In the days following the George Floyd protests, media companies have been attempting to deal with the call for more diversity and condemnation of racism. Streaming services have been taking down various older films that have racist undertones, the most notable one being HBO Max removing Gone With the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939) from its service. The film is hailed as one of the great films in cinematic history, often placing in the American Film Institute’s top ten films. The film won a few Academy Awards, with star Hattie McDaniel becoming the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award. It does, however, have issues concerning slavery and the romanticizing of plantations as the film is set in the Southern United States during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. As soon as HBO Max revealed that it had been removed from its content library, the film became one of the top purchases on Amazon and iTunes.
The removal has sparked a further discussion: do we need to remove these older films from our collective film history or do we keep them in order to use as a lesson on our history?
Disney has also run into the same dilemma with one of its films. Its film Song of the South (dir. Wilfred Jackson, 1946) has even more overt racist connotations, featuring a Black character named Uncle Remus, epitomizing the “Magical Negro” trope and a “tar baby” reference. Disney has largely tried to forget about the film’s existence (despite the fact that one of its theme parks’ most popular rides, Splash Mountain, is themed after the film and should definitely be rethemed) and decided to not give the film a home video release. When its streaming service, Disney+, rolled out in late 2019, Disney confirmed that Song of the South would not be part of its library. The decision, much like HBO Max’s, drew some critics who thought that the film’s erasure was blown out of proportion while others agreed with Disney not giving a platform to the film’s racism.
Removing these films with racist undertones can be seen as trying to forget about the atrocities that the United States was complicit in. It also tries to erase early film history, which welcomed these films in with open arms and helped to normalize the issues and stereotypes portrayed. These choices have an effect on the film industry later on and influence how we perceive early films.
So is it the best decision to keep these films out of the film canon? I would argue that this is a more complicated issue. It is important to acknowledge the wrongs of these films so that we can continue to make sure that these tropes and undertones do not appear in future films. By removing them and trying to forget about them, the studios and perhaps we, as a society, might try to absolve ourselves and forget about the racist past that our country has. When film history classes talk about Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1915), most film professors acknowledge how the film was the first American full-length feature film while also reminding students that the film also revived the KKK and normalized the group’s hateful views. It is understandable why that film will most likely never be on a streaming service, but other problematic films have issues of varying degrees that may not warrant a complete removal from streaming services.
After Gone With the Wind was removed, HBO Max later released a statement saying “Gone With the Wind is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible. These depictions are certainly counter to WarnerMedia’s values, so 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. If we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.” (Deadline). With this solution, HBO Max acknowledges the racist and problematic depictions in the film and provides insight behind its problematics while also preserving the milestones the film achieved with Hattie McDaniel’s award win.
Perhaps this is what the future of our early films will look like – the film will be preceded with a discussion on its time period, why its problematic, and how we can make sure to not follow in its footsteps. These early films cannot be erased from our film canon; the industry has to own up to its racist and problematic early history and come to terms with it.