Culture

How do we sensitively view insensitive media of the past?

Even as many attempt to address issues of Hollywood representation in front of and behind the camera, the question of how to deal with insensitive film and television of the past — much of it considered classic or acclaimed — continues to divide. Should we go on viewing media that features insensitive depictions of marginalized people? If so, how should we watch it? Can we reconcile our evolving values with our appreciation of art which conflicts with them?

Those questions were recently brought to the fore when the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis chose to cancel its 2018 screening of the 1939 film Gone With the Wind, breaking with a 34-year tradition. After showing the film on August 11 of this year, the theater reportedly received “numerous comments.” A statement from the Orpheum Theatre Group explains, “As an organization whose stated mission is to ‘entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves,’ the Orpheum cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population.”

Gone With the Wind, Victor Fleming’s nearly four-hour Civil War epic set in Georgia, is commonly considered one of the greatest films of all time, and earned eight Academy Awards — including one for actress Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar. However, many see the film as presenting a romanticized view of slavery, and therefore object to its continued glorification.

The Orpheum’s decision not to screen the film next year has received mixed responses. Some, such as HuffPost contributor Earl Ofari Hutchinson, believe it was right to drop “one of the most racist movies of all time.” Others worry that by ignoring the film, we risk ignoring history, and the racism that continues to pervade modern society.

The debate comes at an interesting time, as others argue over the removal of Confederate statues around the country — an issue that became the impetus for last month’s White nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

Vulture writer Angelica Jade Bastién joined the conversation by sharing her complicated admiration for the film as a Black woman, and arguing that “to pass off the film as a relic and Confederate monument of a cinematic past ignores how its tactics exist today — it isn’t just Gone With the Wind that needs a reckoning, but Hollywood, and America itself.”

Gone With the Wind is far from the only example of beloved media with problematic content — and the Orpheum’s cancellation is only one of various attempts to address the problem. In 2011, an Asian American group protested a screening of the 1961 Audrey Hepburn film Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Mickey Rooney’s offensive portrayal of a Japanese man. Amazon Prime and iTunes, meanwhile, have included disclaimers for old Tom and Jerry cartoons, which warn of “ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society.”

Then there’s Song of the South, a controversial 1946 musical film set in the Reconstruction-era South, which Disney has yet to release on home video in the United States. Whoopi Goldberg recently argued that the film should no longer be hidden, “so we can talk about what it was, where it came from, and why it came out.”

And it isn’t just about race. Transparent creator Jill Soloway, for example, has criticized Julia Sweeney’s 1990s Saturday Night Live character Pat, whose gender causes confusion, as “anti-trans propaganda.” Sweeney responded by arguing that she didn’t see Pat as transgender and that jokes were not made at the character’s expense, but added that reprising the role more recently felt “completely inappropriate at this point in time.”

We wanted to learn more about these issues, so we decided to get some insight from the experts. Glen Mimura is an associate professor of Film & Media Studies at UC Irvine. Ellen C. Scott is an associate professor and head of the Cinema and Media Studies program at UCLA. Both specialize in topics of race in media: Mimura’s book Ghostlife of Third Cinema focuses on Asian American film, while Scott’s research has explored African American representation and the depiction of slavery in classical Hollywood films.

A Plus reached out to both professors to ask their thoughts on the Orpheum’s decision, as well as how best to view and share media that is widely considered to be insensitive, outdated, or offensive. As their responses show, it’s an issue with various perspectives, but one thing is for sure — the history surrounding these depictions should not be shrugged off.

A PLUS: Do you think the Orpheum made the right decision in pulling its “Gone With the Wind” screening?

Glen Mimura: I think merely canceling the screening would have jeopardized the Orpheum’s credibility and risked misunderstanding. Instead, as a venerable cultural institution, the Theatre took seriously its “mission to entertain, educate and enlighten,” explained its reasoning, and set a moral standard and example in doing so. In this respect, its decision was not only right but just.

Ellen C. Scott: I think it is a complex issue, Jill. The Orpheum Theatre should respond to the needs of its patrons but also to the shifting tide of history. We are entering a moment where lines are clearly drawn in the sand and where a “both sides” rhetoric fails to satisfy. It makes sense to pull the film since the film has a clearly white supremacist narrative. It is a symbol of the Confederacy. On the other hand, I agree with Lonnie Bunch [director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture], in his concerns about sanitizing history. “I am loath to erase history,” said Bunch [in the New York Times]. “For me it’s less about whether they come down or not, and more about what the debate is stimulating.”

Taking these monuments completely out of sight may indeed lead future generations to confusion as they try to discover the roots of the racism that is at the core of American cultural, legal and social life. What is needed is a deeper understanding of that history coupled with well-designed reparations designed to address America’s racial wrongs. Only then can we have a conversation less based in symbolic praxis and more based in the actual change in the lives of the descendants of slaves.

Should media with problematic content come with disclaimers or other educational materials?

GM: For media whose contents have been credibly established as offensive, I think disclaimers andeducational materials together are appropriate: the latter justifies the former, and provides viewers with context and perspective. Obviously, such scholarly or historical consensus is easier to determine with regard to the offensive nature of older media. For films and TV shows that remain subject to intellectual and cultural debate, disclaimers should not be included; however, here too, background information and context for competing perspectives may be enriching for viewers.

ECS: There is a long history of media providing disclaimers, dating back to the silent cinema era. Scarface (1932), for example, was shown with prologue that explained its content and attempted to curtail its message, largely to please state censors who had a backlash against what they read as the film’s glorification of the gangster. And onto DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film celebrating the KKK as saving the White south from Black rapists and openly calling for lynching, was attached The New Era or the Hampton Epilogue, which was designed to curb Birth’s racism or quell those who condemned its racist logic.

My question is: what kind of work do such disclaimers really do? Do they provide the discursive space that such difficult conversations really call for? Is the Hampton Epilogue (now lost) as effective as the cross-cutting of KKK horses that becomes the engine for ideology in The Birth of a Nation? I think what is really needed is a full blown conversation around these media — and a broadening of what gets to define the canon of film and media history. More effective is to change the programming at these theaters — add, for example, Tracey Moffatt’s incisive and still quite relevant Lip (1999) to the program. This leads viewers to read the text not as nostalgia but as a part of a contested history and one defined by America’s White supremacist foundations.

Do you think it’s possible for viewers to cultivate an appreciation for such media while acknowledging its flaws?

GM: Yes, absolutely. Indeed, I believe greater appreciation is gained by understanding a work’s achievements and flaws or limits together. In this way, we are better able to judge the relative merits of different works, debate the degree to which contemporary works repeat or genuinely advance beyond prior works, and even learn more about ourselves: From whence do my values, tastes, and assumptions derive? Are my beliefs and ideas as broad as I imagine? How and why is something funny or moving, and for whom? In other words, genuine appreciation is cultivated not in a vacuum, but in real history and in the real world.

ECS: The history of Black reception of Gone With the Wind helps to answer this question. Black leftists largely condemned the film as propaganda for the Bourbon South. The National Negro Congress spoke out against the film, seeing it as timed to divide Black and White southern workers in the 1930s. But others saw the film as mocking the South even as it enshrined it. For instance, though Roy Wilkins, second in command at the time at the NAACP, critiqued the film’s racism, he also noted, “There is more than a suspicion that someone, somewhere in the long line of production, is taking a few sly pokes at antebellum days, customs, beliefs and people.” So it is important to draw out the various meanings of these films and assess their ideological weight.

What advice would you give to theaters, educators, etc., who wish to screen such media? What about movie fans who wish to experience it?

GM: To venues and curators of such media, I applaud and share their passion, and urge them to provide the broadest, most enlightening context possible for their audiences. Such efforts could include publicity materials prior to screenings, panel discussion following, and curated online discussions before and after. Local scholars, critics, and historians surely would welcome the opportunity to participate, and to help illuminate the interrelations between works of art, and the institutions and ideologies of their day. Moreover, it is essential to meaningfully include the voices and perspectives of those who have been injured, and perhaps continue to be injured by such offensive media.

To fans, I urge us to embrace the messy complexity of our viewing pleasures, and not to simplify them: It is possible to love a film while acknowledging its offensiveness to others. In this way, we can appreciate such works not apologetically but honestly, with open hearts and minds, and with greater capacity to grasp genuine beauty by distinguishing it from, and not confusing it for, ugliness. Ultimately, we as fans determine whether the media objects of our affection serve as occasions for continuing divisiveness, or as opportunities for inclusive dialogue in our communities toward historical redress and healing within our communities.

ECS: My advice would be to cause audiences to be more than consumers — prompting them through programming and discussion to explore the history of the film’s production and reception. Behind the images on screen lies a much bigger story that includes larger historical forces — forces affecting you and me. It is important to understand the broader arc of the narrative behind the screen in order to really appreciate a film’s meaning.

By A Plus’ JILL O’ROURKE

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it’s time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.


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