored, does much to “contextualize” the film – not to mention why such words weren’t already available and in place, given that HBO and CNN sister channel TCM (also owned by WarnerMedia) had addressed the film’s problematic aspects last year, during its 80th anniversary.
“It doesn’t solve the white supremacy that made it to begin with,” Franklin Leonard, founder of screenplay discovery platform The Black List, told me in an interview. “It does not go back in time and rightfully put Hattie McDaniel at the Oscars ceremony, which she was not allowed to attend when she won [due to segregation]. 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.”
Leonard noted as well that an as-yet-unproduced script about the making of “Gone With the Wind,” told from the point of view of McDaniel, exists – the widely celebrated “Selznick’s Folly,” written by Gesha-Marie Bland. He asked: “What better way is there to understand ‘Gone With the Wind’ than to make that movie, from the perspective of the black actor who won an Academy Award for her performance?”
Yes, making movies takes time. But Bland’s script first surfaced in 2017. And “Gone With the Wind” has been around for 81 years.
As Carroll put it to me, “We’ve known this was a problem for eight decades, that there were profoundly offensive things about this movie, not to mention the racist society and culture and institutions around it.” The question she asked, however rhetorical, says it all: “This was not a pop quiz, America. We had time to study. How could we be scrambling now to put things in place?”