Putting ‘Classic’ Films in Context: HBO Max, Gone with the Wind (1939), and What We Do Next

William Faulkner published his novel Requiem for a Nun in 1951. It is far from his best work, but deep within its pages it does happen to feature one of Faulkner’s best-known lines, one that I’ve had jangling around in my head for the past few weeks. The line is this: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In that line, Faulkner captures the reality that while we may readily wish for the less agreeable parts of our past to fade into obsolescence, that is simply not the world we live in. Attempting to ignore the past only results in the possibility for the same sins or mistakes to be recommitted out of ignorance or denial. Faulkner’s assertion that “it’s not even past” also reflects the truth that each moment of our present life is intrinsically linked to the sequence of events, both personal and cultural, that led us here. All of this has been on my mind because with the current national conversation about how best to move forward in combating systemic racism, many debates have turned to how we can incorporate our past mistakes into the healing process. Enter HBO Max and Gone with the Wind (1939)

On June 8th, just under two weeks after Warner Media launched its new streaming service HBO Max, Black filmmaker John Ridley published an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times with a suggestion for the service. Ridley’s suggestion was that in the midst of the nationwide protests and charged debate in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, HBO Max should remove Gone with the Wind from its online catalogue. His reasoning was that Gone with the Wind is a film that 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.” He did not, however, request that it be removed forever. Instead, he proposed this action plan for how HBO Max should handle the movie going forward:

Let me be real clear: I don’t believe in censorship. I don’t think “Gone With the Wind” should be relegated to a vault in Burbank. I would just ask, after a respectful amount of time has passed, that the film be re-introduced to the HBO Max platform along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were. Or, perhaps it could be paired with conversations about narratives and why it’s important to have many voices sharing stories from different perspectives rather than merely those reinforcing the views of the prevailing culture.

The next day, HBO Max took Ridley’s advice and announced it would temporarily remove the film from the service. A public statement about the decision from Warner Media executives characterized the movie as “a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society.” The statement went on to clarify that “when we return the film to HBO Max, it will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions, but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed,” ending with the observation that “if we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.” In conjunction with this decision, HBO Max also rolled out a curated “Celebrating Black Voices” playlist of movies and TV shows, suggesting a possible broader corporate move towards inclusive decision-making.

The decision, as one might expect, inspired divided reactions across social media. These ranged from praising the decision to decrying the erasure of American pop culture. Many on Twitter noted that Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her role as Mammy in the movie, marking the first win for a Black performer in any acting category. One white user characterized the decision to pull the movie as an act that erased “black achievement in the name of social justice.” In response, other users pointed out that although McDaniel won the Oscar, she was relegated to a small table by herself at the ceremony because segregation was still the law. (On this point, I would add the context that McDaniel’s role in Gone with the Wind is a perfect encapsulation of the ‘mammy’ caricature right down to the character name. This caricature was prevalent through 19th and 20th century American pop culture and depicted Black female maids as sassy, loyal, and obedient servants to white women. Winning an Oscar for being forced to perform a caricature is hardly a cause to celebrate. Maybe this caricature is what these tweeters should spend some time researching instead of tweeting out two-sentence opinions?)

When interviewed on Sirius XM about the controversy surrounding the decision, Bob Greenblatt, Warner Media’s entertainment and direct-to-consumer chairman, was quite clear about his feelings on the matter. Greenblatt characterized the call as a “no-brainer,” adding “I don’t regret taking it down for a second,” and going so far as to say  “I only wish we had put [Gone with the Wind] up in the first place with the disclaimer. And we just didn’t do that.” Soon after the interview, HBO Max announced that Gone with the Wind would go back up on the service at a yet to be determined date. However, it will now feature an introduction by Black academic Jacqueline Stewart, who is a Cinema Studies professor at the University of Chicago and hosts ‘Silent Sunday Nights’ on Turner Classic Movies. Following the announcement, Stewart released a statement where she addressed the situation and her excitement about being brought on board to provide the introduction. That statement reads in part as follows:

For me, this is an opportunity to think about what classic films can teach us…Right now, people are turning to movies for racial re-education, and the top-selling books on Amazon are about anti-racism and racial inequality. If people are really doing their homework, we may be poised to have our most informed, honest, and productive national conversations yet about Black lives on screen and off.

With that, the HBO Max / Gone With the Wind saga would seem to be more or less finished. No doubt many will continue to express their opinions about the decision and the content of the introduction that Stewart records, but the major strokes of action are now complete. Yet, to return to the Faulkner line, just as Gone with the Wind is a part of a still-living past, so is the decision that HBO Max made, and the ongoing repercussions and implications of that decision will reverberate through the rest of the streaming services as more movies and television shows are highlighted in the same way that Ridley approached Gone with the Wind. Of course, HBO Max wasn’t the first to mark movies as problematic in some way. Disney + tacked the label of “Outdated Cultural Depictions” on a number of older movies such as Dumbo (1941) and The Jungle Book (1967), but a line in a site description is far from the level of an academic recording an introduction. 

I view the decision to have Stewart record an introduction as a necessary step that should be replicated across the industry. Stewart wrote that “this is an opportunity to think about what classic films can teach us,” and I wholeheartedly believe in that sentiment. The trick is making sure that the right lessons are learned from those classic films. By this I mean that we should walk away from Gone With the Wind recognizing that Hollywood was horrifically under equipped to tell a story about the Civil War South without relying on racist caricatures and inaccurate depictions of slavery. We should not walk away from Gone With the Wind thinking that the South was a romantic place to be, and that the Confederacy is a noble cause to celebrate, and I believe Stewart’s introduction is a key step in expunging this belief from pop culture. As Ridley noted in his op-ed, the movie “romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the “right” to own, sell and buy human beings.” His entire piece centered on the concept that the movie should be removed until it could be added once again with proper context, context that Stewart will hopefully provide. It is important to allow the full scope of our history to be accessible to those hoping to learn about it, but that accessibility need not come alongside pretending that the past is unproblematic. Yes, movies like Gone with the Wind are a product of their time, and so we must make sure that they are remembered as such and not seen as entertainment divorced from that context.

So, how do we make sure providing such context in this way, or some version of it, becomes standard practice? In my eyes, the first step is recognizing that classic movies can be both significant to the history of film as well as deeply problematic. Stagecoach (1939) is a gorgeous example of John Ford’s ability to meld tension and place, which  served as a blueprint for dozens of films including Citizen Kane (1941) as well as a stunningly racist depiction of Native Americans that solidified the most problematic aspects of the Western genre for decades to come. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a touchstone of David Lean’s style and the overall development of the cinematic epic as well as a glaring white saviour narrative filled with racist flourishes. We so often fall into discussions of these films as absolutes, thinking that we must treat pillars of film history  as commandments to be followed and undisputed. Instead of falling into that trap, it is vital to see each film in its entirety, accepting and critiquing its failings alongside its successes. It would be folly to permanently censor films we find problematic through contemporary understandings of culture, same as it would be dreadfully misguided to insulate the classics from criticisms. Art grows only through challenges to its ways of thinking and approaches that came before, and pretending otherwise is harmful both to artists and audiences. 

With this in mind, my hope as a film critic and a viewer is that more streaming services will follow HBO Max’s lead and take a critical look at their catalogues to identify the titles where education and context are necessary to avoid perpetuating damaging beliefs and norms. Films live on well past their release to be revisited and rediscovered by generations of audiences to come, and as we step back to turn a discerning eye on so much of our culture and history, it is important that our film libraries do the same so that future viewers are best equipped to engage with film history. Faulkner had it right, and the sooner the industry learns that lesson, the sooner it can start the vital work of excavating the racist and painful history of film.

One thought on “Putting ‘Classic’ Films in Context: HBO Max, Gone with the Wind (1939), and What We Do Next

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s