Over the past few weeks, there have been a few instances of what I have titled here as ‘Retrospective Censorship’ meaning, an older property that has been pulled from release or edited, as it isn’t deemed acceptable in modern sensibilities.
At this time of especially heightened racial tension, I believe some of it is a desperate ploy to distract from the main messages and aims of prevalent groups, twisting the narrative from ‘human beings wanting equal rights’ to ‘the liberals want everything cancelled’.
This is especially true over here in the increasingly frustrating U.K. where people just don’t seem to understand that issues can be important without having to be about them, as certain TV shows have been pulled temporarily (very important, that piece of information) for different reasons that range from programs being generally in poor taste to issues over rights. However, this is emphatically NOT what I want to talk about, at least not at length.
Rest assured, the removal of Fawlty Towers is a transparent and cynical distraction tactic, that will delay the U.K. as a nation from coming to terms with our uncomfortable past; a way to twist the narrative to make those fighting for a fairer existence seem like the bad guys, there is a genuine conversation to be had over when older films do not match up well with modern times.
Of course, it is churlish to judge a film made in the 1940s by modern standards, that isn’t to say we should ignore them entirely, though.
There have been notices at the start of Tom & Jerry cartoons for many years, for instance, giving us a contextual explanation as to why certain depictions are the way they are, I even think that Whoopi Goldberg once recorded an introduction to certain episodes, to explain that the portrayal of African-American characters was unacceptable, yet at the time the cartoon was made, it was depressingly normal. This does not mean that the cartoon shouldn’t exist, it is healthy that a dialogue is opened around this issue after so many years, it helps us come to terms with past mistakes in representation, in the hope that we don’t repeat them.
The point I am trying to make with the above paragraph is that revisiting old products and attaching disclaimers to their content is not a new thing. It’s something that comes up periodically, the cycle seems to be: valid points are made about racial inequality, tensions rise, a product is taken off sale, attentions divert to the product, outrage is directed at those with genuine grievances who had nothing to do with the withdrawal. It’s inevitable and extremely sad.
The case that prompted this write-up from me was the recent pulling of Gone With the Wind (a film, I remind you, from 1939) from HBO Max, again only temporarily. HBO has taken it down to add some kind of disclaimer about the depictions of African-Americans, especially in regards to slavery, which is always a touchy topic, to begin with, and the way that the characters in servitude seem to have quite a happy life, a stance not at all representative of the real-life situation in the slightest.
I can’t say much on Gone With the Wind, as I’ve never seen it, I have however done a little bit of reading up in the past week or so to further understand the underlying issues, none of which are recent at all.
Its biggest issue seems to stem from the biggest black character in the film, Mammy, as played by Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part (the first African-American to win an Oscar) and the response to the character in the black community was always ‘mixed’ to say the least, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) complained that her role conformed to damaging stereotypes surrounding POC’s from that time, some quarters went even further, accusing her of perpetuating negative stereotypes for personal gain.
As I say, the issue of slavery is a difficult one to discuss in any context, much less one that seems to be as nostalgic for it as GWTW, and no-one is suggesting that it should be erased from history, it’s just being re-assessed as all things should be.
It is possible to admire a work’s artistic merits without championing its ethics. Take for instance the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Without doubt, a horribly racist film, whose depictions of POC’s and admiration of the KKK make it incredibly difficult to view through modern eyes; but it is still being taught in some film schools for its revolutionary (for the time) camera-work. It is studied solely for its artistic merits and what it gave the world of film while being universally condemned on the grounds of ethics.
If you take anything away from this, let it be this: listen to those who suffer as a result of negative press. As a white man from a working-class background, I have no authority on what is and isn’t racist; on what does or does not constitute an offensive depiction. Because of the colour of my skin, there is nowhere in the world where I am in more danger of being profiled (I may be for other reasons, but that’s beside the point).
Before you leap to a Facebook comments section with the usual cries of: ‘you can’t joke about anything anymore’ or ‘well then, White Chicks should be banned too’ take time to actually listen to arguments, talk to those affected, and remember that you can joke about anything, but in the same breathe people can then criticise you if they find it in poor taste; and in response to the White Chicks argument, white people have never been victimised because of the colour of their skin, they’re not propagating a damaging stereotype that has actual real-world negativity attached to it, but mainly, you shouldn’t hate White Chicks because black people pretend to be white, you should hate it because it’s a terrible film.
Don’t let yourself get dragged down by the misdirection efforts of the media to try and make these past few weeks about old comedies from the past. No-one from Black Lives Matters asked for their removal, it wasn’t under duress, it was highly likely a cynical attempt to spin the narrative, to make the oppressors feel like they have even a tiny bit of oppression to struggle against, it’s transparent, it’s disgraceful, and what’s worse, it works, every single time people take the bait. We don’t want to rewrite history, we just want to build a better future.